Album Reviews

Issue 2019-039

Renaissance - A Song For All Seasons

Renaissance - A Song For All Seasons
Country of Origin
Year of Release
1978 / 2019
69:17, 47:39, 55:30
CD 1: Opening Out (4:16), Day Of The Dreamer (9:43), Closer Than Yesterday (3:19), Kindness (At The End) (4:48), Back Home Once Again (3:16), She Is Love (4:13), Northern Lights (4:07), A Song For All Seasons (11:00); bonus material: Northern Lights (promotional single edit) (3:31), Day Of The Dreamer (1978 BBC session) (9:53), Midas Man (1978 BBC session) (3:50), The Vultures Fly High (1978 BBC session) (2:53), Northern Lights (Top Of The Pops version) (4:23)
CD 2, Live At The Tower Theater, Philadelphia, 4 December 1978 (part 1): Can You Understand (14:53), Carpet Of The Sun (3:54), Things I Don't Understand (9:47), Opening Out (4:21), Day Of The Dreamer (10:23), Midas Man (4:20)
CD 3, Live At The Tower Theater, Philadelphia, 4 December 1978 (part 2): Northern Lights (4:33), A Song for All Seasons (11:02), Touching Once Is So Hard To Keep (12:27), Ashes Are Burning (27:27)

Back in 1978, as a young teenager, watching Top Of The Pops on a Thursday evening was a ritual not to be missed. There was always the hope that something decent would make an appearance. Usually, it was a forlorn hope but one evening in July something caught my ears, and eyes, when a band called Renaissance hit the screen with a song called Northern Lights. What a voice! Although not the typical sort of music I would have been attracted to at the time (I was more into heavy guitar rock in those days) there was just something about the song, the band, the singer. Besides, it blew away everything else on the programme that night, particularly Father Abraham and The Smurfs!

Although Northern Lights was the biggest commercial success the band had achieved, it wasn't that representative of their more usual, proggy-folk style and was only written when their then label, Warner Brothers, wanted a song that could be released as a single. The group, always more of an album band, were not that concerned with becoming pop stars, and at the time that the song was released, they were touring in the US where, up to that point, most of their success had been achieved. Indeed, in some areas of America they could sell-out 3,000-seater theatres in their own right. They were also a reliable support act at bigger venues for an astonishingly diverse range of headliners, sharing the bill with the likes of Kiss, ZZ Top, Blue Öyster Cult, Chick Corea, and The Eagles.

In an effort to increase their profile in their home country, the band asked for David Hentschel as a producer, primarily because of the success he had achieved with Genesis, and Warner Brothers were happy to acquiesce, no doubt thinking of the potential rewards if Renaissance could successfully attract a more mainstream audience.

The plan was a success, with the album eventually selling over 60,000 copies in the UK and hitting the top 40 for the first time in the band's career, largely on the success of the single. What the new audience thought of the rest of the album is a matter of conjecture, as Northern Lights was rather an anomaly. The signature sound of the band did not really change under the Hentschel's guidance, although it did see the introduction of more synthesisers and the return of electric guitar to expand on the previously dominant 'unplugged' pairing of piano and acoustic guitar. Of course the trademark orchestrations were still present, this time provided by The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra.

The stupendous Opening Out kicks things off in great style, with the orchestra providing a luscious blend with the band, and echoing Haslam's vocal melody line. The vocals are stupendous, which Haslam credits her then partner Roy Wood for improving, during his production of her solo album from the previous year (which is long overdue a reissue).

Day Of The Dreamer keeps the standards high. The orchestration is a real highlight of a fantastic song that has plenty of prog elements within its 10-minute playing time.

There are two ballads on the album. Closer Than Yesterday is mostly acoustic with the focus firmly on Haslam's vocals, where she backs herself with aplomb, singing contrasting lead lines to perfection. She Is Love is largely just the orchestra, with only John Tout's piano added. The epic score was written with Haslam in mind and would have been superb had she actually sang the song. However, a personal crisis prevented her from getting to the studio on the day the vocals had to be recorded. Jon Camp substituted for her and he really is not up to the job. Strange then, that his other lead vocal piece, Kindness (At The End) works rather well, probably because of the more muscular backing and more extensive use of multi-tracking. Nice organ as well.

