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"A thousand and one nights she sang to entertain her king"
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|Main Category:||Prog Rock|
|Also applicable:||Art Rock, Lush Pop, Folk Rock, Medieval Style, Synth Pop|
|Starting Period:||The Artsy/Rootsy Years|
|Also active in:||The Interim Years, The Punk/New Wave Years, The Divided Eighties, From Grunge To The Present Day|
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I actually made a mistake - originally - by putting Renaissance in the 'post-prog' group of bands, you know, the likes of Rush and Styx. Of course, totally not due to the similarity in style, rather because of the attitude: I thought they were just another gang of self-indulgent 'artists' which, inspired by bands like Yes or Genesis that actually had talent, decided to capitalize on the prog movement and ended up copying all of its bad sides and hardly any of its good ones. But turns out that Renaissance were entirely different. To begin with, the band really has a more or less ancient pedigree. Its first release came out in 1969, well before either Yes or Genesis became well-known, firmly established acts; and even if the band's lineup had changed completely by 1972, the traditions were still more or less kept. Unlike so many critics, I do not think that there is any immeasurable gap between the Keith Relf/Jim McCarty-led Renaissance and the 'classic', Tout / Dunford / Haslam Renaissance; there are differences, but then again, even bands that have no lineup changes at all undergo some evolution (ever heard of the Beatles?)Anyway, I was going to say that everybody knows the Yardbirds as the spring-board for Clapton, Beck and Page, but whether anybody remembers them for being the spring-board for Renaissance is a more complicated question. True, both Relf and McCarty only lasted for one album (although McCarty stayed on as 'artistic guru' for the band for several more years), but they laid out the basis on which the future Renaissance was to be based. And thank them for that. If you would ask me to describe Renaissance's music in one controversial sentence, I would probably say: 'Ever heard Black Sabbath? Well - not even the slightest bit of resemblance'. If BS were the devils of rock, Renaissance were its angels: it's hard to imagine any other band that would be more 'angelic', more light, sweet and classical-influenced than Renaissance. And I do not mean that in the, you know, 'sugary sappy' way: Renaissance were by no means your average pop band. In fact, calling Renaissance a 'pop' or 'rock' group does not even make sense, as there is very little about their sound that is actually 'rock'. They rarely used electric guitar, instead basing the sound on the interplay between pianos and acoustic guitars, with a tinge of a harpsichord or an organ or some strings or special effects now and then; only in the later years did they finally fall on synthesizers and more 'mainstream' arrangements. Their music is chock-full of classical passages, either selfwritten or 'borrowed' (however, apart from the shameless stealing on the debut album, I'd be hard pressed to point out the exact musical quotes on their latter albums; either they've been smart or they really composed everything themselves). And Annie Haslam's operatic vocals are anything but rock, of course. So why a 'rock' band? Well, simply because they do not fit anywhere else, and you know that if you don't fit anywhere else you are 'rock'. Let it be 'rock', then. After all, whoever said that a 'rock' band's necessary attribute is an electric guitar? Show me da law, man! Of course, standard rock fans will hardly be able to assimilate this, and me, I'm sometimes at a loss, too. See, while rabid prog bands like ELP were struggling to marry classical music with rock'n'roll, Renaissance went in a far more soft and quiet direction, attempting to marry classical music with folk and, well, pop. But more with folk. Most of their better compositions are charming little folkish ditties, dressed in pompous classical arrangements; I guess that if you take Joni Mitchell and make the band make these kinds of arrangements for her, the effect will be similar. Now, the typical question would be: 'Why?' Well, why not? If bringing classical elements into rock turned out to be working, why not do the same things to folk? Of course, such processes are not entirely new. 'Folk' elements have already been used by well-known classical composers, starting from Schubert and ending with Tchaikowsky. Here, though, the procedure is a bit different: it's not making classical music sound folkish, it's more like making folk music sound classical. Plus, whatever be, the arrangements still follow the basic 'rock' procedures - there's a rhythm section, for Chrissake! There's a base, and there's some drums - what else do you want? It's ROCK"N'ROLL! Ha ha! Seriously, now, Renaissance does have its major flaws. None of the band members are true musical virtuosos: John Tout is fairly good at playing basic classical piano, but then again, so is every more or less solid piano player with a musical education. The guitarwork is always fresh and tasty, but rarely exciting; and their frequent jabs at orchestration, while far from banal Hollywoodery (a la early Moody Blues), don't go far beyond copying their forefathers - from Beethoven to Albinoni. The lyrics, written by Betty Thatcher, are far from horrible - at least, they are poetry; but she is not as skilled at original and stunning imagery as, say, Keith Reid, and the repetition of the same themes becomes boring after a while. By far, the band's most powerful attraction is main vocalist Annie Haslam - the girl with the five-octave range that's often called the best singerine in rock (that is, if Renaissance is rock - but we'd better not start this again...) Indeed, her singing is truly awesome, and the vocal melodies make me like Renaissance more than anything else does; but, after all, vocals aren't everything. Just look at Elvis Presley. That said, and the class of C being assigned strictly and forever (and a funny thing it is, as I originally gave them a B and said the same thing, but I guess I was dumb, asinine, canine, and feline at the time, as the procedure of 'general evaluation' showed me to be), I still like their early albums a lot. As background music, this is a positively awesome experience; of course, it would be far more logical to turn to the source and put on some real classical stuff instead, but if you're a crazy rock junkie like me, and also like your food to be served with some vocal work on the top, this is as perfect a substitute as may be. And, what's more important, these guys were damn good at creating interesting melodies, too: some real melodies, not just weird chord sequences like Yes used to do. It's mainly when they start the endless instrumental passages that the yawnfests begin: these aren't too imaginative, flashy, or even content-filled: quite often, it just seems that they are killing time. And, of course, you have to tread carefully: if you ever happen to start your Renaissance education with stuff like Azure D'Or, you'll be highly disappointed. Instead, please choose any one of their 1969-75 albums as a starting point and proceed from there if you don't get the (totally wrong) impression that this is 'sissy' music or something. Lineup: the original Renaissance were Keith Relf - guitars, vocals; Jane Relf (Keith's sisters) - vocals; John Hawken - keyboards; Louis Cennamo - bass; Jim McCarty - drums. These only recorded two albums, one of them originally issued only in Germany; by 1972, all the original members had quit the band, but the idea lingered in the air, and McCarty, as the 'forefather', saw to it that the band carried on, recruiting new and new people. So the first 'classic' Renaissance album was recorded with the following lineup: Annie Haslam - vocals; Jon Camp - bass; John Tout - keyboards; Terence Sullivan - drums; Rob Hendry - guitars. Hendry left immediately after their first album, replaced by Michael Dunford; this was now the 'core' Renaissance lineup that remained stable up to 1979 (figures!) Tout and Sullivan quit after Azure D'Or, replaced by Peter Baron (keyboards) and Peter Gosling (drums). The band released two more LPs in the early Eighties, then carried on as a live act for most of the decade without actually releasing anything; disbanded in 1987. These last years are not essential, though.
Listenability: 3/5. Endless
noodling and classical rip-offs do not often digest well with me, but nevertheless,
at their peak Renaissance have never written even one thoroughly BAD tune.
Resonance: 3/5. That singing really works wonders, but sometimes the whole thing is too overblown to really work.
Originality: 3/5. Well, you know... after all, they were the greatest combo to achieve an effective synthesis of classical, medieval, folk and pop motives without resorting to standard rock instrumentation and without sounding too cheesy. That takes work.
Adequacy: 3/5. If only they'd kept their instrumental passages shorter and more up to the point...
Diversity: 2/5. Counting the half-assed "pop transformation", a two is still a maximum.
Overall: 2.8 = C on the rating scale.
READER COMMENTS SECTION
Year Of Release: 1969
Record rating = 7
Overall rating = 10
A bit too many direct classical quotations, plus, the band hardly knows where it is going. But moments of beauty already abound.Best song: ISLAND
Track listing: 1) Kings And Queens; 2) Innocence; 3) Island; 4) Wanderer; 5) Bullet; [BONUS TRACKS:] 6) The Sea; 7) Island (edit).
People probably must have thought Relf and McCarty had totally gone off their nutrockers when they released this - a classical-drenched, pretentious, symphonic art rock album that couldn't have tied in less with the Yardbirds' former image. They didn't care, though, not at the moment. But, truth is, there's very little Relf or McCarty about it. Instead, the album is totally dominated by piano player John Hawken, and thus, the record's main flaw. Actually, Hawken isn't a bad pianist at all: he's exceptionally trained in the classical direction, and would have made a fine performer of the Golden Classics. But art rock was a rather new genre at the time, not to mention 'progressive' as its most twisted form, and Renaissance just did not have a very good idea of how to merge the classical genre with rock. Therefore, the two are just left separated, and the album is divided in between actual 'songs', which are mostly good, and Hawken's lengthy piano 'improvisations' stuffed in between the melodies. Sometimes they're good, sometimes they're not, but they are rarely exciting, and, controversially, the best of these are direct quotations from classical composers: I'm no big connoisseur, but I do recognize quotations from at least half a dozen various Masters, the most ridiculous bit, of course, being from Beethoven's 'Moonlight' in 'Innocence'. Not that I really care: this method may have proved unsuitable for prog in the long run and people might call the album dated because of that, but at least the piano bits still sound fresh and certainly not corny or anything. It's just a little curious. Historically. Ne'er you mind.Actually, I wanted to say that I don't really mind Hawken's classical 'wankfests', simply because the songs are quite good by themselves, and an excerpt from 'Moonlight' sure can't spoil them. In the upcoming Renaissance tradition, the songs are mostly long; but only one of them, the album closing epic 'Bullet', really overstays its welcome. It doesn't even fit in with the general light, soft and romantic mood of the songs, as it's more of a sound collage, beginning with an almost African rhythm and gradually dispersing into more watery piano solos, some bass-ic nonsense and all kinds of fluff that really sounds dated and was probably there to fill the empty spaces anyway. Otherwise, these selections rule. The other epic, 'Kings And Queens', is a mighty apocalyptic tune sung by Keith Relf with all the force he could muster, and the instrumental passages, including the funny little bass-piano interplay bit, contribute to the feeling of chaos and disorder. 'Innocence' (it's the one with the out-of-place but lovely Beethoven quote) is similar in style, with yet another terrific vocal melody. But the definite highlights, of course, are the songs given to Jane Relf: why they didn't have the gall to let her be the only vocalist on the record is beyond me. Now Annie Haslam might have had a better range, but Jane has something Annie doesn't: an unusual tenderness and silky softness to her voice that could probably give life to the cheesiest ballad on Earth. Thankfully, no need to do that: 'Island' and 'Wanderer' are gorgeous tunes by themselves, with tasty little medieval guitar rhythms interspersed with beautiful piano, and on top of that, angelic vocal melodies that - sorry, folks - display a lot more passion and style than Annie Haslam could ever hope for. Truly, I don't even know how it is possible to stand the charm of the first verse of 'Island': 'There is an island/Where it should never be/Surrounded by suburban sea...' This ranges among the most fantastiwastic female vocal passages I ever heard in my life, and, well, I've heard quite a few. My only complaint is that the vocal section is over too soon, and then Hawken takes over with his usual noodlings, so this is where I'm ready to kill the guy. 'Wanderer' is a tiny bit more generic (I mean, while 'Island' is quite a unique listening experience to me, 'Wanderer' reminds me of a more traditional folksy ballad), but still, these vocals are awesome. Sometimes I wonder what would have happened if Jane decided to stay in the band - maybe as a supplement for Annie. Would they get more recognition? Aw, cut the crap, they got enough recognition already, I'll warrant that. In any case, this album is a real hoot, and a great choice for your CD player if you're into something romantic but not cheesy. The recent re-issue also adds two bonus tracks: a single version of 'Island', which actually surpasses the extended version as it cuts away Hawken's piano solos at the end and lets you concentrate exclusively on Jane's singing, and 'The Sea', also a single release which, for some strange reason, did not make it onto the album. Too bad, as it is yet another great song in the trio of Jane Relf's numbers, with a bouncy, shaky melody and a somewhat more structured composition, and yup - more outstanding, headspinning singing. If you see the album on CD, make sure it's the reissued version. The strange thing, of course, is that the Relfs lineup, after such a promising start, promptly dissolved, with not a single member making it onto the new lineup. A real shame and a terrible historic unjustice; but, since history can't be re-written, we'll just have to move on to Renaissance Mark Two, that, sure enough, does not coincide with Mark One in any single member. Hey, ain't this the right place to make a pathetic speech about music in general that's higher than the individual personalities or something? But I guess I'll pass, anyway. Oh, wait. As it turns out, Renaissance wasn't actually the last record by the Relfs lineup. Not too many people heard about the real last record, though.
