Sunday, June 19, 2016

Renaissance - yet another example of great music from the 1970's

The easiest way for me to explain the band Renaissance is this: if the band Yes had an artsy sister, Renaissance would be her name.  Let me explain...

Both are considered (amazing) prog/symphonic/art rock bands who created some absolute epic pieces of music; both have amazing keyboard players (Yes primarily has heavy synthesizer work with classical piano sprinkled in; Renaissance primarily has heavy classical piano work with synthesizer sprinkled in); both prominently feature powerful and intricate bass playing; both bands keep the drum work in the shadows so to speak - meaning, there really aren't any memorable drum beats that pop out at you in either group's songs; Renaissance (with the exception of Prologue) utilize acoustic guitar on their albums for a softer sound, while Yes features a heavy dose of electric guitar (by the amazing Steve Howe) for a more aggressive sound; and for vocals, Yes features the male lead of Jon Anderson (great lyricist as well), while Renaissance features a female lead singer (the unbelievable Annie Haslam supplying the ear candy...I can't even put into proper words how great of a voice she has) which provides a naturally softer vibe to their songs - though still as powerful as any male lead.

The run of albums that Renaissance put out from 1972 - 1977 (5 Studio / 1 Live) are some of the best of any group, of any genre, during that time period - and that's saying something considering the amazing sounds being released by all artists during that time frame. 

Let's just go in order...

Prologue (1972): This is really the only album during this run that utilized electric guitar.  Starts off with the great (and different) title track, appropriately setting the stage for what was to come.  The standout tracks for me are "Kiev", "Sounds of the Sea", and "Rajah Khan".  Great compositions; John Tout on piano/keyboards is so dang good; Annie Haslam is of course awesome; Bassist John Camp also featured on vocals; and it should be noted that this album (and their others during this run) was written by Betty Thatcher (who stayed behind the scenes, but her contributions to this group can not/ must not be understated/overlooked) and guitarist, Mike Dunford (I think I have that correct off the top of my head anyway).  I would rank this as my 5th favorite album of theirs.

Ashes are Burning (1973): Ask the hardcore fans what their best album is, and most will argue it's either this one or their one from 1975 (I'll get to that glorious work of art in a bit).  This album is pretty kickass, but I think I would put it a very close third, behind their 1975 and 1977 albums (just my personal preference).  The album kicks off with "Can You Understand"...such a great one.  Other standout tracks are "Carpet of the Sun" (maybe one of their most famous tracks - also one of the few short ones), and the title track.

Turn of the Cards (1974):  My 4th favorite album of theirs - but features my 2nd favorite song.  The album kicks off with "Running Hard" (one of their concert staples), and is followed by "I Think of You" (which is my 2nd favorite song of theirs) - man, what an absolutely beautiful song!  The vocals just mesmerize me (I find that Annie's voice sounds very similar to Olivia Newton-John's at times - which is very pleasing to my ears.  Hey, don't laugh, ONJ's stuff from the 70's is quite delightful...if you disagree, fine, I've got a shoulder shrug and a middle finger for you.  But I digress...) and the guitar chords struck such an impact on me, I grabbed my own guitar (not that good; don't have any chords memorized; can't read music; but I just dabble and try to play what I hear) and was able to mimic the sounds I was hearing...such a great song!  Other standout tracks include "Things I Don't Understand" (it's fantastic, in fact), "Cold is Being" (this track should come with a Warning label: "Do not listen if severely depressed!"...sheesh!), and "Mother Russia" (another of their favorites to do live).

Scheherazade and Other Stories (1975):  Ah man, this is the one!  Not only is this my favorite album of theirs, but it's one of my all-time top 10 albums, period.  Yet another reason why 1975 is one of the single greatest years in the history of recorded music.  The album kicks off with the Twilight Zone-esque "Trip to the Fair" (warning, the chorus is a bit of an earworm); it's followed by the slightly ho-hum "The Vultures Fly High".  Then, prepare for one of the most perfectly crafted songs I've ever heard - "Ocean Gypsy" - this concert fave is my favorite song by them.  Everything about it is amazing: Vocals; lyrics; musicianship; melodic structure; harmony.  Perfection.  Period. 
Then, as you're still recovering from the greatness of that song, they hit you with a near 25-minute epic slice of genius with "Song of Scheherazade"!  Seriously, if you could place a song in a frame and hang it on the walls of the great art museums, this is the one!  Employing the London Symphony Orchestra and full choir, Renaissance created a true work of art.  If you don't have goosebumps as this song ends, then, I'm sorry to say, you're just a lifeless zombie.  You know how great rock songs make you bust out a little "air guitar" or "air drums"?  The symphonic majesty of this song makes me break out into a little "air conductor" - or as I like to call it - "a little 'air John Williams'".  I'm a nerd.

Live at the Carnegie Hall (1976):  Though released in 1976, this Live Album was recorded during a 3-night stint at the legendary Carnegie Hall in June of 1975 - before their landmark 1975 album was released.  Additionally, they employed the NY Philharmonic Orchestra to play with them.  Why is this significant?  It allowed them to perform the aforementioned "Song of Scheherazade" in it's full symphonic glory.  Absolutely mind-blowing performance!  Also, remember, this was the first time an audience had heard that song - and they lose their minds!  That was very cool to hear.

Novella (1977):  Most Renaissance fans would probably disagree with me, but I consider this one to be their 2nd best album.  It has a great epic feel to it, and is a worthy successor to their 1975 monster.  The album kicks off with "Can You Hear Me?" - so good!  It's followed by "The Sisters" - this song just gets better and better each time I hear it; next is "Midas Man" - another great song (that I actually heard on the Sirius XM channel Deep Tracks last week).  The album comes to a rousing end with "Touching Once (Is So Hard to Keep)" - very good song, but it loses a bit near the end when they introduce some saxophone into it...unless I'm watching an old Benny Hill rerun with "Yakety Sax" blaring, the less I hear of that instrument, the better.

Renaissance released a few more albums after this, but for me, 1977 is when their story ends.  What more can I say?  Just look them up on YouTube, and you'll soon want their albums - your ears will be begging you.

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