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Renaissance - Renaissance CD (album) cover




Symphonic Prog

3.75 | 355 ratings

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4 stars 13/15P.: Ex-Yardbirds Relf, McCarty and Samwell-Smith, augmented by Relf's sister, future Strawbs keyboarder John Hawken and virtuoso bass player Louis Cennamo team up for an incredibly innovative record which melts classical music, psychedelic rock, R&B and a slight pinch of jazz to an unexpectedly punchy opus which might be to progressive rock what The Who's My Generation is to hard rock.

Often in bands the wheel of change turns pretty steadily - be it King Crimson, Yes or (to some extent also) Deep Purple. And in other bands it additionally even turns 360 degrees around in some mere months: examples are Manfred Mann whose band line-up changed two times in two years, or Renaissance. So, if you know this band from Northern Lights or Scheharazade, and if you happen to put this kind of symphonic rock into the depths of your record shelf in favor of more exciting sounds, give Renaissance's debut album a try. Speaking for myself I appreciate big parts of Renaissance's mid-70s stuff quite a lot (the astounding live version of Ashes Are Burning, for instance, or the beautiful Ocean Gypsy), but since I've known the 1969 debut album it has been my favorite one by this group.

In a way, this album could be described as 'classic rock': you'll get to hear original compositions with embedded adaptations of classical pieces of music featuring the upright piano as the lead instrument, you'll find Elizabethan-like vocal harmonies (male+female) and tracks consisting of many parts. Yes, this is what Turn of the Cards sounds like, too. But this debut album, being recorded in 1969, offers much more rock elements, such as distinct hints at psychedelic rock (Innocence), folk (Wanderer), jazz (Kings and Queens) and.. er, avantgarde (Bullet). This sounds quite all right, but I want to rate this album objectively and so I have to admit that the fascination about classical music sometimes sounds like a child which has found a new toy; at first it uses the toy whenever it can in a pretty standard way, and at the earliest after some time it really experiments with it creatively. Not all, but some of the classical interludes appear somewhere in between the songs and are simply there. I don't mean the jaw-dropping classical composition techniques in the album opener, but rather the middle parts of songs 2 and 3. Of course, this album was recorded in the summer of '69 when progressive rock was still developing, and there's plenty of really well-conceived experiments here, but I could live without some of the classical piano solos here. Still I must admit that the more I listen to these interludes, as I do while writing this review, I find less and less points of criticism, but more and more details which make these interludes more than just average quotations.

Kings And Queens begins with a short high-speed bass guitar/piano invention. Yes, invention in the Bach-ian sense of the word. It does remind me of his baroque work, although it is surely too homophonic to be called a fugue. But still there are fine counterpoints played by the bass guitar, and the unisono playing of the two instruments is absolutely impressive, too: an unexpectedly upbeat introduction. After 40 seconds or so the mood switches to one minute of weird phrygian-mode noodling on F# and G major which sounds like the early Soft Machine, albeit without the brass and wind instruments: the four instrumentalists ad-lib freely on John Hawken's thick piano carpet (yes, he only plays the piano and some occasional harpsichord on this album, so don't expect symphonic Mellotron, Moog or Hammond organ walls as on the Strawbs albums on which he played). After this intransigent prelude things get slightly better digestible. Now there's a steady 4/4 rhythm (with McCarty's nearly R&B-esque stomping accents on the 1st, 2nd, 5th and 6th eights, cool!) with groovy maracas in the left channel and a slightly eccentric piano solo by John Hawken based on this phrygian scale again, but with some jazz chords thrown in between. At about 2:30 the vocals enter, at this place only Keith Relf's and Jim McCarty's male vocals, and the vocal melodies intensify this tense phrygian sound which reminds some of medieval church chorales and others of oriental music. The chorus is remarkable in two ways: at first it has clear pop credentials, a nice melody in the vein of the Moody Blues (think Ride My See-Saw), and secondly it allows a clever upward modulation to A and A# major which I never noticed before I played the song on the guitar the first time. This modulation explains why the tension increases in this song: it's the same uplifting effect as in modern pop hits when the chorus is sung one or two notes higher in the very end, or when the orchestra sounds rise in The Beatles' A Day In The Life. The next stanza, this time three notes higher, also includes choral backing vocals, but instead of shifting in the piece even more, the vocals part ends at 4:23 and is succeeded by an absolutely progressive instrumental work-out. The bass guitar starts "a cappella", or rather solo playing a slow arpeggiated 3/4 waltz line which the band takes up some time later, this time counterpointed by Jane Relf. A fairly wild piano solo leads us back into the vocal part and then into a lengthier mellow guitar solo which is successful due to its underlying understatement. After 10 minutes the finale of the piece is introduced by free drum rhythms and an eccentric polyphonic vocal coda. A tour de force, as one could call it.