READER COMMENTS SECTION
Year Of Release: 1971
Record rating = 8
Overall rating = 11
The first Renaissance lineup growing beards and gaining in complexity; a fun record if you can find it.Best song: FACE OF YESTERDAY
Track listing: 1) Love Goes On; 2) Golden Thread; 3) Love Is All; 4) Mr Pine; 5) Face Of Yesterday; 6) Past Orbits Of Dust.
Yeah. This is the 'Great Lost Renaissance Album', and I've been damn lucky to find it. For some strange reason, back in its time the record was released only in Germany: why the record company thought it useless to promote it is one of these little progressive mysteries that require some serious research. It wasn't released in the UK until 1976, and I doubt if it was ever issued in the States. In fact, I don't even know if it's been issued on CD at all, except for Russia; I guess the Japanese probably have it (the Japanese have everything on CD), but truth is, you have to sweat really hard if you want to lay your hands on the album at all. Fortunately, I didn't have to sweat all that much...On with the show. This, absolutely legitimate, second Renaissance album is actually quite different from the somewhat patchy, insecure debut. On the surface, it's structured more or less the same: a couple lengthy, bombastic epics surrounded by a bunch of happy shiny classical-pop songs. But deep inside, it's far more mature and complex than Renaissance. The band's lineup is the same, but this time around, they'd gathered a large bunch of session players to back them up, including two future 'classic Renaissance' members - Michael Dunford on guitar and Terry Slade on drums. This results in a far more deep and rich sound texture, and little John Hawken is no longer the indisputable centerpiece of the band. Illusion, in fact, is far more guitar-oriented than Renaissance: both electric and acoustic sounds abound, and this is definitely the merit of Dunford: it's easy to recognize the main patterns of the 'classic sound' on songs such as 'Mr Pine' (written by Dunford in person, actually) or 'Past Orbits Of Dust'. But even Hawken is more adventurous on here, no longer contenting himself with quotations from his favourite classical composers: apart from the first section of 'Golden Thread', the compositions seem to be more or less original. Another important element is the first apparition on record of lyrics by that infamous Cornish witch Betty Thatcher - she contributes lyrics to two of the songs, thus beginning her long-time collaboration with the band (she'd write most of the 'classic albums' lyrics until 1981, when the band became much too pop-oriented to need her mystical ravings any more). 'Mature' does not mean 'artistically perfect', though - I don't find the songs' quality any more satisfying than on the debut album, to be quite frank. And, for my money, Keith Relf takes too much of the vocal work in his own hands. The two shortest tracks on here, aptly entitled 'Love Goes On' and 'Love Is All' are high quality 'sappy anthems', quite ear-pleasing and well-harmonized, but they're not really what I'd expect to get from this particular lineup. That said, the 'pa-da-bap pa-da-bap pa-da-bap pa-da-ba love-goes-on' chorus is irresistibly infectious, and the Keith/Jane harmonies on 'Love Is All' is probably one of their loveliest duets together, especially when it's joined by the majestic solo on the electric guitar. Much more interesting is Dunford's 'Mr Pine', a medieval-styled ballad that, in parts, sounds exactly like the kind of stuff Genesis were excelling in at the time - especially the opening and closing section, that sound not unlike a certain part from 'Supper's Ready' (the one that goes 'I know a farmer who looks after the farm' - note that 'Supper's Ready' was written after 'Mr Pine'). While it's far from the longest track on here, it's also the most complicated, with most of the vocal sections being stuck in that gloomy, harpsichord-based intro and outro; in between them is stuffed a certain 'progressive jam', not spectacular, but quite nice, mostly based on Hawken's masterful organ playing. The whole impression is gloomy, creepy, at times downright scary, especially when Dunford (or Relf?) hits the ominous electric notes on the fade-out in the middle, and then the harpsichord part steps in again, finishing the song as solemnly as possible. Still, my favourite is not 'Mr Pine' - after all, there's nothing really exceptional about the number, and Genesis could usually pull off the creepy-medieval genre much better (it doesn't hold a candle to such tracks as 'Musical Box', in particular). What is exceptional in this early Renaissance are the blissful vocals of Jane Relf, and she has but one definite showcase on the album - the gorgeous ballad 'Face Of Yesterday', all drenched in classical influence, but so much the better: her singing here is almost as good as on 'The Island', and I don't request anything else. Nothing. Out of the two lengthy epics, I quite favour 'Golden Thread' - it's fast, energetic, adequately bombastic and, while Keith takes the main vocal spot, the echoey, double-tracked harmonies of Jane that introduce the main body of the song are superb. By the way, what's that vocal melody at the very beginning derived from? It reminds me very much of the main piano melody of Procol Harum's 'Homburg', and this can't be a coincidence. Ooh, how I wish I did my classical homework better in the past... However, 'Past Orbits Of Dust' is a major flaw of the record, and the one for which I really couldn't give it more than an eight. At fourteen and a half minutes, they drag the bleeding corpse for far too long: the song is much, much too monotonous. The main melody is based on a couple simplistic electric piano riffs, which keep repeating themselves to death, and the Byrds-ey harmonies on that one don't impress me too much, either. Even worse, the last three or four minutes of the track are just filling up space - it seems as if the band simply doesn't know when to stop and keeps hitting disjointed, rambling notes when the rhythm has already died down, just to kill time. Perhaps the idea was to create something like a 'totally mind-blowing experience' at the tail end of the record, but, once again, such things were much better made by Genesis who actually knew how to get the best of such minimalistic playing (remember the coda to 'Dancing With The Moonlit Knight', eh?) And all the backwards guitars and stuff like that don't really help much. Congratulations, gentlemen, as in the case of 'Bullet', you blew it again. Wait for the 'classical Renaissance' to correct your mistakes when it comes to fifteen-minute epics. In any case, Illusion can be quite a fascinating listen - as 'the great progressive album from the band that never was', it's much more than a simple historical curio, and I'd advise you very much to lay your hands on it if you get the chance. The band was all but gone after the release, and Dunford and Slade were left on their own, with Jim McCarty as 'spiritual mentor' to help them recruit new members. As for Jane, McCarty and Cennamo, by the mid-Seventies they ended up in the 'tribute' band Illusion that released two albums which nobody knows about or gives a damn anyway. I've seen them, though, as they were released on CD in Russia, and successfully reviewed them in the appendix below.
READER COMMENTS SECTION
Year Of Release: 1972
Record rating = 9
Overall rating = 12
These vocal melodies simply can't be beat; plus, this is the only album you'll find the band rockin' out a trifle.Best song: PROLOGUE
Track listing: 1) Prologue; 2) Kiev; 3) Sounds Of The Sea; 4) Spare Some Love; 5) Bound For Infinity; 6) Rajah Khan.
Some will say these are just the rough beginnings, and to a certain point I agree: Prologue is definitely NOT the quintessential album for the 'classic' Renaissance lineup, as they were just starting to work on their formula and find the style that suited them perfectly. Or, rather, the style that they thought suited them perfectly - because, all scruples aside, this record is a blast from start to finish. If you're a prog fan searching for elaborate, complex arrangements and stuff like that, better start with Turn Of The Cards or Scheherazade; however, if you come from the 'rock' camp and wish to continue your musical education with less pain and more gain, be sure to make this your first Renaissance purchase. For starters, this is their one and only album that makes extensive use of electric guitars; the only one (at least, among the classics) to feature a fast tune; and, maybe the most important thing, the definite album to showcase Annie Haslam and her fantastic singing. Truly, folks, to the best of my knowledge and apprehension, her vocals on songs like the title track, 'Bound For Infinity', or 'Sounds Of The Sea' have never been topped - or maybe it's just the vocal melodies that got less complicated after that. In any case, this is a record that requires some extended listening: it nearly passed me by at first, but it only took one serious moment of attention-paying to realize that there ain't a single bad tune on this 'classical-rock' masterpiece. I mean, Ashes Are Burning is still my favourite, but this one is such a strong nine that it borders on ten as well, and these two records are well worth each other.The new lineup does follow the lines of the old one - the tradition lives. But, of course, in a modified way. First, John Tout, whose keyboards work the band would start to depend from now on, surely knows how to incorporate his instrument into the band's sound better than John Hawken did. And he does not rely so heavily on the classics - quotation is more obscure, and unless you're a great fan of Chopin, you'll probably not be spending your entire time pointing at the CD player and saying 'here he goes again, that's from symphony so-and-so'. Second, the compositions are far better thought out and constructed than previously: while Relf and company relied heavily on spontaneity and weird noises, here even the weirdest track, 'Rajah Khan', is pure music. And finally, this is where the band finally secured the services of Cornish poetess Betty Thatcher: her lyrics are pompous, high-styled and rather generic, but definitely not banal and quite suited for the music. Rumour has it that the band rarely even met Betty - they just mailed her the sheetnotes and she mailed them back lyrics. And remember, no E-mail back in those days! Sure would have been an easier process in our time... Anyway, there are six songs on Prologue (a pretty daring title for a band that just started and wasn't too sure if it would actually carry on further), and each and every one of them rules. The scene is set with the title track - a fast, upbeat piano rocker with just a simple vocal party from Annie... simple? It's breathtaking! Especially these high notes she hits - you sure wouldn't have thought she'd end each 'verse' with that breathtaking 'DUUUUUUU!', and the band soars up in the air. Now that's five-octave range for you... The piano solos are short and tasteful, and everything seems to whirl around Annie rather than everybody else, which is a good thing. 'Kiev' is one of the weaker tracks on the record, but it's just because Annie is singing a duet with Tout (or Camp? I don't really know who's the main male vocalist in the band); nevertheless, the gentle, folksy melody is quite catchy, and the piano/guitar interplay is rather delicate. The next three songs are all mainly in the same style, all great showcases for Annie. The best thing, though, is that all three have strong, memorable, original and extremely interesting vocal melodies; Annie's powerful singing does not make these songs, it embellishes them and elevates them from the status of 'good' to 'great'. 'Sounds Of The Sea' is slow, stately, majestic and gorgeous: the way Annie sings the word 'me' at the end of each verse is really not just anything you'd meet on your average professional folk album. I know this sentence might seem silly, but hey, what can I do? It's hard for me to give a written impression of this beauty. 'Spare Some Love' has probably the most complex vocal melody on the album: Annie's vocals spin round and twist in an incredibly difficult manner, as she makes her way through simplistic lyrics about giving love - and gives the lyrics an air of gravity and Godliness simply by the power of her voice. And, where these two songs highlight her range and techniques, 'Bound For Infinity' highlights her power and timbre. The major point of controversy here is, of course, the closing 'Rajah Khan' - the 'heaviest' and darkest song ever done by the band, as Hendry gets to play some distorted guitar solos in the intro and in the middle of the track. As such, it's just one more instrumental with vocals but no lyrics, written by Michael Dunford who was soon to join the band as a formal member (he also composed the title track). It draws heavily on various influences, of course - I can hear direct snippets from Ravel's 'Bolero' in the main theme, but that doesn't worry me in the least: this is, in fact, a minor quotation and not a stealfest. I could do without the middle part, to tell you the truth: none of the solos do anything for me, and eleven minutes are probably a bit too much for this thing, but the main theme is magic. And it's somewhat dark and menacing, too: a rare case for Renaissance, who would start sounding all too much 'warm jello' from now on. All in all, a fascinating listening experience. Of course, if I had the ultimate power over this band, I'd advise them to pick up a good electric guitarist to add to the sound, and maybe put just a bit more soul into the instrumental playing: Annie is clearly several heads higher than the rest of the band when it comes to laying down the sound, and thus the band's main disadvantage. But nobody's perfect, after all, and we're left free to imagine our personal 'masterpiece' the way each one of us would like to see it. I see it like that. How do you see it, kind sir?
