Melanie Mau & Martin Schnella – The Rainbow Tree

Melanie Mau & Martin Schnella – The Rainbow Tree

My first experience with the German acoustic duo of Melanie Mau and Martin Schnella was at New Jersey’s Progstock festival. Mau (vocals) and Schnella (acoustic guitar & vocals) are typically abetted onstage by percussionist Simon Schroder, performing on various hand percussion instruments with the ferocity of a metal drummer and the deft lightness of a jazz man. This intriguing combination brings audiences to their feet, particularly when the band performs one of its many cover versions.

The Rainbow Tree is Mau and Schnella’s fourth covers album, and what a delight it is. Stylistically, The Rainbow Tree covers a lot of ground, prog, pop and metal all getting the Mau and Schnella treatment. What makes this worth a listen is how despite their disparate origins, each song (with the exception of a faithful Kansas cover) sounds as if it could be an original tune. This is not to say that they strip the songs of their identity; rather, they inhabit each tune from a place of respect and grow their interpretations from the inside out.

Case in point is the opening Gentle Giant medley. The track immediately asserts Schnella’s dominance as the album’s musical core with an acoustic guitar and whistle-led version of Talybont which captures GG’s adventurous spirit brilliantly before segueing into an acapella On Reflection before the entire band tackles His Last Voyage. Hearing Mau’s crystalline vocals in place of the Shulman brothers can be revelatory in its own way, forcing your ears to hear such familiar songs differently. That quality carries through so much of the album. There is no better example than the band’s cover of Opeth’s Ghost of Perdition. The original opens with Mikael Akerfeldt’s death metal growl. Mau and Schnella choose instead a densely layered acapella introduction which is both shocking and delightful in its own right, bringing out the melodic and harmonic beauty of the tune. The way Schnella finds the acoustic beating heart is nothing short of amazing. Speaking of which, Schroder deserves special mention on this particular cover. Even without a proper drum kit, the man makes a ferocious noise when required. Even the medley of Iron Maiden’s Hallowed Be Thy Name/For the Greater Good of God benefits from the odd instrumental approach. If you are unfamiliar with the songs, you could almost believe these are Mau and Schnella originals, so fully realised are these versions. The band frequently rises above its source material to create something worthy of its own existence. That is what you expect of a cover tune.

Pop songs like Phil Collins’ Something Happened on the Way to Heaven and Massive Attack’s Teardrop come across as being simplified, and I don’t mean that in a condescending way. Collins’ Something in particular seems to have benefitted from the excess of the original. Sometimes more really is more. On the other hand, the full band treatment of Teardrop is bolstered by Lars Lehmann’s fretless bass slipping and sliding beneath Schnella’s percussive guitar riff. Percussion replaces the synth parts on the cover of Leprous’ Alleviate, turning the song inside out. Einar Solberg’s anguished vocal is softened but Mau and company, bringing a whole other sort of pathos to bear.

Kansas’ Song for America was the first song I heard from the album (or, more accurately, saw on YouTube). Featuring Dave Meros (Spock’s Beard) on bass, Rachel Flowers on flute and vocals, and Dennis Atlas (Pattern Seeking Animals) on vocals, this is the track that adheres most closely to its source. It’s fun with the multiple lead vocalists, but unlike the other songs, does not add much to the way you hear the song. Uriah Heep’s Rainbow Demon would seem to be a natural for the band, and it is. Here they take some liberties with the melody. The bass and percussion from verse two on add a new dimension while Schnella explores the length of his fretboard to wring every ounce of passion and energy he can manage. That energetic approach comes to the fore on Rush’s Tom Sawyer, where the band rocks convincingly, capturing the intricacies of Lifeson and Peart, but as if in miniature. Schnella’s open, ringing tone plays well on the Porcupine Tree medley, featuring Blackest Eye and Sound of Muzak. The vocal trade-offs on Blackest Eye approximate Steven Wilson’s overdubbed approach, but his ferocity is farther away. By contrast, Muzak always relied on the vocal harmonies to sell itself, so Mau and Schnella appear more comfortable in this setting.

