By the mid 1970s albums based on medieval themes were hardly new; in fact they were a dime a dozen, especially in merry old England, where the likes of Jethro Tull and Rick Wakeman practically based their entire careers around it. Particularly the latter, who’s 1975 solo LP The Myths and Legends of King Arthur and the Nights of the Round Table (no points for guessing what that one’s about), was released just one year prior to Romantic Warrior, Return To Forever’s sixth studio album, and what an impressive document it is.
Whether the group were jumping onto the whole populist medieval bandwagon I know not, but even if they were, it wouldn’t matter, due mainly to the quality of composition and above all, musicianship here on display. What we have is a quartet of incredibly talented musicians whose virtuosic abilities were capable of producing an almost telepathic synergy, intense as it was atmospheric, and who well understood the concept of light and shade, providing the listener with a complex kaleidoscope of sounds and textures. Though don’t get me wrong, the album’s not without it’s flaws.
First track “Medieval Overture” is exactly that, all moody melodics, and galactic keyboards, just what you’d expect from any self-respecting jazz fusion outfit, where the more pretentious the arrangement the better. The synthesisers do sound a little dated, like Merlin meets the space age. But don’t let that put you off, because Lenny White’s “Sorceress” begins in more earthy fashion, with some funky bass courtesy of Stanley Clarke, along with seamless piano and synthesiser by Chick Corea, who floats overhead, complementing rather than dominating the arrangement, before Al Di Meola comes in with a scorching albeit brief guitar solo, after which the song just bounces along in cerebral fashion, followed by some exquisite playing by all involved, namely Corea, whose display of technique I’m sure might have caused even Shubert to raise an eyebrow and take note.
“The Romantic Warrior” is pretty much a tour de force in dynamics; beginning with a meditative introduction where Clarke plays the upright bass with a bow, creating a soothing effect my mind never seems to tire of no matter how often I hear it. Corea adorns the starry atmosphere with a flurry of notes, creating new celestial objects in the process, and which immediately bring to mind metaphors of moonlight over the ocean, tranquil, and fleeting in their serenity. Di Meola delivers a bit of the Spanish touch, while the rest of the band members take turns at flexing their own considerable musical chops.
Is it just me or does the bass line to “Majestic Dance” bear more than a faint resemble to “School Days”? I guess it doesn’t matter, because the whole thing is so saturated with synthesisers to the point where I don’t even care. No doubt it rocks, but personally I could do without all the Star Wars effects thrown in. Likewise “The Magician”, a Clarke composition where the theme seems to be more important than the music itself. After a slight reference to Bolero, it moves into labyrinth mode, to the extent that the listener might have trouble finding their way out.
“Duel of the Jester and the Tyrant (Parts I and II)” allows all members to express their inner membrane, and reveal to the listener how clever they really are when it comes to complex composition. It doesn’t help that Corea is intent on bombarding my senses with his Donald Duck keyboards while Di Meola throws in some seriously spacey licks, of the sort one might encounter in a science fiction film. Impressive yet hardly the sort of thing one can connect with on an emotional level. Unless you’re one of those individuals who can only bond with others through reading mathematics or those who follow the more Peripatetic school of music. Actually to be honest, you’ll probably find the second half a bit on the boring side, which is not surprising if one considers how intellectual these musicians really were; whose hearts were in their brains and not on their sleeves. But that’s OK, because the first side of the LP is where it’s at, in terms of quality and musical marksmanship.
This would be the last album with this particular line-up, which is a shame, because the energy between all four members was obviously strong and undeniable in its combined effects. But obviously Corea had other ideas in mind, and Al Di Meola would find himself dancing with the devil on Spanish highway regardless of which direction the band took. Therefore they splintered, as so many jazz-fusion groups did in those days, to find new worlds of exploration not to mention possibilities, away from the original solar system in which they were fostered.