READER COMMENTS SECTION
Year Of Release: 1973
Record rating = 10
Overall rating = 13
The formula falls in place, with stunning results first time around. Lush, luxuriant sound, something extremely rarely seen in music.Best song: LET IT GROW
Track listing: 1) Can You Understand; 2) Let It Grow; 3) On The Frontier; 4) Carpet Of The Sun; 5) The Harbour; 6) Ashes Are Burning.
It was a hard deal for me when I was issuing out the ten - Prologue is probably a bit more exciting, whereas Ashes are certainly a bit more mature, and in the end it all depends on the mood I'm in. Therefore, just in order to promote and support maturity, I award the 10 to Ashes, although that's purely a matter of subjective approach. Warning given out! Both are equally solid, with only a few relatively insignificant duds along the way, but these are the duds that prevent Renaissance from getting a higher band rating, not the duds that do not allow me to give them two record ratings of 10. Feeling bored, are ye? Feeling muddled? Feeling mixed up? Well, that's the violent excesses of complicated rating systems for ya... we all have to be smart at times.This is where Renaissance becomes, to quote the immortal Andrew Oldham, more than a band, rather a way of life. Everything about the album is drenched in that warm, resplendent, medieval-romantic style, from the pictoresque album cover to the graceful lyrics to the swooping string arrangements. No more 'piano rockers' on here, in fact, no more electric guitars: there are some nice bits at the end of the title track, inserted by guest star Andy Powell, otherwise it's just Michael Dunford who strums his acoustic. But don't you dare think that Renaissance have degraded into becoming a sissy pop band. Nah, that wouldn't occur until the disaster of Azure D'Or; this one's anything but a simple pop album. Just as its predecessor, the record is framed by two lengthy, ten-minute epics. Now their length, I feel, is not entirely justified (again): the instrumental sections simply pass me by, again and again and again. The tinkling piano that opens 'Can You Understand' (and, by the way, reminds me of the introductory Tony Banks passage on 'Firth Of Fifth'; funny that both albums were recorded in the same year) is delicious, of course, but apart from that, the song is only notorious for the vocal melody; as usual, it is brilliant, with Annie rising to the challenge and reaping more and more fruits. Hmm. I just realized that you can't actually reap fruits. But let it stay as it has been written; who knows, what with the technological progress, in a hundred years or so they'll be reaping fruit. Now if only this here site would last a hundred years more... ...digressing again, silly reviewer! And he hasn't yet commented upon the title track! The title track, ladies and gentlemen, is positively awesome! Starts out real dark and dreary, with wild winds blowing and sad piano chords, and Annie sings a sad, heavenly melody with lyrics that seem to wax nostalgic and convey a tragic aroma, but then they revert to the chorus and it's suddenly not so depressing anymore - it's actually a song about shaking off your past, not cashing in on your depression. Then comes the lengthy, lengthy instrumental part which is not great but definitely more attractive than the one on 'Can You Understand', with Tout constantly switching from piano to harpsichord to organ to piano again, so he at least offers you some diversity. And the end - Annie sings the introspective, mystic conclusion - 'ashes are burning away... ashes are burning awaaaaaaaay!' If this is prog, this is their prog masterpiece. And in between are sandwiched four pretty folk-pop songs, all of which blow Mariah Carey away. Gee, perhaps that was not the best comparison. You got my drift anyway. Okay, maybe not four. Maybe three. 'On The Frontier' is a bit... beh... boring. I guess, though, that I feel this way again because Annie is singing in a duet and not solo; but the song does not seem to have a solid melody to me anyway, and at six minutes time it gets more tedious than the title track. It's a bit similar to 'Kiev' on Prologue in that respect. But the others? 'At The Harbour' is a pretty, almost beautiful little ballad with simple, unsophisticated lyrics about the sea and the you-know-what-kind-of problems connected with its influence on certain people's lives. The piano intro is a bit overlong, but the main melody is again top of the pops; I especially like the way the quickly sung, 'normal' verses contrast with the slow, gentle chorus. 'Carpet Of The Sun' may be just a bit too sugary, but it always was a stage favourite anyway, and for obvious reasons: it probably epitomizes the very spirit of Renaissance, you know, that May Queen spirit - the carnivalesque, shiny happy traditional medieval feel which this band managed to pick up with such tremendous success. So it's really not sugary, it's modelled after that folkish vibe, and it captures the folkish vibe perfectly, adding some nice, intricate orchestration. The album's highest point, though, is 'Let It Grow', a ballad of such jaw-dropping quality that I really bow my head - a couple more of such songs and I'd easily rate them a three. The word 'perfect' is much too short and bleak to describe my feelings: it's, like, the absolute ideal for an anthemic pop song. The vocal melody is simple, yet astonishingly effective, and, of course, Annie pulls it off with total glory. I said in the previous review she never topped her singing on Prologue; well, here's the obvious exception - here we go with that five-octave range thing again, especially when she gets to sing the 'it's gotta just GROOOOOOW' lines in the chorus. Awesome, positively awesome. Man, if all the other songs on this album were absolute shit, I'd still give it a 10 just for that masterpiece which you just gotta hear, everybody. 'Let it grow' on you, together with the other minor chef-d'oeuvres on this record. Buy it today: it's the best that the tricky 'classical-folk-pop' genre could ever offer to you, and the band would never top it to the best of my knowledge.
READER COMMENTS SECTION
Year Of Release: 1975
Record rating = 9
Overall rating = 12
More mature-sounding, but also quite a bit less catchy, and dang, I loved that sissy sound...Best song: BLACK FLAME
Track listing: 1) Running Hard; 2) I Think Of You; 3) Things I Don't Understand; 4) Black Flame; 5) Cold Is Being; 6) Mother Russia.
Rabid prog fans often view this and the following albums as Renaissance's high points, and it's easy to see why. The style is still essentially the same as on Ashes, but there are also big changes made. No 'Let It Grow' or 'Carpet Of The Sun' here: the band has clearly decided that they allowed a bit too much jovial folk pop to be present in their work, and they choose a slightly different approach now, with an emphasis on symphonic and progressive elements. Just like Ashes, this one has but six songs; but there are already three, not two, lengthy prog-fests, and out of the three other tracks, only 'I Think Of You' qualifies as 'lightweight'. It is indeed quite charming, a pretty simple acoustic-driven love ballad where Annie employs her usual trick of raising her voice to an unbelievably high pitch just before the end of the verse that totally stuns the listener (unfortunately, she only does it in the final verse). The song is not quite up to the standard of 'Let It Grow', of course (eh, I can hardly imagine anything that would be), but very pretty, and Tout's harpsichord, perhaps the instrument he really was best at, adds a nice touch as well.But that's about it. For most of the other songs, you have to brace yourself for a 'tougher', less immediately attractive or catchy, but still more or less rewarding, sound. 'Running Hard', 'Things I Don't Understand', and 'Mother Russia' all take some time to get used to, and I'm still not head-over-heels in love with the lengthy instrumental passages. They do get a little better, I'll admit: Camp is growing into a real efficient bassist, and Tout gets more and more fluent as a piano player. To diversify the settings, the band draws in a horn section at times, and orchestration abounds. But the band never seems to get much effect from their interplay, and doesn't seem to care much about true emotional resonance, too. So it's mainly hit and miss: their approach works blissfully on the stately, well-crafted pomp of the otherwise a bit ridiculous 'Mother Russia' (the brass on that one is particularly impressive), but elsewhere, it again seems to me they're often just pulling time. Especially since the lengthy, not quite inspired piano jams are in great contrast with the vocal melodies - still Renaissance's main forte and just as strong as ever. I'm not a great fan of 'Running Hard', although it's pretty, but the nervous, jerky paranoia of 'Things I Don't Understand' really grabs me by the collar, as Annie and the boys chant the ominous lines 'thinking about things I don't understand... thinking about things I don't understand...' The turn is then passed to the mid section and the song slowly and breathtakingly 'straightens out', with a gorgeous choral section and the peaceful, upbeat ending where it is finally assumed that 'we don't need to know the answers/To hope and pray for peace'. Take this as an interesting suite on human lack of knowledge, mayhaps? The next two songs are among Renaissance's very best, to be sure: short and up to the point, without any piano wankfests to distract you from Annie again and simply stupendous. 'Black Flame' is dark, scary and moody, with some medieval Genesis-style acoustic guitar and a church organ in the background that set the backing for Annie's powerful rendition of Thatcher's somewhat obscure lyrics about how 'the black flame burns my blackened brame'. When that harpsichord comes in to accompany the refrain, one really starts to realize the enormous potential of the band... And 'Cold Is Being' is awesome, even if the melody is, ahem, 'borrowed' from Albinoni's 'Adagio' (this makes me wonder how many other melodies I have not identified - aye, 'tis indeed an ungrateful affair to review Renaissance without having a perfectly solid background in the classics). Nevertheless, adding vocals to the piece was a brilliant idea - much more positive than ELP's idea to add vocals to 'Pictures At An Exhibition', in fact. And the lyrics are among Thatcher's most interesting and poetic, too: 'So cold is being lonely/Behold the feeling lonely/The living part is done/The dying has begun/The world is spinning slow/So tired slow'. Pathetic, but oh so true... pardon me. Which leaves us with 'Mother Russia', the strongest of the three 'prog' cuts on here. It's also the most symphonic of the three, with a magnificent, mastodontic orchestra part, and a noble, steady pace during which Annie renders the lyrics. Which, by the way, can only stem from Thatcher reading too much Solzhenitsyn: it seems to be about a concentration camp prisoner, actually, I suppose it's about the man himself (he was just deported to the West in 1974), although if the words 'punished for his written thoughts' indeed refer to him, Betty must have been wrong, as Solzhenitsyn only began writing after spending time in our gruesome places of detention. Gee, I thought I'd never have to bring these matters up... In any case, this album doesn't quite live up to a 10: it has more pointless instrumental passages than Ashes, and, like I said, the melodies simply don't have the same grabbing potential. It's very, very close though, and a very high 9 for Renaissance. And, of course, if complexity and pretentiousness is what you're after rather than strong, memorable melodies, grab this one first (not that there aren't any strong, memorable melodies here, of course). Come to think of it, if you're that kind of dude, better grab their next one. This is where I really pass.
