Saturday, April 6, 2013

Why Novella?

Why is Renaissance's 1977 release Novella my second favorite album of all-time?

  • The unusual opening of the incredible "Can You Hear Me?" Several times questions in on-line discussions or chat rooms have lead to variations of "What one single song would you use to represent progressive rock to someone unfamiliar with the concept or style" or "If you had a radio show, what song would you use to open your show on your very first broadcast?" For me it is a no-brainer:  the dynamic wonder of all prog, "Can You Hear Me?"  
  • The guitar! Finally we get to really hear the beautiful guitar play from Michael Dunford. (John Tout's usually dominant piano/keyboard work is far more subdued and part of the mix instead of at the front of or dominating all ends of the dynamic range.)
  • The gorgeous "The Sisters" which transports one to medieval Spain like no other song I can think of thanks to the exquisite acoustic guitar play of Michael Dunford. 
  • Since "Can You Hear Me?" and "The Sisters" occupy all of Side 1, this is an obvious choice as one of those ever-so rare events: "the perfect side."
  • The simple power of "Midas Man":  the insistent sound of the strumming 12-string guitars, beautiful melodies, all woven together with some meaningful lyrics.
  • The 'classic' perfection of "Touching Once (Is so Hard to Keep)." If ever there was a song that epitomized "progressive rock" music, this is one. The added presence of full orchestration from Richard Hewson along with some impressive saxophone play and brass arrangements doesn't hurt either!
  • The less bombastic piano and keyboard work of John Tout. We've all heard John's incredible piano work in songs from previous Renaissance albums. He is a master of adapting known themes and styles from classical music (especially Russian/Eastern European music) to the Renaissance rock and roll idiom. On Novella there is less of this than usual; the music throughout the album sounds much more original while staying equally fresh and accomplished.
  • The album covers. (I own both versions.) I'm a sucker for medieval/Renaissance themes in art or history. (I received my Bachelor of Arts in History, concentrating in Ancient and Medieval History.)
  • Annie Haslam's crystalline voice! ('nuff said there!)

My introduction to Renaissance in September of 1976 was through the amazing experience of hearing Sheherazade and Other Stories. The next day I was the proud owner of Sheherazade and, within the next few weeks, thanks to the "cut-out" bin at the local store, the previous issues, Prologue, and Turn of The Cards--both of which I loved! That winter I was busy discovering and digesting Alan Parsons Project's amazing debut release, Tales of Mystery and Imagination, Supertramp's Crime of the Century, and, of course, Genesis' latest release, Wind and Wuthering.
     After a brief hiatus from music stores (four months of school-related travel), I was ever so pleased upon return to my college for summer term to saunter into my favorite record store across the street from campus (Boogie Records) to discover a new Renaissance album. I bought it sight unseen (though I found out once hearing it that I'd been hearing the opening seconds of "Can You Hear Me?" for several weeks on a hometown radio station in Northern Michigan).
     I shall never forget the first listening to this magical album--bringing it home mid-afternoon on a sunny summer afternoon. I was so focused and engrossed that I don't remember if my college room-mates or other friends were around. Side One of the album unfolded with such majesty and grace that I think it was weeks before I even went back to try Side Two. The presence--one might say even dominance--of acoustic guitars, spacious simplicity and, of course, Annie's voice, made listening to Novella feel as if being in a dream--as if I were on a walking pilgrimage on Spain's El Camino de Santiago or something. The pompous, pretentious and yet spacious orchestration of "Can You Hear Me?" bleeding into the simple, plaintive reverence of "The Sisters." In fact, with Side Two's opener, "Midas Man," there's a very strong Spanish theme for a majority of this album--something unusual and, for some reason, alluring to me.
     While "Midas Man" and "Captive Heart" fail to use much in the way of prog's more typical complexities, shifts and turns, the finale, "Touching Once (Is Hard to Keep)" is a veritable textbook example of a  brilliant prog epic. Plus, with it Renaissance returns to the oft-used Russian music themes that many of the group's fans had come to love and even to expect.
     Perhaps this is one of the reasons for the lack of respect and enjoyment this album receives:  the group has chosen to change, to try a slightly different path. With the next album, A Song for All Seasons, of course, the band takes a more drastically different road with not two or three but six pop-oriented tunes and only two epic-length tunes (plus a much greater use of the more modern synthesized sounds and recording techniques coming available to studio artists at the time).
     As we all know, in 1977 the "decay" of the progressive rock scene was well under way. Even so, there are still many brilliant albums to come that continue to push the boundaries and create progress in the evolution of musical possiblities. Novella is one of these.  

My review for ProgArchives:

My favorite album from one of my favorite prog bands. "Can You Hear Me?" followed by "The Sisters" comprise, IMHO, one of those rare events in music: a perfect side. (Side A from the vinyl LP). And prog at its very finest. "CYHM?" has one of those unforgettable intros Tout et al are so known for and "Sisters" has, next to "A Trip to the Fair" (Sheherezade And other Tales), my favorite Annie Haslam work along with those incredibly effective horns and the wonderful Spanish guitar phrases. An amazing piece of music! I enjoy John Tout's original work so well and the spaces and the prominent acoustic guitars of Michael Dunford make this such a timeless collection of songs. And then, of course, you have Annie---the most beautiful voice ever to grace the grooves of prog music---here sounding very relaxed, yet mature and confident. Though "The Captive Heart" and even "Midas Man" both lack something---a vocal or melodic hook, if you will---they are so well performed, mixed and produced (at least on the CD I'm listening to these days) that I can be a bit forgiving. Also, "Touching Once" is lacking some lyrical power but musically the construction is definitive prog and contains absolutely mesmerizing interweaving of all band members with orchestra. (Love those horns, strings and choir after the Peral-Jam-stolen guitar cord progression at the 5:35 mark.) A definitive album also for the subteleties which, IMO, are what distinguish prog: the fact that the music demands and deserves close and repeated listening. Music shouldn't have to bang you over the head to get your attention. IMHO, Novella is one of Prog's finest if final moments; one of the top 50 prog LPs of all-time.

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