Even for those who were around at the time, the early history of Renaissance is a confusing one. The name was first bestowed on a band formed in 1969 by former Yardbirds members Keith Relf and Jim McCarty and Keith’s sister Jane. This lineup released one classic album on Island Records, then underwent a series of arcane lineup changes (variously involving ex-Nashville Teens John Hawken and Michael Dunford) during which a further album, Illusion, was recorded (but only released in Europe), finally evolving into a completely different band built around keyboard player John Tout and new vocalist Annie Haslam. This band retained the name Renaissance, and its true debut album was 1972’s Prologue, now given a splendid new CD release by the Esoteric crew.
Its opening (title) track forms an audible bridge with the music of the earlier Renaissance, being an instrumental (with wordless vocalise) of distinctly classical inspiration (although, unlike the earlier band, not actually directly borrowing any motifs or melodies). The feel of this renaissance, however, is markedly less experimental and more consciously controlled (in the sense of arranged), despite some episodic moments and gestures. The new, now settled lineup of Tout and Haslam plus guitarist Rob Hendry, bassist Jon Camp and drummer Terry Sullivan drew its lyrics from Betty Thatcher, collaborating with ex-band-member Michael Dunford. The result was a sequence of captivating tracks that weren’t exactly psychedelic or folk or indeed even prog in the usual sense, but better termed progressive pop: visionary in its own way, a blueprint for much that was to follow, and a distinctive sound all its own. The classical leanings were still apparent, but more subliminally integrated into the sound-picture and song construction. The overall effect was elegant and streamlined, but nowhere lacking in depth or imaginative commitment.
Prologue sounds particularly good today, and its highlight is undoubtedly the epic 11½-minute essay Rajah Khan – which builds majestically from its alap-like electric guitar prelude through a thundering wordless incantation by Haslam’s flawless soaring soprano to a dramatic development section. The track also includes a guest VCS3-synth contribution by Curved Air’s Francis Monkman. The gentle Sounds Of The Sea is also very persuasive, although the attendant ocean sounds seem more intrusive than I recall from the LP, and Kiev, though episodic, is a good illustration of the group’s stylishness. Spare Some Love showed the band’s more accessibly commercial side, explaining its release as a would-be-hit-single (the 45 version, edited and with added string section) is appended to this reissue, marking its first CD appearance for completists). The new reissue includes exclusive interviews with Haslam and Sullivan, and fully restores the original album artwork. Prologue’s original Sovereign sleeve boasted typically cryptic, then-much-de-rigeur art by Hipgnosis, so the album certainly looked the part – and was to form the first in a distinguished series of albums. A commendable reissue, and the ideal place to start on a reappraisal of Renaissance.
|Various Artist: Destination Crampsville||John Renbourn: Live In Kyoto 1978|
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