READER COMMENTS SECTION
Year Of Release: 1975
Record rating = 8
Overall rating = 11
Renaissance's 'Close To The Edge': more concise and up to the point, but still, 'Close To The Edge' is 'Close To The Edge'.Best song: TRIP TO THE FAIR
Track listing: 1) Trip To The Fair; 2) The Vultures Fly High; 3) Ocean Gypsy; 4) Song Of Scheherazade.
This is where the band finally exceeded its grip. Mind you, some people regard this as the band's masterpiece, but then again, many people regard Wind And Wuthering as Genesis' masterpiece, too, and I do not feel it would be right or even politically correct for me to agree with them (heh heh). Not that it's bad - it's still leagues and leagues above the tasteless garbage the band would start putting out in just a few years. Actually, the first side of the record is totally marvelous, at least, the first two songs on it. Annie has started to make little funny experiments with her singing style, and this makes the vocal melodies of 'Trip To The Fair' and 'The Vultures Fly High' sound quite unlike everything else recorded before that point. The first one, while it lasts for eleven minutes (big surprise), does not seem lengthy to me at all: they go for a rich, mystical tone, and Annie sings in a huge variety of styles, ranging from her usual high pitch to an almost funny whispering. The chorus, the one that goes 'A trip to the fair/But nobody was there', is so catchy and well-constructed I had big troubles with getting it out of my head, not that I really tried, of course. In fact, the song might be their most successful and hard-hitting 'medieval stylization' of all. By contrast, where 'Trip' is slow and long, 'The Vultures Fly High' is short and fast: the fastest they played since Prologue, in fact, and it works. I have a hard time trying to decode the song's message: the line 'They always watch with hollow eyes/To put you down, they always find a way to criticize' suggest that the lyrics may be directed against the musical press lampooning and harpooning the band, but there are several obstacles: first, there are no more direct references, second, I doubt whether our friend, the 'reclusive Cornish poetess', really cared about the band's critical success, and third, Renaissance weren't really lampooned by critics, unlike most other prog bands: they usually got positive reviews, in fact. At least, until Azure D'Or, I hope. Whatever be, that song totally rules: the band shows they can still keep a solid, fast groove, and the vocal melody of the chorus, with its 'they circle o-o-o-o-o-ver us all', really sweeps me away.I'm still in doubt as to what concerns 'Ocean Gypsy', though. True, the melody is not bad, and as a whole, the song sounds memorable. But to me, the overall effort stinks quite a bit of cheesiness - for once, Annie's vocals are not as effective as they might have been. I don't really know how to explain that feeling; maybe the song just gives a general aroma of excessive patheticness and generic romanticism that is so common amidst bland pop singers. Anyway, I could never get into the song that much; to me, it's the first dangerous precursor of even worse things to come. Now the second side of this album is what really turns on the lovers of symph rock: a side-long suite called 'Song Of Scheherazade', which is, indeed, the band's most daring and brave stab at an epic. It doesn't really matter that the timing was certainly chosen wrongly - by 1975, prog rock was already on the way out, and the band couldn't really hope to break any new ground after listeners had already had the pleasure (or the horror, whatever you prefer to call it) of listening to 'Close To The Edge', 'Tarkus', 'Thick As A Brick', and 'Supper's Ready'. On the other hand, one could make a fine argument that this is Renaissance we're speaking of, and a Renaissance epic is certainly quite unlike any other epics. It is indeed symphonic - some parts are almost purely orchestral (although most of the way the orchestra only serves to support the band), and the general impression is more comparable to the one you get from listening to a real symphony than a prog-rock suite. Here, there are also multiple quotations from classics (including Rimsky-Korsakoff's 'Scheherazade', etc.), but the main parts are all written by Camp, Tout and Dunford, so it's pretty much original. And, as it is common with lengthy epics, I enjoy some parts of it and do not enjoy others. Here's the bad news: a lot of instrumental themes do not go far beyond your average symphony by a more or less decent classical composer. When prog fans go aaaaahhh over the length and the feelings they get, I simply shrug my shoulders: this can only mean that they're either self-deceiving thugs who only 'adore' a song when it's twenty minutes long, or that they go aaaahhhh over every classical symphony ever written (hardly probable). The musicianship is NOT awesome; the musical themes are NOT innovative and NOT exceedingly emotional; and often, the sound gets so thin and quiet that I don't really understand what's going on at all. Annie does a good singing job, but overall, the song is not 'vocally suited' at all: she is rarely in the centre of attention, and you just have to concentrate on the other band members and the orchestra, which really spoils the fun at times. On the other hand, here's the good news. The different sections (nine in all) are all rather short, so you don't get bored by endless repetitiveness. The lyrics are plain, simple, and decent: indeed, they simply describe Scheherazade's story which you probably already know (if you don't, just get the album - it's written on the back cover). The orchestral arrangements are never banal; at this point in their career, the band was anything but lacking good taste. And, finally, several bits of the suite are damn good - especially the sweeping, majestic main theme ('The Sultan', I guess; they are not marked separately on the CD) that gets reprised as 'Finale' in the end, where the band chants 'Scheherezade, Scheherezade' and Annie raises the pitch every time: wonderous! So I don't really feel particularly bad about anything on here, and it is indeed to the honour of the band that they could carry out such a Gargantuan project. While not one of rock's best prog epics, this one's certainly far from the worst. It just doesn't really entertain, that's all.
READER COMMENTS SECTION
Year Of Release: 1977
Record rating = 8
Overall rating = 11
Melodies are getting really hard to find, but at least the successful formula is more or less intact.Best song: CAN YOU HEAR ME?
Track listing: 1) Can You Hear Me?; 2) The Sisters; 3) Midas Man; 4) The Captive Heart; 5) Touching Once (Is So Hard To Keep).
The last gasp of relative brilliance before the Big Slump. Scheherazade might or might not have been the band's best album, but there's no doubt that it was their Dark Side Of The Moon: the band's biggest, most ambitious, most costly, most treasured piece de resistance. Where were they to head now that they'd reached their highest point? Good as they were, they didn't have as much talent for producing masterpiece after masterpiece, as did Pink Floyd, or for reinventing themselves as some David Bowie. Therefore, Novella has no choice but to follow the ancient formula: yet another immaculately crafted 'folk-prog' vehicle. This time, however, there are some obvious changes to the sound. First, it's getting much denser and harder to assimilate at first listen. This is in parts due to the orchestration: if on every previous album it was just a special treat, sometimes used and sometimes not, here it often lies right at the centre of the sound, rather like in 'Song Of Scherezade'. The individual talents of the band members are thus moved even further into the background, and the lengthy instrumental passages are getting more and more boring, in general. Second, and this is even worse, much too often it seems to me that the denseness of the sound is used to mask the lack of truly creative ideas. On every previous studio album, great or just good, there always were at least a couple of instantaneously memorable melodies that would immediately strike a chord in me; here, you really have to sink your teeth deep in order to get more satisfaction.Thus ends the successful formula - after all, what good is a 'stylistic' formula when you cannot fill it with comestible content? Everybody is bound to run out of ideas sooner or later, and Novella shows our friends at the beginning of the process. Thankfully, it's only the beginning. After my first listen, I nearly dismissed the album, but, unlike the truly murky Song For All Seasons (not to mention Azure D'Or, of course!), it finally grew on me. Actually, there are good melodies here; you just have to sit patiently and wait until they jump out at you. And if they don't, well, don't blame yourself: it's perfectly understandable. This is a band trying to desperately squeeze out the last ounces of talent of themselves. Just do them a favour, willya, and try to recognize that talent, okay? At least if you loved the previous four albums, you're bound to eventually love this one. I have a few recommendations, too. The introductory epic, the thirteen-minute long 'Can You Hear Me?', has an extremely so-so middle section, with generic choral backgrounds and more medieval church organ solos that may or may not impress you, but sure make no impression on me. But the main theme? Awesome, man! It's fast and energetic, and each verse ends with the powerful Annie scream 'Can - you - hear - me? Can - you - hear - me?' And the alternation of the pulsating, ferocious fast parts and the tender, romantic slow parts is surprisingly effective as well. As a love ballad, this is just superb, and an edited version would have probably made a hit single... although I guess by 1977 the world was much more interested in the Sex Pistols than in a shitty 'medieval rock' band. Sigh... What a great way to initiate the album anyway. 'The Sisters' is also good, a depressing, complaintive dirge with Annie at her most moving; never before or again would the band capture the atmosphere of depression and melancholy so perfectly as they did in that heart-breaking line, '...everything was barren on the land...'. Plus, as if that was not enough, Dunford throws in a magnificent classical guitar part that's among his most distinguished solo passages ever. Then there's the two short songs that are a bit more in the 'pop' camp, but that's all right by me; 'Midas Man', although featuring some of Thatcher's dumbest and most straightforward lyrics (gee), is still a good one, driven by frantic acoustic strumming and the dreary sound of church bells. It's not exactly spooky, and there's no grand majesty of 'Mother Russia' in it, but it's still better than it seems at first listen. Unfortunately, the second one of these, 'The Captive Heart', kinda sucks: carried forward by a simplistic piano riff and a generic, uninteresting vocal melody, it's the first time when Renaissance starts to remind me of a poorly executed ABBA clone (and, unfortunately, far from the last time). It's about the first time I feel they haven't bothered at all to insert any of their trademark vocal hooks that tear right into your skin. This leaves us with the closing epic 'Touching Once (Is So Hard To Keep)' - nice, but not too substantial. Again, the main melody is much too twisted and emotionless to be enjoyable. The song is redeemed by several factors, though: Annie's singing (as if anybody could be suprised at that), and that gorgeous vocal harmonizing section in the middle, their best effort at some truly authentic medieval-style chanting. Boring, yes, but acceptable. Digestible. You just need to give it enough time to digest. I did, and I give the album an eight cos I feel it truly deserves an eight, not just of compassion or something. Perhaps it helps that the songs are all so depressed and 'miserable' - they reflect the band's state at the time all too well. 'Everything was barren on the land' indeed. But dig the cool album cover, too, almost Raphael-like stylization.
