Classical-rock quintet Renaissance were a powerful force in the ‘70s, attracting both teenagers and their parents, such was their timeless strength of melody and musicianship. Most of the best versions of those albums have come out in recent years and this massive re-release is one of the very best.

Label: Esoteric
Time:  13 + 6 + 4 tracks / 69 + 48 + 55 minutes

The band was unique, starting from the rock circuit, but pulling in folk (most guitar was acoustic) and, particularly in their extended piano pieces, touches of jazz and a heavy classical influence. Whereas earlier epic works like “Mother Russia” might be a little worthy, these tracks feel lighter and poppier, albeit with the richness of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra behind them.

Setting them further apart, at a time when most singers were male, Annie Haslam’s classically-trained, five-octave vibrato-less vocal was the focal point of the band’s tune-rich songs.

On one hand this is typical Renaissance – the symphonic heart of “Day of the Dreamer” could easily have been on Scheherazade – but there is an electric coating that makes it feel much newer. That track’s synthesizer solo and orchestration both stretch this perfect track to separate heights, like a twin-peaked mountain.

This album flows faster, too. Whereas earlier epic works like “Mother Russia” might be a little worthy, these tracks feel lighter and poppier, albeit with the richness of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra behind them.

Many of their earlier tracks were long, but in 1978 their record company pressured them to write a single, and – unlike many contemporaries – they relished the challenge, coming up withtheir only single success “Northern Lights” (which is actually about missing the north of England, while touring the States).

The only flaw is bassist Jon Camp singing on the short "She is Love," because Annie Haslam (whose voice would have beautifully suited the orchestration) wasn't able to make the recording session.

Thanks are due here to producer David Hentschel, who persuaded keys player John Tout to embrace the synthesizer (an instrument that Hentschel played on Elton John’s “Funeral for a Friend”). He also produced Genesis albums either side of this, and there are snatches of their sound on “Kindness (at the End).”

Esoteric are a specialist label for quality re-releases of music from that era, re-mastering the sound, adding generous extra tracks (often from BBC sessions and In Concerts) and maximising the information inside the package.

This album is a fine example. Inside the clamshell box, the main album is remastered with the addition of a BBC Alan Freeman Show session of this album’s ten-minute highlight, “Day of the Dreamer,” plus two other excellent later tracks, “Midas Man” and “The Vultures Fly High” as well as a BBC Top of the Pops version of “Northern Lights.”

The other two discs offer a complete 1978 live show from Philadelphia, which covers a wide span of their music, majoring on later material – and it doesn’t have a bad track on it.

The four previously unreleased tracks include major highlights, such as the wonderful “Touching Once is so Hard to Keep”. “Song for all Seasons” is a track that Haslam considers to be “the strongest one we had” for the studio collection, hence the album title. I would question that. While it has the various elements that make up a great Renaissance piece, it feels like the band was almost trying too hard and came up with an identikit Renaissance track. By comparison, the magnificent “Day of the Dreamer” is a natural success, where the melody flows, grabs you by the heart and makes you want to sing to it.

The traditional 27-minute encore “Ashes are Burning” is different from previous versions, both for better and for worse. This is the point in the band’s history where they began to embrace electric guitar and the solo is part of a five-minute instrumental that loses its way and sticks out by failing to reach the excellence around it.  However, Haslam’s goosebump-inducing vocal performance at the end is simply stunning. There is no doubt that her already striking range has gained from more vocal coaching (in strength, purity and tone) and it caps a remarkable live show that is worth the price of an album on its own.

The 34-page booklet includes a new essay and a reproduction of the band’s 1978 US tour programme, as well as lyrics, bios and images of promo materials from the time. The set also reproduces the album poster given away with the initial pressing of “A Song for All Seasons”.

For Renaissance fans, this five-star release of an erstwhile four-star album is an excellent complement to expanded versions of earlier albums, and most new listeners will find it an excellent introduction that simply makes them hungry for more.

                                                                            

Derek Walker
walkerwords.wordpress.com