February 1, 2022

Sparkles with increased vibrancy, bouncing around the room with tantalizing surprises emerging from all corners…

We were bound to get here eventually. With Esoteric’s ongoing Renaissance reissue campaign having thus far covered the majority of their classic 1970s period, and even expanding such classic titles as Turn Of The Cards, Live At Carnegie Hall, Novella, and A Song For All Seasons into spiffy deluxe boxed sets, there was one title sorely absent – and it’s a doozy. To many fans, the 1975 classic Scheherazade And Other Stories is considered the crown jewel of the Renaissance catalogue; the culmination of the musical leaps taken on each of their previous efforts and a resulting work of stunning beauty. Everything they had done so admirably on albums like Ashes and Cards, they did perfectly here, and while it’s a bit of an eye-roller these days to trot out accolades like ‘masterpiece’, I have no qualms about bestowing such a title on this album.

Fortunately, the long wait for the deluxe Esoteric treatment of Scheherazade hath mercifully ended. The album has been given a fresh 24-bit digital remastering from the original first generation master tapes (and is also provided on the accompanying DVD as a high resolution stereo mix). A splendid 5.1 surround upmix has also been created, and this will be the main draw for listeners wondering if this upgrade is worth forking over their cash for (truthfully, it’s pretty reasonably priced anyway, and each of these glossy clamshell editions are an automatic upgrade based purely on appearance alone!) Audiophiles can be a tough sell with 5.1 upmixes (generally made when the original multi-tracks cannot be located to properly create a surround mix from the ground up). So I understand any hesitancy on that score, as they can be hit or miss, but it’s safe to say they’ve done a pretty nice job with this one.

The four pieces that comprise Scheherazade sparkle with increased vibrancy, bouncing around the room with tantalizing surprises emerging from all corners. As always, the formidable classical intro of Trip To The Fair commands attention, its ghostly vocals swirling around stabs of insane laughter, while frantic piano notes crisply ring out with the same potency they surely did in the hallowed halls of Abbey Road studios. Then, as though opening a music box, the crystal clear voice of the inimitable Annie Haslam emerges to deliver the eerie tale, and the piece gradually swells to a grand conclusion.

There’s a comfort in sitting down with an album like this and becoming immersed in the moods and themes within these classic pieces. The haunting beauty of Ocean Gypsy and the bouncy energy of The Vultures Fly High provide variety and contrast, each a vital component contributing to the soaring magic of the ‘…other stories’ half of the record. And the fantastic Hipgnosis artwork, with its Arabian Nights tapestry look, is recreated here in varying hues for each disc sleeve. As with the others in the series, an illustrated and informative booklet is provided as companion reading material with interviews and an essay by Malcom Dome, presumably one of the last ones he wrote (R.I.P., good sir).

The pièce de résistance, of course, is the breathtaking opus that comprised the entirety of side two of the original LP. It’s a forgotten art these days, but when vinyl was king, there was a structure to consider when assembling an album’s running order. If the closing track on side one was compelling enough to prompt the listener to flip the platter and drop the needle for a second time, a strategic placement drew them in once more with an attention-grabber. And there’s little out there that compares with the exotic and mystical aura infused into the fanfare opening to Song Of Scheherazade. Even more than the first half of the album, the nine interlocking sections of this exquisite 24 minute showpiece illustrate the spectacular depth of the surround experience. Augmented by rich orchestral parts that flutter and twist throughout the epic composition, Song Of Scheherazade is ever the enchanting journey it always has been, but it truly comes alive in 5.1. The regal horns and shimmering choirs accent the triumphant melody of The Sultan, while Haslam’s sweet voice glides over twinkling harp and oboe in the achingly gorgeous Love Theme. Not to mention the majestic Finale, one of the most spine-tingling moments of their catalogue.

There’s little out there that compares with the exotic and mystical aura infused into Song Of Scheherazade…

I have listened to the classic Renaissance albums for 35 years now, and it’s only now that the full scope of the rhythm section of Jon Camp and Terence Sullivan reveals itself to me. I’ve always been highly impressed by them of course, but listening in surround sound allows my ear to pinpoint and ‘lock in’ to their contributions, following along in a way I was unable to with the sonically murkier versions of the past. Melodic strengths have long been the focus of praise for this band – and that’s fair enough – but my own biggest takeaway from this edition is a newfound adulation for these two splendid musicians and the ways in which their skill and finesse so heartily enriched Renaissance’s music.

If there’s a complaint to have, it’s a minor one, but I’ve never been crazy about the practice of tacking on an edited version of one of the album tracks as a bonus, as with the single version of Ocean Gypsy at the end of the first CD here. An album like Scheherazade has too powerful a conclusion to be followed up by… well, anything, but particularly something as redundant as a shorter version of a track we’ve already just heard. It can be jarring and detract from the moment somewhat, even when vigilant about hitting the ‘stop’ button. A bonus track of this calibre would be a better fit on the DVD, where the curious can access it on its own.

A bonus of much greater worth is a 1976 promo film with the band running through Ocean Gypsy, Vultures, and the title track of their 1972 album Prologue. It’s a delight to watch this vintage footage, with dearly departed Micky Dunford strumming away on his acoustic, Camp’s fingers darting nimbly around the frets of his Rickenbacker, and Haslam shifting from angelic choirgirl to furious shaker of maracas! I just wish there was closer footage of John Tout, one of the most underrated keyboard players in rock music history for my tastes, but overall this is a tasty addition.

If all of this (and a poster) is not enough, a live show from January 1976 at Nottingham University is included as the second CD. This previously semi-obscure release has now been injected into wider circulation via this expanded deluxe set, and it’s a cracker of a show. Featuring classic songs like Ashes Are Burning, Can You Understand, and Running Hard among others, it also showcases Song Of Scheherazade in all its resplendence. This disc could have made a nice standalone release, but it’s a fine inclusion here.

The dynamic, emotional, and poetic Scheherazade And Other Stories remains an admirable achievement in a long line of excellent Renaissance albums, plucked straight from the sweetest part of their golden period. It’s well deserving of this spotlight again, and it’s encouraging to think that this deluxe edition brings about the possibility of a new crop of fans – young or otherwise – to discover its timeless allure.

‘It’s a masterpiece, and you know it straight away… God, I used to love singing that.’ – Annie Haslam, Velvet Thunder interview May 2021