READER COMMENTS SECTION
Year Of Release: 1978
Record rating = 6
Overall rating = 9
Kinda yuck. The formula has worn thin, and the melodies are completely in the gutter. Plus, they're getting more and more schlocky. Yuck.Best song: NORTHERN LIGHTS
Track listing: 1) Opening Out; 2) The Day Of The Dreamer; 3) Closer Than Yesterday; 4) Kindness (At The End); 5) Back Home Once Again; 6) She Is Love; 7) Northern Lights; 8) A Song For All Seasons.
From now on, the name 'Renaissance' hardly fits the band. 'Stagnation' or 'Dark Ages' would be a better title, actually, but who wants to admit his ship is sinking even when it is? Formally, all the trademarks are still there - orchestra, classicism, highly emotional vocals, 'heavenly' piano and acoustic guitar and everything that made Renaissance Renaissance. But I'll be damned if even a single tune out of the first six is memorable or has any dang life potential at all. As an experiment, I actually sat through this one three times in a row - and I'm still scratching my head in surprise and disappointment.The first two cuts are not bad in the traditional sense, but they are, how you say, manneristic - copying the superficial elements of the band and totally forgetting the substance. 'Opening Out' has a pompous orchestral introduction and a short pathetic vocal section, but what of it? There are no melodies to speak of! And 'The Day Of The Dreamer', running for ten bloody minutes, is their least inspired and most forgettable stab at an epic. The instrumental sections are disjointed and bleak, the melodies are primitive, and even Annie herself sounds tired and out of breath. And towards the end of the song, there again starts to appear a poor ABBAesque smell that only makes me sigh about the good old days. Beh. The next four songs are hardly any better. Particular low points include the banal pop schlocker 'Kindness (At The End)', the kind of song I'd probably expect from the Carpenters, and - oh horror! - the band's attempt at sounding like Brian Wilson in 'She Is Love', a kind of rainbowy-sugary ballad with Beach Boys-style vocal harmonies and an effect that can only be compared to eating too much brown sugar. I guess I must be a little biased against the songs as it is not Annie who takes lead vocals; problem is, 'Closer Than Yesterday' and 'Back Home Once Again' are hardly better. Okay, better - they don't make me cringe. 'Closer Than Yesterday' is actually pretty good, another Beach Boys stylization that works this time, with some sublime call-and-answer echoey vocal harmonies. But even so, the songs are anything but memorable, and there's not even an ounce of real passion that can be felt. This leaves us, more or less, with two good songs - and you have to wait for them, as they only come last. Smart move, dudes. 'Northern Lights' was their only Top 10 hit in the charts, and a deserved one: probably the best 'pure pop' song of Renaissance, it reminds me of ABBA again, but this time in a good light: the vocal melody is strong and catchy, and Annie delivers the goods in an upbeat, almost raunchy tone, just like the Swedish girls, heh heh. Rumours say that it was Roy Wood (of Move fame) who pushed Annie to these 'heights', and it was a bold and a foolish decision all at once: it worked this time, it wouldn't work later on. Anyway, 'Northern Lights' is a really cool one. That punchy Dunford acoustic, the gruff Camp bass, and a solid power pop melody, what else would you want? A shame they didn't care to write some more material like this. And finally, there's the title track, another trademark 'epic', and better than almost anything else on here. It has not even a smudgeon of past beauties, though: rambling, incoherent, uninteresting lyrically, shallow melodically, and again, totally passionless. Like, I mean, totally, little dude. But at least there's enough pomp and skill to make it highly professional. Strange enough, my favourite part this time is the two or three minute introduction: while I usually dislike Renaissance's instrumental parts, here it's the curious little rhythms and band interplay in the song's beginning that really set the scene. There's even a fast, pseudo-boogie bit: a song for all seasons indeed. And, well, the main theme is supportable, and somewhere towards the last seconds I even manage to get a little emotional uplift. Sometimes. If I really, really try to tune in; otherwise, I just drift away (you know what I mean, doncha?) So, in comparison, it's good. Absolute shite, of course, but still good. Maybe I'd even go as far as to include it on my personal 'greatest hits' collection, with a little editing, of course. Oh. I forgot to mention one more thing. I don't think I ever mentioned in the previous reviews that Renaissance never really used synthesizers before: there are little synth bits now and then (on 'Rajah Khan' there's a synth solo; and I think there are some synths down at the heart of Novella, though I can't remember exactly where), but overall, they were purists - like Queen, you know, only Queen substituted synths with electric guitars, while Renaissance did so with strings. Well, from now on it's all over: this album features synths extensively, and hardly to good effect. Actually, to no effect: they don't really use them as synths, they use them to duplicate or to substitute the real strings and horns, and I can't help but ask the question why. Either their budget was kinda cut short by the lack of sales of Novella, or they were so desperate they were ready to try everything. Well, they did, and I leave you now with a big question mark. ? No, wait, that's a small one. ? Er, that's just a bold one. Okay, I'll leave it as it is, because I hate to increase the font's size and ruin a perfectly smug and cozy little review. Do not buy this album. The All-Music Guide says it's in print, while Scheherazade is not. The dumb friggin' bastards, whoever they are.
READER COMMENTS SECTION
Year Of Release: 1979
Record rating = 5
Overall rating = 8
The transformation has ended, and now they're just a synth-pop band - a pretty professional one, but me not be interested.Best song: JEKYLL AND HYDE
Track listing: 1) Jekyll And Hyde; 2) The Winter Tree; 3) Only Angels Have Wings; 4) Golden Key; 5) Forever Changing; 6) Secret Mission; 7) Kalynda (A Magical Isle); 8) The Discovery; 9) Friends; 10) The Flood At Lyons.
The worst move for Renaissance to do at this time was to Genesis-ize their music, i. e., to make it more consumer-happy and mainstreamish. Unfortunately, that's what they did here; ASFAS was just the ominous precursor, with dreck like 'She Is Love' presaging the catastrophe. The catastrophe itself happened here. The songs have suddenly become short and poppy, the synths finally find themselves at the very centre of the band's sound, and dance rhythms and electronica are in the picture as well. If anything, Renaissance have finally evolved into a direct ABBA clone: with Annie's vocals now clearly in the mould of the Swedish girls and the instrumentation relying on the same elements (keyboards plus acoustic guitar), the resemblance is now complete. The big difference is that Renaissance simply did not have ABBA's talent for creating magnificent pop melodies, and the result? These songs suck! At least half of this album is so bad that I shudder at the thought of someone actually buying it and getting turned off of Renaissance for the rest of his/her life.Of course, as pathetic as it is, there still are some songs that are dang catchy. In fact, if at least some songs off the record lived up to the quality of the opening number, the bouncy, rhythmic 'Jekyll And Hyde', the world would be a sure better place. It sounds nothing like classic Renaissance, of course, but it has a good vocal melody, of all things! Perhaps I'm just wooed over by the song's speed, but there's some real energy going on, and even if nothing in the world will explain me the real reason why the band suddenly turned to this lyrical theme, it still holds its ground as, arguably, the last song of any significant value recorded by the band. But one song doesn't make an album in any case. Most of the other material is slow and ultimately generic - the band tries to make a pop album, dammit, and for some reason they are certain that they'll get through by recycling the same tired generic chords for millions of times over and over. Not to mention that you'll never be able to tell that this is the same Annie Haslam who once sang lead vocals on 'Let It Grow' or 'Prologue': she's evolved into a banal, ordinary pop singerine, not below and not above possibly thousands of other contemporary pop singerines. Romantic numbers like 'The Winter Tree', 'Golden Key' and 'Kalynda (A Magical Isle)' have their little moments of glory, especially in the choruses, but ultimately they're forgettable. Out of these, 'Kalynda' is perhaps the most entertaining, but it's also the one number that walks the most treacherous plank between beauty and cheesiness. I'm still not entirely sure what to make out of it; I suppose I would just have to call it one of those little 'guilty pleasures' you have to be ashamed of, ultimately, but I do enjoy it at times. I have also come around to truly appreciating 'The Winter Tree' - the good news here is that the main melody of the song is actually following the 'folk-prog' formula of old, contrasting with the ABBAesque chorus; but the chorus is ultimately quite catchy and the main melody quite majestic and gorgeous, so count me happy on that one. On the other hand, some of the songs are simply boring - boring to death, like the dreary 'Forever Changing' (where the band didn't even bother to move further away from the standard 1-2-3-4 acoustic strumming or make the main vocal melody come alive with a hook or two) and the dreamy, lethargic 'Friends' with its almost nursery rhyme melody. Camp takes lead vocals on the murky, saccharine 'Only Angels Have Wings', a 'worthy' successor to 'She Is Love' in that it makes me wish I were five feet underground during all of its three or four minutes. But the worst blow comes when the band actually tries to experiment, like on the ridiculous number 'Secret Mission'. They probably thought they hit upon a gold mine there, as the song is kinda weird, with complex time signatures, a 'modernistic' bass riff and an 'avantgarde' coda, but to me, this is simply the proof of their being totally unfit for any other style than the 'classic(al)' one. The song bores the pants off me: it has no emotional resonance whatsoever, and no weird percussion can make it less stale. If you ask me, it reminds me of Genesis' style on And Then There Were Three (not that surprising seeing as they hired the Genesis producer for the album!). Same goes for the pointless, rambling instrumental 'The Discovery', where the band tries to jam a bit around the same lumpy synth rhythms and, yet one more time, proves its total defeat. Aye, this record is indeed bad. Not proverbially bad, and the two or three passable tunes make me raise the rating a bit, plus there's 'Jekyll And Hyde' and 'The Winter Tree', but I can only explain its existence by the fact that these by now banal and primitive dance rhythms and 'novelty' synths did not sound dated at the time. In fact, while the album did not really breathe new life in Renaissance or attract any serious number of new fans (which was probably the main goal), it did not alienate any of the older ones, either. Of course, like it or not, this was the best moment to call it quits, but only Tout and Sullivan realized that. The story goes that Tout was sacked due to 'compromising' behaviour (he actually walked offstage in midconcert once), and Sullivan left because they were close friends. But, if you axe me, it's hardly a coincidence that this occurred after the release of Azure D'Or and not, say, Turn Of The Cards or any other glorious Renaissance album...
READER COMMENTS SECTION
Year Of Release: 1981
Record rating = 6
Overall rating = 9
Trying to put the pretentions and the prog into the synth-pop formula. It's just that the two things are hardly compatible.Best song: FAERIES (LIVING AT THE BOTTOM OF THE GARDEN)
Track listing: 1) Camera Camera; 2) Faeries (Living At The Bottom Of The Garden); 3) Remember; 4) Bonjour Swansong; 5) Tyrant-tula; 6) Okichi-san; 7) Jigsaw; 8) Running Away From You; 9) Ukraine Ways.
