Most people know Renaissance as a British symphonic prog band that released amazing albums in the seventies: Ashes Are Burning (1973), Turn Of The Cards (1974) and Scheherazade And Other Stories (1975) are real prog beauties, but also A Song For All Seasons (1978), most notable for their hit Northern Lights, and Azure d'Or (1979) are highlights in the history of prog rock. Renaissance's most recognizable characteristics were Annie Haslam's angelic voice, Jon Camp's pumping bass and John Tout's classical piano playing. As I already wrote in my review of the latest Renaissance DVD Kings And Queens (see review) they started in a completely different line-up in the sixties.
Renaissance recorded two albums without Annie Haslam: the eponymous debut album Renaissance and its successor Illusion. Meanwhile a final These two albums have been re-released in 2010 including bonus tracks. Until now I wasn't familiar with these albums. Some songs on the DVD gave me an indication of how the band sounded in the early days. Fortunately we have reissues these days, so the past can partly be relived. Listening to the first chapter in the history of the band surely was a pleasant experience!
Renaissance was first released in 1969 by Island Records. It was mainly a showcase for the former Yardbirds- members Keith Relf and Jim McCarty to try out new musical ideas. They'd organized a new group devoted to experimenting with rock, folk and classical music. With Relf on guitar and vocals, McCarty on drums and supplemented by bassist Louis Cennamo, pianist John Hawken and Relf's sister Jane Relf as an additional vocalist, they succeeded very well to blend all those different styles on a well-sounding album. It was produced by Paul Samwell-Smith, fellow-musician and also a former member of The Yardbirds. You can hear that the piano playing by the classical trained John Hawken has been slightly influenced by classical masters like Bach. They make excellent use of varied rhythms and musical light and shade. The musical style on these albums became very successful. The voice of Jane Relf more or less resembles Annie Haslam's voice on the aforementioned albums. Not as good, but yet strong enough to keep the attention which also applies for the strong compositions. The bonus tracks are interesting enough either, in this case the A- and B-side of a single release. However, Island and flip side The Sea never got much airplay and thus never reached the charts.
What struck me most after listening to the debut album? Well, the music is quite similar to the music on the albums recorded by Illusion. That's not strange at all, since Out Of The Mist (1977) and Illusion (1978) were recorded by the complete line-up - minus Keith Relf - that also recorded Renaissance's debut album. Shortly prior to his death in 1976, Keith Relf wanted to re-form the original Renaissance. After Relf died from electrocution, the other four formed a new band along with two new musicians and named it Illusion after the second album of Renaissance.
In the late spring of 1970, as touring began to grind on them, the band gradually dissolved. Relf and McCarty decided to quit performing and Cennamo joined Colosseum. Hawken organized a new line-up to fulfill contractual obligations and completed the band's second album Illusion, which was left unfinished. Apart from Jane Relf, the new band mostly consisted of former members of Hawken's previous band The Nashville Teens: guitarist Michael Dunford, bassist Neil Korner, singer Terry Crowe and drummer Terry Slade. This line-up recorded only one track, the Dunford-composition Mr. Pine, one of the musical highlights on Illusion. Meanwhile a final recording session brought together the original line-up minus Hawken and now with Don Shin behind the keyboards. He produced the album's closing track Past Orbits Of Dust, an epic piece that we may call the second highlight on the album.
The completed album was released in Germany in 1971, but not in the UK until 1976! Illusion was also the beginning of Renaissance's protracted collaboration with poet and lyricist Betty Thatcher-Newsinger after co-writing two songs with Relf and McCarty. The reissue of Illusion includes three bonus tracks. Prayer For Light and Walking Away were recorded for the film Schizom (1970). On these tracks you'll hear the typical Renaissance-sound of the first two albums. The first one can be described as an instrumental piece for it only contains background vocals. On the second one you can enjoy Jane's lovely vocals. The third bonus track All The Fallen Angels is a demo that Keith Relf recorded in 1976. It sounds rather strong and features a Mellotron. Although there were serious problems with the line-up for the band's second album, it hardly had any effect on the music. Illusion can be considered just as strong as their debut album, only partly with different musicians. On both albums the sound is identical and they both contain a fine blend of rock, prog, folk and classical music which make them mature releases.
While listening to both albums I realized that the music they recorded doesn't differ that much from the subsequent albums Renaissance recorded. The albums contain enough progressive rock elements. Therefore both albums are recommended to people who possess the band's back catalogue.
*** Henri Strik (edited by Peter Willemsen)
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