Back Home Once Again was actually a commission for a TV series called The Paper Lads which was screened between 1977 and 1979, making it the first song from the album to have an airing. With a lovely chorus, the song certainly fits on the album but suffers somewhat from not really having a great conclusion. It just fades out. Ideal for the TV series but a bit disappointing for the album listener.

Northern Lights is still a great sing-along number and one that is now synonymous with the band. Hentschel achieved a great drum sound for the album, despite being recorded at three different studios, and the fills throughout, particularly at the beginning and end of this track are very punchy. The band is more to the fore, with the orchestration providing the main backing, except for the rather quirky chorus where an oboe (I think, sounds a bit like a crumhorn though, but they are not standard orchestra instruments!) takes a lead.

The epic title track completes the album on a high. Undoubtedly one of the best Renaissance songs, everything comes together perfectly. Camp's dominant lead bass, a score that is in total harmony with the band, grandiose piano themes and tempo changes. This song has the lot. Quite rightly it has been called a masterpiece.

There are five bonus tracks on the first CD. Of the two extra versions of Northern Lights the first, the single mix is rather superfluous but will keep the completist happy. More interesting is the Top Of The Pops version, which derives from a union ruling, in place at the time. As the BBC did not let the bands sing live on the show's recording, they had to record a whole new version just for the show, and not just mime to the single. Ironically, this version is the longest of the three and is obviously recorded without the orchestra.

This re-recording is probably why the band chose not to include the song in a BBC session recorded in August 1978. Instead, efforts were put into a dramatic version of Day Of The Dreamer with the orchestrations replaced by synths. Both songs work well purely as band numbers, which was fortunate for live shows, even if some of the synth sounds on the latter track are not quite matches for the classical instruments! Drummer Terrence Sullivan gets the plaudits for his performance on this track.

The session also included two shorter tracks, and given there were several on the new album, it is perhaps surprising that they chose two older numbers. Midas Man was a familiar enough live number but this version knocks any in-concert performance I've heard out of the water. Haslam's vocals are astonishing and the tubular bells are a lovely touch. The Vultures Fly High is probably a less well-known song, from 1975's Scheherazade And Other Stories album. The band certainly seem to gallop through the track, but all-in-all it was a great session and well worth having in the collection.

The second and third CDs are of a complete concert recorded at the Tower Theatre in Philadelphia in December 1978. Parts of this concert have previously been released, but this is the first time the whole gig has been released, with almost an extra hour of material.

And what a concert it was! The band are on top form. Opening with the 15-minute Can You Hear Me? gives a statement of intent. The four standout tracks from the latest album, surprisingly two of which, including the brilliant title track, were excluded from the abbreviated live album, were given a live workout. Opening Out suffers the most. Without the orchestral backing, the opening synth sounds rather thin compared with the album's string overture, while Day Of The Dreamer and Northern Lights follow the BBC arrangements. Camp's bass and Sullivan's drums and percussion manage to fill out A Song For All Seasons, so that the missing orchestra is not that obvious. Tout's piano is as good as ever but once again the synths are the weak link. Still, one has to remember that the instruments were not all that technically advanced back then. Closing the concert with the nigh-on 30-minute Ashes Are Burning, (also previously unreleased) shows just how far the band had developed as a unit. Perfection!

So this is an essential reissue for all fans of the band. The bonus material is well worth having. The design and booklet are excellent and the remastering adds a lot of clarity. But one question remains, who is the woman on the album's cover?

Renaissance - Ashes Are Burning

Renaissance - Ashes Are Burning
Country of Origin
Year of Release
1973 / 2019
Can You Understand? (9:55), Let It Grow (4:18), On The Frontier (4:57), Carpet Of The Sun (3:37), At The Harbour (6:50), Ashes Are Burning (11:35); bonus tracks (BBC In Concert, 3 January 1974): Can You Understand? (11:13), Let It Grow (4:54), Ashes Are Burning (12:27)

Although Ashes Are Burning was the fourth Renaissance album in as many years, the band had already seen an incredible 21 musicians pass through its ranks. What is even more surprising is that this band was essentially unchanged from the one that had recorded the previous year's Prologue album, with the exception being guitarist Rob Hendry, who had left the band. A replacement for Hendry was not being sought, as the quartet of Annie Haslam (vocals), John Tout (keyboards), Jon Camp (bass, guitars), and Terry Sullivan (drums) had decided to dispense with electric guitars, and opt for a more refined, pastoral-folk approach.