This and the following album are ultimately despised and often entirely ignored by hardcore Renaissance fans, and for a good reason. Both the sound and the image are completely different now, and essentially from this time on Renaissance are just a second-rate Eighties' synth-pop band, at times bordering on a first-rate one. Tout and Sullivan are replaced by Peter Gosling and Peter Barron respectively, and this makes a large difference: Gosling firmly grasps hold of the band, putting his synths at the very heart of the band. Now you may say this already happened on the previous album; sure, but the level of cheesiness set by these particular synths is simply unprecedented. Nevertheless, both Gosling and Barron make very fishy 'full-fledged band members': both this and the following album only presents the band as a trio, with Haslam, Camp and Dunford in the picture. And what a picture it is.. eeehh...Still, not all is lost on Camera Camera. To a large extent, this album is still 'progressive', maybe even more so than Azure D'Or. The band has radically shifted its image, but they were still sure they could succeed in marrying their 'classic' sound with the new decade's technical advances - be cool and be artistic at the same time. Poor, naive people: nobody needed their 'artisticity' at all, at a time when the public's tastes were already hopelessly spoiled beyond repair. And this is also the moment when Renaissance ceased to be a guaranteed commercial proposition at all. The older fans, who still had some hope left after the previous record, probably yucked after taking just one look at the album cover; and the supposed 'newer fans' simply didn't bother, because they could easily spend their cash on loads of dumber, more accessible synth-pop bands. Neither Camera nor Time-Line did not sell any significant number of copies, resulting in the band's loss of contract (this is why Renaissance toured for three more years, but never recorded or released anything else). And a pity it was, as both of these albums have their moments, which prevent me from giving any of them a totally condemning rating. The first thing that strikes you when you compare Camera Camera to the earlier records is the suddenly obvious power of Annie's voice. The title track, opening the album, is a fairly primitive pop rocker with a melody that's far too obvious and unimpressive, but who cares? Have you noticed that incredible change of pitch in the second line of each verse? Simply put, you won't ever hear Annie sing anything like that in any other place; and these unbelievably high notes also stamp out any suspicion of the deterioration of Annie's chords over the years - her voice is just as strong and fresh as it was ten years before. Add to this the incredible 'a heart that's ice cooooooooooooooooold' stretch in the middle eight, and you'll never want to get the song out of your headphones again. I sure don't. My hypothesis is that Annie decided to stretch all her abilities to the extreme to prove herself the best singerine in the pop field: and sure enough, her singing on most of the tracks off this record makes both the ABBA girls and Debbie Harry sound like Britney Spears in comparison. Which means that even on some of the weakest tracks, like the pathetic ballad 'Bonjour Swansong' and the ridiculously overblown, stupid 'human rights anthem' 'Tyrant-Tula' her voice alone is enough to make the songs listenable. EVEN if 'Bonjour Swansong' is essentially nothing but an inferior re-write of 'Northern Lights'. On to the favourites, though. I have two on here. The Japanese stylization 'Okichi-San' is very nice, for one; not that it really sounds all that Japanese - the instrumentation is fully European, with the same corny synths and a simple acoustic guitar pattern backing up Annie. But the vocal melody is majestic and very lovely, certainly reminding of Annie's past stately glories like 'Mother Russia' and stuff like that. I could really do without all the pathetic instrumental noodling, though (a major problem of the album as a whole, by the way: I was never a fan of the former Renaissance's instrumental skills - why should I be subjected to sitting through everything Mr Gosling intends to squeeze out of his electronic box? These songs go on for WAY too long!!); just skip the instrumental part and relax to Annie's sweet Japanese singing - yeah, I s'pose she's just singing gibberish, but it's very cool-sounding gibberish. My other favourite is 'Faeries (Living At The Bottom Of The Garden)'. Yup, please don't laugh at me: I know it's just a Eurodance number. But it's sooo driving! I love that grumbly bassline, and I love the way the song alternates between all the different sections - very ABBA-esque, if you axe me. Don't tell me that the refrain on here ain't gorgeous, either. You know how it goes? Annie chants the name of the song twice, in a sweet, romantic tone, and then shifts her tone to a strict, pompous one, singing 'Someone's calling - I am falling, falling..' Dang, you go ahead and try to define 'catchiness'; I've got my current bet for a definition right before my eyes and ears. And the other songs? Err... the other songs are okay, I guess. Some just pass me by, but I do definitely seem to remember that on both 'Jigsaw' and especially 'Ukraine Ways' they try to recapture the old prog vibe again, with little success, I'm afraid. That's a really cool scream that Annie emits at the end of each verse of 'Jigsaw', though... hmm, well, you see, whichever song I'm trying to discuss, I always end up concentrating on the way Ms Haslam sounds on that one. I suppose, then, that if I were to take these melodies as instrumental tunes, I'd have to give the album a two or three. Come to think of it, Renaissance were always a vocal-oriented band. Let me correct that, then: if I were to take these melodies without taking Annie's particular voice into account, I'd have to give the album a four or five. At max. As it is, it gets an overall nine. Lesson number one: if you're planning to make a shitty synth-pop record, first thing you gotta do is find yourself an impressive chick with a five-octave range. Preferrably trained in the classics. And please buy the record if you ever find it in a used bin; I'd hate to see it lost forever without hopes of ever seeing the counters once again.
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Year Of Release: 1983
Record rating = 5
Overall rating = 8
Mostly boring Eighties' synth-pop, but hardly as offensive as it could have been.Best song: CHAGRIN BOULEVARD
Track listing: 1) Flight; 2) Missing Persons; 3) Chagrin Boulevard; 4) Richard IX; 5) The Entertainer; 6) Electric Avenue; 7) Majik; 8) Distant Horizons; 9) Orient Express; 10) Auto-tech.
Yuck! Just look at that album cover! THAT's Annie Haslam? The cute little 'peasant-type girl from the country' singing majestic folk-prog ballads? Forget it! This is Renaissance Mark II firmly falling into place. Where Camera Camera still tried to put the 'progressiveness' at the heart of the band's firmly established pop image, Time-Line is a record consisting entirely of uptempo, Europop dance music. Originally I was simply afraid to put this record on: both the crappy outtakes album Songs From Renaissance Days which I'd heard previously and the definitely uninspiring, to say the least, album cover (Annie updating her makeup for the 'cool' Eighties? Dunford and Camp styled a la Duran Duran? Ehhh...) were turning me off so much that only my crazed completism and the miserable price I had to pay convinced me of acquiring this.But you know what? It ain't actually bad! It certainly isn't good, and it's probably far less experienced and thought-provoking than loads of similar pop stuff from the epoch, but much of the material is listenable. The main problem, of course, is the horrible monotonousness: practically every song follows the same programmed pattern, with hi-tech synths setting the background, electronically enhanced drums (some of which are still played live, though) setting the beat and occasional 'heavenly-toned' electric guitars destined to move the casual listener to catharsis. Sure, sure, we all know that formula, don't we? We who actually lived through the decade, I mean... But once you've sat through the record a couple of times and are able to take a short peep behind the formula, you'll be able to actually distinguish some genuine lovely pop melodies. Of course, nobody really needs a third-rate ABBA, and if you're a big fan of Europop and stuff like that, stay away from the record and go get the true masters of the genre instead. However, if you're a Renaissance fan, this is a good opportunity to broaden the horizons and try to appreciate your favourite heroes (more exactly, heroine) in a totally new emploi. Moreover, the good news is that Annie's voice is showing absolutely no signs of decline: the trusty range is firmly in place, and Annie is definitely not afraid to demonstrate it. Most of the best stuff on this album is hidden somewhere in the middle, with 'Chagrin Boulevard', 'Richard IX' and 'The Entertainer' being my personal favourites and, in fact, the only songs from the album that could be considered as minor classics for Renaissance, fit for inclusion on any possible anthology. Out of these, 'Entertainer' is probably the only song that still conveys that old marvelous feel of the old days, with Camp playing some real piano, adding fresh, tinkling, beautiful lines, and Annie singing a typical folk-prog melody that culminates in the amazing refrain 'music calls - come and see, come and see, come and see' with each new 'come and see' being sung in a higher pitch, much like the powerful 'Scheherazade' refrain eight years ago. The guitar/synth breaks kinda spoil all my fun by actually reminding me that 'hey, this is still the new Renaissance, boy, don't hold your head that high', but I'll probably take my revenge by copying the song onto tape and editing that break out. Hah! On the other hand, 'Richard IX' is exactly the opposite, and a song that ABBA would probably be proud of somewhere around 1974 but would have discarded somewhere around 1977. It's good, still, even if a bit lightweight even for this album; but the poppy, funny, bouncy melody and the vocal harmonies are prime Europop, and the catchy refrain ('what we're gonna do with Richard... Richard the Nine') is stuck in my head so firmly I guess I'll just have to go and put on some T. Rex to forget it. The storyline of the song is kinda strange, though: why Richard the Nine, I wonder? Didn't they realize there were only three King Richards in Britain? 'Richard IV' would be a far more suitable name, I guess, if they really wanted to make a fictitionary tale about a fictitious king. The honour of being the best song on the album, still, should probably go to 'Chagrin Boulevard', a nostalgic love song with a sad, moody melody and a great, soothing vocal delivery from Annie: the chorus to the song is one of the few cases in the world when a female voice manages to sound chockful of 'honey' and absolutely not vulgar at the same time. When Camp suddenly takes over backing vocals, it's like a jackknife in the back, but, thankfully, the moment is too short to truly spoil the subtle charm of the song. Unfortunately, I really can't go on blabbing like that about the rest of the album. Looking at the three decent songs I've highlighted, I see now that, once again, they are mostly distinguishable due to these amazing vocals. None of the other songs really stress Annie's talents that much. And when Camp takes lead vocals, as on the closing pop rocker 'Autotech', the effect is downright disgusting. Plus, too much of the songs are simply spineless - a lot of generic synth noodling around half-baked or totally vague melodies. In fact, the entire second half of the album is totally dismissable, with next to no hooks and no edge to the music at all - nothing to really sing along to or to have your attention drawn. 'Majik', 'Distant Horizons', 'Orient Express' - one borefest after another, with nary an attractive musical element in sight. Like I said, they aren't particularly offensive - commercially oriented, yes, but at least they're trying to find a good groove, and at least they're not over-sappy or over-sentimental or, God forbid, over-macho (if it's Camp we're speaking of). No fluff like 'She Is Love', either. Just boredom and boredom and boredom. 'Distant Horizons' might try to take its place as an updated version of 'Northern Lights', but it's bound to fail. Anyway - what the hell made the band think it could really survive as an Eighties' Europop combo? The endless pursuit of commercial success? The search for 'new horizons'? Annie's egotistic ambitions? Huh? Yeah, Time-Line is a much more experienced pop album than Azure D'Or, I'll admit that; in four years, the band managed to learn the bases of modernistic pop music, and their lust for creating catchy melodies is worthy of appraisal, even if it is rarely satisfied. But if there ever was a band whose image was totally incompatible with the image of a power pop combo, it'd be Renaissance. Strange world we're living in. No wonder, then, that Time-Line was their last record; the band did carry on as a live unit for several more years, but at least we're lucky to not have received that Potential Dreadful Adult Pop 1986 Record from them, like we did from Genesis and Eric Clapton and Paul McCartney and the like. We did, however, get a kinda nasty souvenir from this line-up a decade later...