Stripped of its Neal Morse Band drama, A Love That Never Dies reveals itself as the beautifully poignant love song it always wanted to be. Jens Kommnick’s cello and pipe work bring the ethereal edge the song requires, and the guitar holds back enough to give the vocals the place of honour they deserve. The slow build of Peter Gabriel’s Secret World heightens the power of this masterpiece. When the song finally explodes around the three-minute mark, your ears will be straining to hear an electric guitar or a synthesiser, but the band never goes there. In this way, they make the song their own. Mau’s vocals and Kommnick’s pipes lead the proceedings on Nighwish’s Noise, providing the lightness this dark and brooding tune needs. The vocals are front and centre on closing track Siúil A Rúin, a traditional Irish tune popularised by Clannad. This is a sombre yet fitting close to a sumptuous album.

There is a bonus disc which comprises acapella versions of a number of the songs, a couple instrumentals, and some reduced (some parts removed) takes. The one truly bonus track is a fun cover of Damn Yankees’ High Enough. As with so many of these sorts of discs, they are interesting to hear once or twice, but there is nothing essential about them.

Melanie Mau and Martin Schnella have released their own original tunes throughout their career. Fine as they are, it is when they venture into covering other artists’ songs that the band really shines by comparison. Few bands can take another’s song and make you forget the original (if anything, more often than not they make you yearn for the original). Here, on song after song, Mau and Schnella bring you into their own little world where familiarity is just a jumping off point into their sonic explorations. There are some incredibly brave choices here, and some fare better than others. However, every one is worthy of your attention. There really is a pot of gold at the end of this Rainbow.

01. Free Hand – Medley (Gentle Giant) (5:17)
02. Song for America (Kansas) (9:27)
03. Something Happened on the Way to Heaven (Phil Collins) (4:47)
04. Rainbow Demon (Uriah Heep) (4:08)
05. Alleviate (Leprous) (4:09)
06. Teardrop (Massive Attack) (3:00)
07. A Love That Never Dies (Neal Morse Band) (5:21)
08. Secret World (Peter Gabriel) (6:59)
09. Tom Sawyer (Rush) (4:28)
10. Blackest Eyes / Sound of Muzak / Halo (Porcupine Tree) (6:00)
11. Hallowed Be Thy Name/For the Greater Good of God (Iron Maiden) (8:47)
12. Noise (Nightwish) (4:35)
13. Ghost of Perdition (Opeth) (7:21)
14. Siúil A Rúin (Traditional/Clannad) (3:24)

Time – 77:43

Bonus Disc:
01. Rainbow Demon (Acapella) (2:34)
02. Alleviate (Acapella) (2:58)
03. Teardrop (Acapella) (1:49)
04. The Sound of Muzak (Acapella) (3:39)
05. Siúil A Rúin (Acapella) (3:08)
06. A Love That Never Dies (Instrumental) (5:27)
07. Tom Sawyer (Instrumental) (4:26)
08. Song for America (Reduced Version) (9:26)
09. Hallowed Be Thy Name / For the Greater Good of God (Reduced Version) (8:47)
10. Ghost of Perdition (Reduced Version) (7:23)
11. High Enough (Damn Yankees) (4:28)

Time – 54:05

Total Time – 131:48

Melanie Mau – Vocals
Martin Schnella – Vocals, Acoustic Guitar, Percussion
Matthia Ruck – Vocals
Lars Lehman – Bass Guitar, Fretless Bass
Simon Schroder – Percussion
~ With:
Jens Kommnick – Uillean Pipes, Whistles, Cello, Acoustic Guitar, Bouzouki, Vocals
Rolf Wagels – Bodhran
Dave Meros – Bass Guitar
Rachel Flowers – Flute, Vocals
Dennis Atlas – Vocals

Record Label: Independent
Country of Origin: Germany
Date of Release: 21st December 2023

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