Renaissance: Novella (1977)

Art rock, symphonic rock, progressive rock, folk rock…Renaissance was hard to categorize.  The 1970s was their heyday and they released some tremendous albums.

Renaissance fans have their favorite album, and although I read the acclaim for other selections, Novella is not usually mentioned.  It might not be as ambitious as their previous albums, and not quite as commercial as A Song For All Seasons, Novella represents the last of the truly progressive era.  Going forward, the songs would typically be shorter and not quite as adventurous in structure.  In the late 1970s, rock would coalesce around soft rock (Fleetwood Mac, ELO), hard rock (Van Halen, AC/DC) or punk (Talking Heads, Clash).  Progressive rock groups would commercialize (Yes, Genesis) or fade (Emerson Lake and Palmer).

Novella was similar to their previous three album, longer songs, orchestration and snippets of folk and classical song styles blended together.  Renaissance didn’t copy or transpose other works into their songs but they were influenced and successfully brought other sounds into their own style.  If you listen to early 1970s Genesis or ELP, you hear the a similar song structure, longer pieces that frequently shift, song pieces welded together seamlessly, like a flowing river with turns, loops, rapids and gentle brooks.

Novella was their seventh release, but the lineup of their first album, Renaissance, is totally different from Novella.  The albums sound nothing alike.

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The original Renaissance

The band was started in 1969 by Keith Relf and Jim McCarthy of the Yardbirds after that band broke up.  Relf’s younger sister Jane was the lead vocalists.  The band was filled out by John Hawken and Louis Cennamo.  Paul Samwell-Smith, bass player in the Yardbirds was the album producer.

 

By the third album, Prologue, the entire lineup had changed.  The band consisted of Annie Haslam (vocals), Jon Camp (bass), Terrance Sullivan (drums) John Tout (keyboards) and Rob Hendry (guitars).  Michael Dunford, who handled the arrangements would take over for Hendry on guitar, and that’s the lineup for Novella and other albums of Renaissance’s classic period.

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Renaissance, 1977.

If Renaissance had a musical model it would be the Moody Blues’ Days of Future Past, the integration of pop/rock music with orchestra backing to form grand musical pallets.

Novella was the band’s highest charting album (number 46) in America.  Novella is my favorite Renaissance album, but A Song For All Seasons is a close second. Composer/arranger Richard Hewson provided the orchestral arrangements. Camp’s bass playing reminds me of Chris Squire (Yes), it is almost a lead instrument, described as lyrical and warm, which I would wholeheartedly agree.  Interestingly, Renaissance used very little electric guitar, what little there is was played by Dunford and Camp.  It is used for texture, fills and the occasional solo.  That is one of the things that sets Renaissance apart from other like groups.

Haslam has an amazing five octave vocal range.  Betty Thatcher contributed the lyrics to many of Renaissance’s songs.  Dunford, Tout and Camp provided the music for this album and most of the albums of their classic period.

Side one

No.      Title     Writer(s)         Length

“Can You Hear Me?” Jon Camp, Michael Dunford, Betty Thatcher     13:38  This song is a mini-symphony, it is exquisite musically, layered with instruments and vocals.  This ranks as one of their top five songs.

“The Sisters” Dunford, Thatcher, John Tout 7:15  Annie Haslam’s vocals are heavenly on this song.  The piano work by Tout is outstanding, as well as the acoustic guitar soloing by Dunford.  The orchestration gives the song ample support but it would be a fine song without it.

 

Side two

No.      Title     Writer(s)         Length

“Midas Man” Dunford, Thatcher 5:47  One of my top five songs.  The guitar work by Dunford is wonderful.  It’s a very melodic song and the orchestration provides an additional layer of musical strength.

“The Captive Heart” Camp, Dunford 4:16  A wonderful piano intro and provides the musical backing for the song.  The layered vocals are a strong part of this song’s appeal.

“Touching Once (Is So Hard to Keep)” Camp, Dunford   9:27  Renaissance songs have touches of European classical musical influences, here almost a light gypsy dance.  Overall, the sound has grand feel to it , changing styles several times with orchestral backing.  Haslam is the lead vocalist, but other band members contribute spirited backing vocals.  The second longest song on the album, this is a musical odyssey.  There are a minimum of solos, but each band member is showcased along the way.  The sax solo is pretty unique to a Renaissance song, but it soars as the song builds to a conclusion.

 

Novella is part of a re-release program by Cherry Red Records.  In 2019, a three-disc set was released.


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