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Year Of Release: 1997
Record rating = 3
Overall rating = 6
A collection of crappy outtakes that present the band as an adult pop, dance-oriented outfit.Best song: AMERICA
Track listing: 1) Africa; 2) Dreamaker; 3) Northern Lights; 4) No Beginning No End; 5) Only When I Laugh; 6) The Body Machine; 7) Writers Wronged; 8) Island Of Avalon; 9) America; 10) You.
Apparently, all the long and empty nights after the band had finally split in 1987, its members were struggling in their sleep, unable to get rid of the thought that something was left unsaid. With this 1997 release containing ten studio outtakes, mostly dating to the early Eighties, Haslam and Co. were free from their nightmares once again; unfortunately, the nightmares now obsess me. Truthfully, I can't think of anybody but Rod Stewart to compare to this: such a terrible, terrible downfall. Out of these ten songs, only about two or three are at all listenable. The rest is just what they were starting to experience on Azure D'Or - mind you, only starting. Time-Line is like the Ninth Symphony compared to this; apparently, the process of 'learning how to lose face with dignity' was not an easy one, and, for some reason, the band has decided to show us not only its behind, but its faeces as well. Most of this is typical Eighties' dance fodder: you're seduced on first listen, then feel guiltiness streaming all over your body. To think that this was the ensemble that once recorded Prologue... ah, no, get that out of the way. Or I'll just have to give the album a one or two.Why anybody really should need this collection is way beyond me. One reason I can think of: towards the end, there is a beautiful, absolutely gorgeous cover of Simon's 'America' (why is it that everybody covered that song?) Annie's vocals fit the style perfectly, and, even if the song should have been sung from a man's perspective, it was a wise choice not to give it to Camp. But in any case, this is just a cover, and it's hardly possible to butcher such an already perfect song. Out of the originals, one should only pay attention to a crappy disco remake of 'Northern Lights' (at least the initial version was good) and, perhaps, the guitar-happy shiny little ditty called 'Island Of Avalon' (not to be confused with Roxy Music's 'Avalon'). Here my praises end. The rest of the album is, once again, totally ABBAesque: only this time it sounds not just like a third-rate ABBA, it sounds like crappy rejected outtakes of a third-rate ABBA. Do not be surprised by the opening weird African rhythms and African chanting, and don't suspect the band of 'weird experimental approaches': it's just a gimmicky intro to 'Africa', a lame disco love song. I think I really won't be going into details over all this bad stuff, as I don't want to end my reviews of this truly (once) worthy band with such a pile of dogshit, but I'll just mention the 'highlights'. For one, there's Renaissance's ultimate low point - the atrocious, vomit-inducing piece of 'sexy' muzak called 'The Body Machine' (ooh, what a sleazy title). If you've ever imagined how it would be like to see Sharon Stone or Nicole Kidman to star in a hardcore porno movie, well, just check out this song and compare it to, I don't know, 'A Trip To The Fair' or 'Things I Don't Understand'. You'll get to feel the difference. Second, even when they go for a slower, more 'introspective' kind of song, like the stately stomp of 'Only When I Laugh', they sound just as generic and forgettable: ABBA sure wrote better songs than that. And third, the album closes with - hah! - an 'epic': the eight minute torture of 'You', a hymn to lost love and hi-tech synthesizers. The band tries to pass it for serious 'progressive' music, but it doesn't even qualify as a half-decent pop song. The slow intro goes off okay, but then we break off into more Hot Dance Rhythms and various stinking garbage that turns me off completely. Terrible. Never, I repeat, never, never buy this album. Let us simply pretend it never existed. This is as terrible a blow for the band's reputation as could only be, and it makes me seriously wonder whether the two post-Tout albums were really written and performed by the same band: Time-Line is far more interesting and original musically, and I blame this album, which I bought first, for turning me off Time-Line for a few months (until I finally got brave and grabbed it with closed eyes and clenched teeth). Of course, these songs are only outtakes, but alas, too often it is that the outtakes represent the band's true state of soul and mind at the time. In general, it makes me wonder: is it really an inevitable process that a band is bound to ruin its image and profanize its legacy if it carries on for too long? Just look how the 'lighter', 'folkier' prog rock bands like Renaissance or Genesis gradually got bogged down in generic, tasteless pop, while the 'heavier' prog rock bands like Yes or Jethro Tull gradually succumbed to the pressures of generic, murky heavy metal (I'm speaking of the Rabin-led Yes, you understand). If the tendency is indeed general, what a pity that the bands themselves weren't aware of it and only understood when it was too late. This is actually the reason for a certain improvement in the old bands' sound at the end of the Nineties: Yes, Tull, the Moody Blues all came up with records that at least partially correct the older mistake. How I wish Renaissance were to reform and record another Ashes Are Burning! Poor stupid me.
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Year Of Release: 2001
Record rating = 7
Overall rating = 10
A nice exercise in nostalgia, but I guess we're not in Renaissance anymore. Look at the date!Best song: EVA'S POND
Track listing: 1) Lady From Tuscany; 2) Pearls Of Wisdom; 3) Eva's Pond; 4) Dear Landseer; 5) In The Sunshine; 6) In My Life; 7) The Race; 8) Dolphin's Prayer; 9) Life In Brazil; 10) One Thousand Roses.
We all knew there would gonna be a reunion. All prog bands reunite eventually, and Renaissance was no exception. Nobody ever noticed this album, of course, because if there's ONE style of music that's totally "irrelevant" (what a dirty word) today, it's the Renaissance style. Not even the All-Music Guide bothered to write a review, because their Renaissance experts are probably long dead and gone. But here's the trusty old me, always willing to help some good old friends in need. You need promotion? Only Solitaire to the rescue!Here's one word: if you are a diehard Renaissance fanatic, run, don't walk to wherever you can and grab this record before it completely fades away into oblivion. Tuscany is, for the most part, the product of collaboration between Annie and Dunford (John Tout is actually credited for piano, too, on some of the tracks, but not on all of them), and instead of aping their questionable Eighties synth-pop style, they went straight for the real meat: trying to recapture the classic Seventies sound. Acoustic guitars, classical pianos, baroque vocal melodies, everything. Now that the Eighties are gone, it's like this illusion of "moving along with the times" has finally disappeared, and they start realizing that artistic reasons should have urged them to cling to their idiosyncratic style. And I was really shocked at how authentic this stuff sounded. Man! I really have a hard time... I think only Caravan, with Battle Of Hastings, had managed previously to emulate the sound of the Seventies to a tee while actually working in the Nineties. Tuscany adds another glorious emulation example: just about any of these songs could have been easily taken for an obscure 1977 outtake. I just revel in the overall sound - tinkling gorgeous pianos, acoustic guitars a-plenty, not a friggin' hi-tech synth in sight, lush orchestration where necessary, and in addition to that, Annie hasn't lost a thing in years. Okay, I guess maybe she can't hit her highest notes that well in 2001, but she doesn't really try to do that. It's only later on that I slowly start realizing how unsubstantial this stuff really is. Once the original shock has passed, it becomes clear that the songs don't really stick with you. Classic Renaissance always knew that a tasteful arrangement was only the shell, within which they were placing cleverly constructed, beautiful, memorable vocal melodies. I don't see any memorable vocal melodies on here; apparently, it took them so much pain and effort to come up with the shell that they never really took significant care of the yolk within. There's also no sharpness, and no real energy; in older days, the band would really kick ass, like, say, on the instrumental section of 'Ashes Are Burning', here all the songs run very smoothly, with no ups and downs, no highs or lows, and when there are no highs and lows, there's very little entertaining power. Oh sure, sometimes a song might start all slow and quiet and then become all loud and orchestrated, but somehow it all comes off as very predictable and - sometimes - even bland. Still, one can't deny the album a certain dose of intrigue. The first six songs are pretty much all in the same style and vein, THAT style and vein. My favourite song in that section is 'Eva's Pond', where Annie's vocal melody at the beginning is perhaps the best reminiscence of how breathtakingly gorgeous classic Renaissance could have been. It actually seems to borrow a few chords from 'Ashes Are Burning', or at least creates a feeling of solemn sorrow very similar to the one you can experience while listening to 'Ashes Are Burning'. The folksy, bouncy 'Dear Landseer' with its uplifting orchestration and powerful brass/piano/orchestra coda, is also a highlight. 'Lady From Tuscany' and 'Pearls Of Wisdom' are much further from being memorable, but are also beautiful in their own way, or, rather, in their well-known way... God, they really know how to bring that vibe back. Geez, I envy you, diehard Renaissance fans, you must have thought you died and went to heaven when you first plopped this in your CD player. So count this as a weak 8, I guess, brought down to a 7 by the last four tracks - the 'experimental' part of the album. 'The Race' is the only song on here where they actually decided to ape the synth-pop style instead - a fast synth-pop rocker with rather stupid lyrics (actually, since they didn't find it useful to bother Betty Thatcher for the album - I don't know if she's still alive or not - most of the lyrics are rather trite, but to hell with that). It's okay, but really, if this is supposed to be a nostalgia piece, bring out the real nostalgia, don't bring in the synth-pop nostalgia. 'Dolphin's Prayer' is a rhythmless prayer-form chant with backing vocals from Roy Wood (!) that does absolutely nothing. 'Life In Brazil' brings in Latin rhythms (it's based on Annie's actual experiences, and if I'm not mistaken, she even has had a solo album out called Under Brazilian Skies or something like that) and sounds pretty stupid. And finally, the seven-minute 'epic' closer 'One Thousand Roses' is dippy, sacchariney and hookless as well. So the record doesn't manage to end on a particularly glorious note - all the same, disregard my criticisms if you're longing for more "classic-sounding" Renaissance material. It probably couldn't get any better than this, you know. They're old, they're no longer inspired by their age or by the musical atmosphere around. In this situation, it's amazing that Tuscany came out as well as it did.
