Notes from the Edge – A Renaissance

Hello Spirit friends tonight’s edition of Notes from the Edge see’s me looking at a brace of sublime re-issues that came out this year.

Our friends over at Esoteric Recordings are currently working their way through an impressive ‘definitive edition’ remastering of the back catalogue of Renaissance, and the three I’m looking at today are 1972’s Prologue, 1973’s Ashes are Burning & 1978’s A Song for All Seasons.

Prologue

Prologue is the third Renaissance album, released in 1972, and for classic Renaissance fans it is highly regarded as the first album proper following the departure of founder members Jane Relf and John Hawken. Founder member Michael Dunsford decided to stop performing but was more than happy to stay on board as a songwriter and built a new band around the vocals of Annie Haslam, with Terry Sullivan on drums, Jon Camp on bass, Rob Hendry on guitar and John Tout on keyboards. Like Sonja Kristina, Haslam is highly regarded as one of the first ladies of prog, and her distinctive vocals were integral to the Renaissance sound.

Getting the right vocalist in is always key, but there’s no point having a great vocalist if the band can’t keep up. Luckily this line up of Renaissance gelled musically, and with some strong musical performances the album really does flow.

The opener Prologue really sets the scene for the album, with Haslam adding melody to the song rather than the vocals, as she felt it suited the mood better, and with a striking cover, it adds to the aura around the album. With only 6 tracks on the original album, they really have space to grow and build, like the majestic Kiev, or the epic closer Rajah Khan, which features keyboard player Francis Monkman (Curved Air/Sky) adding his unique musical texture to the sound which builds and builds, with its eastern mysticism and blend of traditional rock and folk, it really shows how powerful the band were.

Highly regarded then, and now, this album marked the start of Renaissance as a powerful musical force, and is still as striking and original now, as it was then.

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By the time Ashes were Burning was released the line-up had stabilised around the unique vocals of Annie Haslam, John Tout on keyboards & vocals, Jon Camp on bass, guitar & vocals and Terrence Sullivan on drums, Michael Dunford joined them on acoustic guitar and then rejoined the band after the album was released.

As the band had coalesced round this tight unit, and with the songs composed by Michael Dunford and Betty Thatcher, Ashes are Burning having a stable line-up, and a clear musical direction is part of what makes this album so strong.

The fact that the band build the songs around more acoustic sounds and full orchestration. With the 6 songs on the album, bookended by the two epics Can You understand, and the title track (with a searing guitar solo from Wishbone Ash’s Andy Powell – the two bands being managed by Miles Copeland, and having toured together before) Can You Understand, also ‘borrowed’ an element of a track from the Dr Zhivago soundtrack, which led to the band being sued by composer Maurice Jarre (Annie Haslam having assumed it was a traditional folk song, and loved the melody).

From the strings, and the acoustic folk elements Renaissance really came into their own on this album, and everything about it is classy and with the songwriting and production it sounds timeless.

Annie Haslams voice is always a joy to hear, and as she found her feet within the band, the confidence and security of a stable line up allows her to shine throughout here, her performance on tracks like On the Fontier and Ashes are Burning are sublime.

Also included here for the first time officially released is a BBC Radio One in concert from January 1974, this 30 plus minute section features live versions of Can You Understand, Let it Grow and Ashes are Burning, and it shows just how well the songs translated to the live arena, and how tight a band this line up of Renaissance were, with Michael Dunford back in the fold bringing them up to a five piece.

This is the first musical statement from the çlassic’ line-up, and is an absolutely wonderful album.

Song for all seasons

Also in this reissue series is 1978’s A Song for All Seasons, released here in a wonderful expanded edition over three discs in a snazzy clamshell box, beautifully remastered and with copius sleeve notes, a fab reproduction of a 1978 tour programme, press releases and plenty of history.

This is the 8th album by the band, and by this time the 5 piece line up (unchanged from Ashes are Burning) were writing their own material with Jon Camp and Michael Dunford taking most of the compositional credit (with some lyrics still being provided by Betty thatcher) also included in this fab three disc set is a complete concert from The Tower Theater Philadelphia recorded on 4th December 1978, which shows the band in their full power and glory (in fact they were much bigger in the States than the UK) and they were a phenominal live band, the complex and musically dextrous pieces translate perfectly to the stage, and this concert is, in the main previously unreleased.

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That is one thing I like about the Esoteric approach to these special editions, whilst there are additional songs and alternative versions, the inclusion of contemporary live performances really enhances the package and brings the songs to life, so you get a flavour of how a Renaissance gig would sound.

Also included here is a BBC session from August 1978 showcasing their sound, and what is really interesting is the fact that in certain areas 1976 is seen as Punk year zero, and yet bands like Renaissance were recording BBC sessions, and indeed appearing in the charts, with then label Warners wanting them to have a hit single, so no surprises to anyone that A Song for All Seasons features probably Renaissance best known songs the wonderfully beautiful Northern Lights, which still creeps onto radio playlists occasionally (and numerous prog compilations).

Very untypical of the bands sound it manages to distill all their elements into a radio friendly moment, and hit the top ten in summer 1978. Housed in a typically late 70’s Hipgnosis sleeve, (which Annie Haslam in the sleve notes isn’t too fond of, with the fact being that there’s a woman prominent in the cover art, her argument being that as she was the lead singer it should have been her) A Song for All seasons, is an embarresment of riches, the album also includes the track Back Home Once Again, which was written by the band specifically for the Tyne Tees childrens show The Paper lads (1977-79) which also got the band a lot of attention.

So anyone who’d bought the album on the back of those two songs would be surprised as they were quite untypical Renaissance tracks, orchestral arrangements on this album were done by ELO cohort Louis Clarke and the Royal Symphony Orchestra, and the combination of the songwriting, the vocals of Annie haslam, the musical performance of the band really makes this album the rightly deserved title of a real classic.

Annies vocals on A Song for all Seasons (the track) are peerless, and whilst she doesn’t like Jon’s vocals on She is Love, I find it flows perfectly as part of the album.

A skill that I think, in this day and age of instant gratification, streaming tracks for attention rather than constructing two sides of music, that is lost is the art of fine tuning an album, so it flows seamlessly, ebbing and flowing perfectly. When you think of the classic albums that work, like Abbey Road, Led Zeppelin II, Liege and Leif, the reason why they work so well is not just the strength of the songwriting and performances, but also the way the album is structured, and A song for All seasons can be added to that list, as the tracks flow seamlessly, creating a wonderful listening experience.

There isn’t a bad track on here, from the (aptly titled) first track Opening Out, to the closing epic title track, this is Renaissance at their finest, there is no band quite like Renaissance, and with them touring to celebrate their 50th anniversary, these reissues are perfect to remind everyone as to how (quietly) revolutionary they were, and what a strong body of work they produced.

All the albums in the Renaissance remastered series are available from Esoteric at http://www.esotericrecordings.com

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