13 August 2010

CD REVIEW: Renaissance - The Mystic and the Muse (2010, private release)

2010 saw something very exciting; for the first time since a small handful of dates in the UK and Japan, Renaissance was going out on tour. For the 2010 touring season, Renaissance would consist of Annie Haslam and Michael Dunford, who had played on every Renaissance album from Prologue through Time Line and Camera Camera, and then again on Tuscany in 2001. They would be joined by a group of newer musicians, many of which had experience working with Renaissance or Haslam in the past. Rave Tesar (keys) and David J. Keys (bass) played with Renaissance during the Japanese shows that would be recorded for In the Land of the Rising Sun, with Tesar having a long history with Haslam’s solo works. Frank Pagano (drums) has a long musical history, including work with Bruce Springsteen, Smashing Pumpkins, Bette Midler and Barry Manilow. Finally Tom Brislin is a name that almost needs no introduction, if simply for his work with his band Spiraling. Beyond that, however, he has also worked with Meat Loaf, Camel, and played keys for Yes on the 2001 Symphonic tour.

This is the band that would celebrate Renaissance’s 40th anniversary year, and one might be forgiven in assuming that this would be just a nostalgia trip. Haslam and Dunford had a trick up their sleeve, however…a newly recorded EP of material that will hopefully form the basis of a new Renaissance album in the future.

The EP is titled after its major piece, a nearly 8 minute long composition that has all the hallmarks of classic Renaissance. Ornate, almost gothic keyboards open the piece where strings might have in the past. Then Annie lets fly with some of the most impressively high singing she’s done in years, and it’s as if the 35 years since Novella or
Live at Carnegie Hall have melted away. The instrumental section that leads out of this eye popping opening section reminds me of ‘Touching Once (Is So Hard to Keep)’ from Novella, and all I can say is this; if they can find 4 more tracks of similar quality, they will have put together an album of material that will rival their salad days for intensity and quality. As good as some of the material on Tuscany was, this blows that album in its entirety out of the water…in just seven minutes, forty-five seconds.

‘Immortal Beloved’ follows on, a comparatively brief 5:47 long. Coming after ‘The Mystic and the Muse’ it almost seems a let down of sorts, but it is a beautiful song, with harmony vocals (considering the rest of the band contributes backing vocals, these harmonies could be with any one of them, so I won’t try to guess). Arrangement wise the song ebbs and flows; the verses are very laid back, with piano, quiet percussion, and nicely present bass guitar (Keys may be no Jon Camp, but he’s a heck of a bassist, and it’s nice to hear lyrical almost lead bass playing again in Renaissance music). This is a song I could see growing on me over time…while it does not grab like the opening track does, it’s a simmering piece with potential.

The Mystic and the Muse closes out with ‘Tonight,’ the shortest piece on the EP at 4:23. This is a hard one to describe, but in brief this has all the hallmarks of being lifted from a musical, and my assumption based on information from people who are familiar with the larger work are certain this was considered for the Scheherazade musical Michael Dunford had/has been working on for years. I believe it. The opening is quiet and restrained, Haslam singing almost a capella, with piano as sole instrumental backing. The vocal melody builds in a very traditionally stage musical manner, and while the song is beautifully sung, it seems slight compared to ‘The Mystic and the Muse’ or ‘Immortal Beloved.’

It’s impossible to judge what a band is capable of after heading just three new songs, even a band a long running and storied as Renaissance. What I am hearing is promising, however, and I have my fingers crossed that they can match the strengths of this EP on the album that they have said they’d like to have out by 2011. And hey, the EP’s only 5 bucks from their web site…you’re going to spend that on a cup of bad coffee from Starbucks made by an arrogant teen aged barista who will probably look at you vacantly when you ask him if he knows of Renaissance. Skip the java and buy the EP…I think you’ll be very happy with your decision.

Track Listing:
The Mystic and the Muse (7:45)
Immortal Beloved (5:47)
Tonight (4:23)

Band Members:
Annie Haslam: vocals
Michael Dunford: acoustic guitars, vocals
Rave Tesar: keyboards, vocals
David J. Keys: bass guitar, vocals
Tom Brislin: keyboards, vocals
Frank Pagano: drums, percussion, vocals

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