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I have not the least intention of reviewing any of Renaissance's innumerable members' solo careers; that's something for the bearded archivist to do. However, I will make an exception for Illusion, a band that was more than a 'Renaissance tribute band': it was actually a 'daughter enterprise' of Renaissance, much like Anderson, Bruford, Wakeman & Howe were a 'daughter enterprise' of Yes.Actually, to a certain extent Illusion were Renaissance: the bulk of this short-lived band consisted of Jim McCarty, John Hawken, Jane Relf and Louis Cennamo, i. e. the (in)famous Renaissance Mark 1. Unfortunately, Keith Relf couldn't participate in the project, as he was electrocuted in his own house in 1976, but I'm pretty sure he would have joined the gang otherwise. Apart from the 'core' of the band, they had also complemented it with guitarist John Knightsbridge and drummer Eddie McNeil (McCarty himself rarely drummed - he mostly sang and wrote), and the scene was set. Illusion released but two albums in the late Seventies, curiously, at the very time when the actual Haslam/Tout/Camp Renaissance was starting to fall into serious decline - albums that more or less picked up where Illusion the 1971 album left off, and both are pretty interesting, especially the first one. However, neither seemed to have much commercial success, and the band steadily dispersed by the time of recording of their third and last record. Unreleased at the time, it saw the light of the day but recently, and I'm still looking for it. None of their albums seem to be in print currently, be it the USA or Europe, but both have been issued on a 'limited edition' CD in Russia, and that's what I am reviewing right now. If you see an old vinyl copy or something like that, be sure to pick it up: Illusion is really a fine and very curious 'alternative' for the classic Renaissance, showing the way the band might have developed under different circumstances.
Year Of Release: 1977
Overall rating = 12
Excellent blend of classical, folk & prog, and some of this rocks, unlike 'classic' Renaissance.Best song: FACE OF YESTERDAY
Track listing: 1) Isadora; 2) Roads To Freedom; 3) Beautiful Country; 4) Solo Flight; 5) Everywhere You Go; 6) Face Of Yesterday; 7) Candles Are Burning.
An excellent beginning, and easily the best 'prog' album of 1977, without any efforts nudging out both Jethro Tull's Songs From The Wood and Genesis' Wind & Wuthering, not to mention Renaissance's own Novella. Funnily, though, it seems as if the band had been caught in a time warp: the album sounds like a completely natural sequel to Illusion, a record that came out a whole six years ago. So it's no wonder that the best track off Illusion gets repeated on here: it's 'Face Of Yesterday', one of the band's signature tunes. They don't vary the arrangement too much, though: I'd even bet they used the same basic track, editing out some guitars and backing vocals for the listener to fully concentrate on Jane Relf's magnificent vocals. I'm not really sure whether it was that necessary to duplicate the song, considering that the band were by no means short on new material; even so, it's certainly the most impressive song on the whole record.Not that the others are far worse or anything. They do sound a bit close to the 'classic' Renaissance, but there are some serious differences, as well. One of the most serious ones is that Renaissance Mark 1/Illusion never relied so heavily on folk patterns; they preferred to mostly draw their inspiration from classical music, throwing in a few rock reminiscences from the Yardbirds' past (after all, don't forget that Jim McCarty used to play in a rough'n'tough Psycho Blues Rock band in his better days!) Therefore, this presumes (a) John Hawken's swirling classical piano parts and (b) John Knightsbridge's impressive guitar fills on many of the songs. Unlike Renaissance, Illusion were never as 'purist-oriented', and they were never afraid to throw in a gentle, or even a distorted, guitar part if they felt it fitted in the mood. Synthesizers are also prominent, but moderately: they pop up much more often than with 'classic' Renaissance, but they never dominate the sound or smell of cheese as with 'late' Renaissance. And, by the way, the band usually prefers the Mellotron. The record is brilliantly constructed, too. The songs never run for far too long, and the more lengthy, 'epic' numbers are wisely interspersed with simpler, poppier ballads, making the album seem more diverse and involving. And, of course, the most essential thing is that most of the songs are swell, fully displaying the rich potential of McCarty's songwriting (he wrote all of the seven numbers, collaborating with John Hawken on a few). The record is 'framed' by two gorgeous odes: 'Isadora' and 'Candles Are Burning'. 'Isadora' presents itself as a melancholic, depressing number, graced by Jim's mournful singing and the band's tear-inducing vocal harmonies; and the guitar solos will tear your heart right out of your chest, especially if you ever lost a love or two. 'Candles Are Burning', on the other hand, starts out as a desperate, ferocious rocker, with Hawken and Knightsbridge duelling on their instruments and the latter engaging in more awesome solos, until the song suddenly subsides into a slow, solemn, optimistic, spirit-lifting (and album-closing) hymn. It's unclear if the song was conceived as a special 'counterpoint' to Renaissance's 'Ashes Are Burning', but if so, it acts as an almost cheerful, optimistic opposition to the dark, creepy pessimism of 'Ashes'. And the very fact gladdens my heart, you know, the poor heart yearning for something cheerful at long last. Elsewhere, Jim gets to sing lead vocals on the strangest number on the record - the somewhat more hard-rockin' 'Solo Flight'. I'd probably never have paid much attention to the song were it not for the awesome wah-wah line on the chorus: each time Jim chants his 'you gotta get out on your solo flight' refrain, Knightsbridge complements his voice with a scary, howling wah-wah lead that sounds completely out of this world. And his mad wah-wah solo in the mid-section bleeds so hard you'd hardly expect something like that on a 'Renaissance family album'. But that's fine by me, I love surprises. The other three songs on here are a bit blander - three slightly sugary ballads with diluted melodies that at times border on generic ('Everywhere You Go'), but are always saved by at least three factors. First, I simply can't resist Jane Relf's vocals; like I said, she might be far less technically gifted than Annie, but her vocals gain in humanistic emotion and pure beauty where Annie gains in skilfullness and range. Second, I simply can't say a bad thing about the arrangements: the pianos, the strings, and the guitars all sound completely in place, never a missed or an unnecessary note, never an occasion to be disappointed or annoyed. And third, they're all so moody and inviting you to share the 'Unbelievable World Of Fantasy' that I really don't mind. It's been half a month now that I've been listening to this, and I still can't memorize 'Roads To Freedom' or 'Beautiful Country', but each time they burst into the speakers I feel so good, I could scream and shout... In brief, The Steering Committee comes up with the following resume: the very fact that the album is out of print and does not seem to be available on CD anywhere but in Russia is one of the greatest crimes of taste against 'progressive rock'. Please scan the Web for used LP stores to find it; I'd even ask you to make some CDRs and distribute them illegally, but I'm afraid that would be breaking the law. Therefore, I give you the warning: please do not transfer this music on CDRs and do not distribute it illegally. DO NOT BREAK THE LAW! (And do not throw me in the thorn bush, either).
READER COMMENTS SECTION
Year Of Release: 1978
Overall rating = 9
Some fascinating tunes on here, but the atmosphere is simply not too friendly.Best song: MADONNA BLUE
Track listing: 1) Madonna Blue; 2) Never Be The Same; 3) Louis' Theme; 4) Wings Across The Sea; 5) Cruising Nowhere; 6) Man Of Miracles; 7) The Revolutionary.
Eeeeh... Not as good. They're starting to move towards lengthier, more complicated and twisted patterns, and they're much too often neglecting their main strength (vocal harmonies), concentrating on instrumental sections and 'moods'. In other words, they're mostly replicating the main error of Renaissance itself: being ruined by ambitions. Seven songs on here, too, but most of them are just nowhere near as thrilling as before. Hardcore prog lovers will probably love it; me, I'm a bit more moderate and I say yawn.Of course, the awesome start of this album has nothing to do with the ensuing mediocrity. 'Madonna Blue' is Illusion par excellence, maybe I'd even go as far as to call it the band's absolute peak: a stunning ballad of incredible power and conviction. Particularly impressive is the contrast between the main vocal section of the song, a great showcase for the band's harmonies, and the desperate tragedy of the instrumental section, totally dominated by John Knightsbridge's weeping guitar solo. While the song lacks a certain 'hidden charm' that lies at the heart of several of their other tunes, most notably 'Face Of Yesterday', it's inarguably their most powerful statement. And no better way to follow it than with a mellow folkish acoustic ballad - 'Never Be The Same', with a delicious, catchy melody and such a warm feeling all around it that it makes you forget all the passion and torture in a moment. If released as the two sides of a single, this would be the Ultimate Prog Single of all time. (Actually, 'Madonna Blue' was released as a single, backed with 'Everywhere You Go' - a slightly worse choice, as the song is somewhat sappier and poppier, but I guess it did work anyway). And that's about it. Now I don't really want to say that there's nothing worthwhile coming in after these two songs. But truthfully, the next five tracks sound to me as pale, insipid outtakes from earlier sessions. 'Louis' Theme' drags on for nearly eight minutes, during all of which it is based on a nagging bass line copped from some classical piece. Not even Jane's beautiful vocals can save the composition: it's essentially mood music, and I'd better go listen to a real classical composition than have to endure the brain-muddling monotonousness of the composition for minutes on end. By the way, the song seems to have earned Louis Cennamo his sole writing credit in the band. He couldn't have harmed his reputation in a better way. Aaarrggh. That's just the beginning. 'Wings Across The Sea'? Sucks. I'm out of inspiration by the time I write this review ('scuse me please if you'll catch me repeating the same things over and over and over, as I simply ran out of English words on the way), so I'll just say that 'Wings Across The Sea' sucks. Mood music, again, with a lot of angelic harmonies and all, but either I'm just getting tired or it's them that start getting repetitive and, well, simplistic. The melody is way too simplistic for me, and it's me who says that! Hey, I actually gave From Genesis To Revelation an eleven! And have you heard the robotic synth beat of 'Cruising Nowhere'? Yuck. For some reason, they decided to give the song a harsh electronic treatment which puts it completely out of place on the album. And the chorus sounds as if it were ripped off of Blind Faith's 'Do What You Like' (not an ideal comparison, if you have no idea what I'm talking about). The idea was apparently to produce a disturbing, apocalyptic track that would update the vibe of Renaissance's 'Kings And Queens' for the late Seventies, but it only succeeds partly. Man, I hate these laser blasts in the middle of the song. Maybe they were planning on upgrading to the status of a technopop band in the future? Thanks Goodness they disbanded, then... 'Man Of Miracles' is a strange one: an old ballad written by McCarty, Hawken and Keith Relf himself - before he died, I think, though I'm not really sure. And once again it's simply mood music, all based around a pretty little 'pattern' with a glockenspiel imitation and the band's harmonies. The synths and echoey vocals make the track sound particularly dark, darker than anything else on here, but darkness is one thing and impressive darkness is another. This here darkness is anything but impressive; Brian Eno would not be honoured. Finally, they drag the album to a close with 'The Revolutionary', a song that stands true to its title, as it forms a (presumably) rousing climax to the whole listening experience. But Jim McCarty fails to shatter my senses with his shaking, insecure vocals this time (maybe it would be a better idea to handle the track over to Jane), and rousing, hurly-burly climaxes are really not Illusion's forte. Not to mention the near-ambient coda... ...wait a minute. If you're going to condemn me, refrain. The album is not at all bad. I just feel that, like in the case of Scheherazade, the band made the mistake of breaking the catchiness/pomp balance in this case in favour of pomp. There are nasty synth embarrassments. There are insecure attempts at ambient. There's but one impressive guitar solo - on 'Madonna Blue'. There's also only one true Jane Relf showcase, and accidentally it's 'Louis' Theme'. What a bummer. What a shame. Only their second album, and they're giving it up. Nevertheless, buy it still if you see it, if only for the totally incomparable 'Madonna Blue'.
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