Renaissance, the band, was one of the first progressive rock bands I listened to. They found a fair degree of success in the 1970’s before music tastes changed, the band splintered and finally called it quits.
The band reformed a few years ago, but we’ll get to that later.
Renaissance combined pop with classical, folk and jazz, sculpted around lead singer Annie Haslam’s five octave range. Their heyday was 1972-1979 when their albums sold very well and Renaissance toured extensively.
When I think of Renaissance’s music I picture blending folk motifs around classical music arrangements, with a pop sensibility. Certainly lyrically, their songs draw on Russian literature and images from the Renaissance. As a liberal arts student I found much to interest me about this group.
Annie Haslam’s commanding voice was unique and one of Renaissance’s strengths. Their musical ability to hold your interest through long songs with impressive arrangements while blending the imagery, courtesy of lyricist Betty Thatcher.
The lineup of that period included Haslam, guitarist Michael Dunford, bassist Jon Camp, keyboard player John Tout and drummer Terrance Sullivan.
The origins of Renaissance strangely came about as an offshoot of the rock group The Yardbirds in 1969. They produced two albums and then the band was totally blown up and reformed with various personnel until Haslam and the others came together.
Prologue (1972) was the first album of this period, although not all of the classic lineup had arrived yet.
Ashes are Burning (1973), is a huge step forward and their sound began to gel as a group. Can You Understand and Carpet of the Sun are the best tracks. This group often wrote four minute songs, but they were usually best with songs that exceeded eight or more minutes. Many groups struggle to fill songs of that length but Renaissance had a very talented group of musicians who used every moment. Guest guitarist Andy Powell (Wishbone Ash) contributes some tasty guitar licks.
Turn of the Cards (1974), the more gentle folk influence was gone with this album, replaced by a harder rock sound. “Mother Russia” was not just about the pastoral Russian past, it referenced the difficulty of dissidents like Alexander Solzhenitsyn. “I Think of You” is a softer, quieter song that really allows Haslam’s beautiful voice to take center stage. “Things I Don’t Understand” is one of three songs over nine minutes that are big and soaring. Renaissance matured on this album.
Scheherazade and Other Stories (1975), was their grandest project yet, with the 20 minute suite of “Songs of the Scheherazade,” which I found a bit ponderous. It was the other songs on the album that I found fascinating: “Vultures Fly High” (one of my favorites), “Trip to the Fair” and “Ocean Gypsy.”
Novella (1977) featured “Can You Hear Me?,” another grand song of more than 13 minutes. Some found these longer songs to be tedious but I enjoyed the multiple layers, they were almost suites. Again, the instrumental passages and orchestration to be top-rate. “Midas Man,” one of the shorter songs on the album was shimmering. For me, this was their most complete album to date.
A Song for All Seasons (1978) seemed a bit out of place in the popular music marketplace. This album is even better than Novella and marks the end for the Renaissance style of progressive rock in the decade. Their next album would change directions. This album opens with two wonderful songs, “Opening Out” and “Day of the Dreamer.” These two songs together are what Renaissance was about and represent their best work. On this album, bassist Jon Camp emerges as one of the main songwriters and sings lead on one track. His bass playing through the decade was underrated and one of the best musical ingredients of the group. The album ends with the nearly 11 minute “A Song for All Seasons,” co-written by the entire group. It is great closure to not just the album, but the incredible series of albums.
After several more albums in the early 1980’s, the band broke up. Strangely, in the 1990’s, two versions of the band reformed, one with Haslam and one with Dunford. Then in 1998, four members of the class lineup came together to record Tuscany, which was released in 2001.
Then a live recording was released in 2002, In the Land of the Rising Sun: Live in Japan 2001. The band broke up for awhile but Haslam and Dunford regrouped. Grandine il vento was released in 2009, Dunford died in 2012, and it’s been Haslam with her band since then.
The newer version of Renaissance is good and they cover the early work of the band astonishingly well. A second keyboard helps to embellish the sound reproducing the orchestral textures. Progressive rock was always an acquired taste and by the end of the 1970’s, most prog groups abandoned it for a more traditional rock sound. If you like something different and more daring than the traditional four minute rock song, a band like Renaissance aptly mixed other styles and bridged the musical landscape between rock and classical in a way other prog groups did not.
Here are a couple of examples.