Most of the album was credited to Michael Dunford and Betty Thatcher, who had also written the songs that appeared on Prologue, although On The Frontier was composed by original drummer and ex-Yardbird Jim McCarty, with lyrics again by Thatcher, and offered to the band prior to the recording sessions. Camp and Tout did contribute to some of the writing, particularly Can You Understand? but, to their annoyance, were uncredited. Despite Dunford's long-standing association with the band, he did not officially join their ranks until after the album was completed, but he did guest on acoustic guitar on several of the tracks.

The album was released on Sovereign records, a short-lived progressive rock imprint of EMI. The label did not have a large roster of acts, the only other band of note being Flash with Peter Banks, although two other albums released in 1973 by the label are certainly worthy of seeking out; Lady Killer by Mouse and the eponymous album by Public Foot The Roman. The involvement of EMI was fortunate, as despite the group's previous releases having been met with very limited commercial success, cash was provided for a string section to play on Can You Understand? and Carpet Of The Sun, a move that had a major influence on the band's sound in coming years.

The style of the album is set, from the opening of Can You Understand? with a piano driving the melody, underpinned by Camp's prominent bass that would give Chris Squire a run for his money. The instrumental introduction could almost be a separate track, as the vocal section that follows is a dramatic change, mainly acoustic guitar and minimal piano.

The piano and orchestral backing then introduces a melody of what was originally thought to be a traditional, and therefore in the public domain, Russian folk song (both Dunford and Haslam claim it was their idea to include the melody after watching the film Doctor Zhivago). The problem was that it was actually an original composition for that film's score by Maurice Jarre (called Tonya And Yuri Arrive at Varykino for all you trivia freaks). When Jarre found out, he was not happy and sued the band for a sack-load of money.

Interestingly, Haslam has stated that she would love to perform this song again but is unaware of what the legal status of the composition is, and if they are allowed to play it. That being said, Jarre's legal action must have been sometime after the release of the album, as the song was still part of the live repertoire until at least the end of 1977. Additionally, although other re-issues have sometimes credited the whole track to Jarre, and others included his name amongst the credits, this new re-release doesn't credit him at all.

Jarre wasn't the only uncredited composer, as At The Harbour both starts and finishes with excerpts from Claude Debussy's La Cathédrale Engloutie, played on solo piano. The middle vocal section, the part written by Renaissance, is largely the same style as on Can You Understand?, acoustic guitar and vocal followed by solo piano. It does work very well though, and Haslam's pure vocals are more than enough to entice and carry any song.

Haslam's remarkable five-octave range is featured on Let It Grow, where the effortless beauty of her singing is a highlight, even when she is just contributing backing vocals, along with Camp and Sullivan, to the end section. It was odd that McCarty offered the band his On The Frontier, as he also recorded and released a version of the song in 1973 with his short-lived band Shoot. The Renaissance version is much the better of the two versions being played at a slower tempo, with an excellent vocal arrangement and a great piano and bass section.

The brief Carpet Of The Sun is an orchestral tour-de-force, with the band largely pushed into the background as the sweeping strings brilliantly echo Haslam's soprano vocal lines. This is another older number that was first attempted when Jane Relf was the singer. Indeed a version with Relf singing the song does exist, which although approximately the same length does squeeze in an extra verse, but then there wasn't an orchestra to contend with.

The album's title track is rightly considered to be a near perfect Renaissance song and one that cements the prog credentials of the band. Dynamic, daring, adventurous and playful, the piece is an absolute classic and deserves a home in every decent music collection. In many ways the success of the song has somewhat eclipsed the rest of the album, as the other tracks are all worthy pieces. The fact that the latest Renaissance release, A Symphonic Journey includes three songs from the album, (and I suspect that would have been four if the legal uncertainty over Can You Understand? had been sorted) shows how important the album is in the band's catalogue.

Three excellent bonus tracks from a feared-lost BBC In Concert broadcast from January 1974 round off the album. All three songs are from the album and comprise the band's whole broadcast (they were supporting Hookfoot). The relative obscurity of the band in the UK is evident from Alan Black's introduction, although he does mention that the band are doing well in America. The performances are flawless and the version of Ashes Are Burning is possibly the best of the numerous live versions they have released over the years.

Album Reviews