Renaissance: Scheherazade And Other Stories

Symphonic folk-prog classic to make the Sultan swing.

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Unique among true prog masterpieces is the 24-minute suite Song Of Scheherazade, which forms the second half of this 1975 album, now released on a Hybrid SACD.

The sound is crystal clear, but then, it always was. Renaissance weren’t a band for improvising loosely. Their sixth album (by what’s generally known as their second incarnation) is carefully-conceived and precisely-executed.

It’d be a stretch even to categorise it as rock. Folk-noir with an orchestra, perhaps. Yet its motivations and themes are born of the same seeds which gave us the quintessential Englishness of early Genesis, Fairport Convention, Caravan and Jethro Tull.

Guitarist Michael Dunford was fascinated by Tales Of 1001 Arabian Knights, and with lyricist Betty Thatcher drew most of the map for the epic set-piece, though pianist John Tout wrote the opening fanfare and fugue, and bassist Jon Camp also contributed. In fact, the writing credits as to who-wrote-what have always been muddled: understandably, given the way the nine (arguably ten) sections slide into each other to build a haunting whole.

There are gorgeous, gliding passages and strong stand-out moments. If Scheherazade has never quite enjoyed a lofty reputation on the Mount Rushmore of prog, it may be because it does tread water at times. Although the London Symphony Orchestra back the band beautifully, it never feels as if they’re flying free. Then there’s the absence of electric guitars and synths; Renaissance at this time were very piano-led.

Or rather, female voice-led. This distinguishes it from the pack. Along with the jazz, folk and classical elements, Annie Haslam’s extraordinary, multi-coloured vocals meant Renaissance were both blessed and cursed by being different, even among unconventional peers. During that ambitious 24-minute journey into mythology she serves as our tour guide and touchstone, emphasising the accumulative drama every bit as powerfully as the strings.

The other three tracks are more than supporting acts.

The Vultures Fly High rips along at a pretty nifty pace for Renaissance, while Ocean Gypsy is lilting and lovely. As for the 11-minute opener A Trip To The Fair, its long teasing intro makes the grand entrance of that voice all the more show-stopping. It’s an eerie tale, suggesting spooky carnivals and ghost trains, even if Haslam has said it was in fact about her first date with Roy Wood…

Yes, the album sounds of its time, but let’s hope its rebirth enchants new listeners with these wondrous stories.

Chris Roberts

Chris Roberts has written about music, films, and art for innumerable outlets. His new book The Velvet Underground is out April 4. He has also published books on Lou Reed, Elton John, the Gothic arts, Talk Talk, Kate Moss, Scarlett Johansson, Abba, Tom Jones and others. Among his interviewees over the years have been David Bowie, Iggy Pop, Patti Smith, Debbie Harry, Bryan Ferry, Al Green, Tom Waits & Lou Reed. Born in North Wales, he lives in London.