Sovereign 1973 / Esoteric 2019
Traveling the days of freedom, English art-folk ensemble open up their dreams and find a new way to shine.
1973 was pivotal to this collective’s creative development: having opened their scope to epic panoramas on “Prologue” a year earlier, after the original line-up’s illusory dissolution, the quintet would define a different sort of grandeur on that record’s follow-up and refine their sound once the classic quintet clicked into place. Intimate yet limitless, “Ashes Are Burning” sees the band embrace symphonic core of simple songs which convey natural wonders in every note – a logical progression from the instrumental palette where, in the absence of electric guitar, piano and bass bear the onus of a tune and pass it to vocals for melodies to fly while remaining tethered to earth in the most organic manner. Not for nothing the album begins with the prosaic notion of money and ends with poetic flame pointing to the future.
Beauty wraps around the listener’s ears once the ripple and rumble of John Tout’s ivories and Jon Camp’s Rickenbacker, that Terry Sullivan‘s gong ushered in, bring to life the words and music by Betty Thatcher and Michael Dunford (the composer still transitioning from behind the scenes to the stage and, thus, not included in the cover photo) even before Annie Haslam‘s soprano soars out of silence to the skies on “Can You Understand” only to reach dramatic climax on the organ-elevated titular number, is seared with a highly charged solo courtesy of, rather appropriately in this context, WISHBONE ASH’s Andy Powell. Such a span must require a lot of light and shade, and though “Carpet Of The Sun” will provide it in pop-colored spades, there’s acoustic strum and sparse drums to keep up the momentum throughout, whereas synthesizers marry cosmic consciousness to baroque elegance. The ensemble’s elegy is enhanced with strings and woodwind to stress serenity and thunder on the understated, if solemn, “Let It Grow” or the deeply spectral “At The Harbour” which mirrors “On The Frontier”: a transparent piece that Jim McCarty, RENAISSANCE founder, had placed on the sole LP of his SHOOT project, enlivened here in the perfect blend of Haslam and Camp’s voices.
As each composition taps into the heart of an entire day spent with the elements, “Ashes Are Burning” is as passionate and exquisite today as it was forty-odd years ago. The group presented fully fledged takes on five of the album’s six tracks at De Lane Lea Studios, where they were laying it down, and would play three of those as late as 2017, yet all the songs became live favorites almost immediately, as suggested by this reissues’ bonuses, a document of the band’s BBC concert of 1974 – stripped of orchestra but ever stupendous, and revealing previously unheard details of the record’s rich tapestry. That’s the destiny of a masterpiece.