Enough food for the brain - the three shorter pieces are rather food for the soul with really decent melodies, but just a wee bit marred by the instrumental parts which sometimes are too little related with the song itself. Innocence has a vocal part to die for, and it's one of the pieces in which the instrumental part is placed before the bridge. The chorus part is a strangely fractured 8/8 metre with an obscure minor-second chord sequence (||:Bb-A:||), a solo bass which trembles rapidly somewhere in the uppermost frets, and fairly psychedelic wah-wah piano chords - something which you don't get to hear that often. The stanza part is jazzier and more upbeat, but it doesn't abandon the wah-wah piano, which somehow is able to disestablish all borders between stanza and chorus; listen to the tune and you'll see what I mean. Jane Relf's reverberated operatic backing vocals are really moody, and curiously Keith Relf sounds quite a lot like Madcap Laughs-era Syd Barrett at 1:38. After 2 minutes the instrumental part begins, and regarding that precise jazzy rhythm and that strange piano sound the melange doesn't entirely differ from the Caravan sound of the early 1970s. Afterwards John Hawken shows off with a variation of Beethoven's Sonate No.14 (Moonlight Sonata), which - unlike Vanilla Fudge's version - isn't rearranged at all, apart from a mainly forgettable supplemental bass part. But, something which isn't really obvious, he doesn't quote the sonata, but rather variates it. It's similar, but the substance is altered more remarkably than one might guess. A short pause, and the band go on with a 15 seconds short hard-rocking bridge after which then the vocal part is reprised. The concept sounds less off-key than it is, and my gut feeling is less critical than my mind about both the strange bridge and the Beethoven, er, 'inspiration', simply because it in total is quite monolithic.

Island has its focus on loveliness. Jane Relf takes over the lead vocals on this song which, after a sparkling piano intro, is closest to later Renaissance ballads la Ocean Gypsy in all terms, apart from earthy sound. Some parts of the stanzas are simple, for instance the Barclay-James Harvest's-Hymn-like opening Esus4 chord, but the melodies - in most verses of the song doubled by a male singer one octave lower - are already of the Dunford/Haslam caliber: uncoerced and uncongested pieces of pastoral beauty. Louis Cennamo is pretty restrained here as John Hawken takes the role as the 'counterpointer'. The instrumental part is a serial connection of fragments from Beethoven's Pathetique Sonata. The negative aspect, comparing this with the Moonlight Sonata part in Innocence: more longer quotations and more sudden fragments without nice bridging passages. But the positive aspect: more band interaction. And that's inventive band interaction with rapid bass runs, swinging drums and vocal melodies which surely weren't part of the original Beethoven composition. Since there are not many felicitous rock adaptations of the Pathetique, again it is difficult for me to run that part down. The only thing which annoys me is that Herr Beethoven isn't credited anywhere; I don't like that.

Wanderer, for a change, begins with the instrumental part and ends on the song part of it; it benefits quite a lot from Hawken's in-your-face sound achieved by double-tracking the cembalo and piano. The instrumental part is too jazzy in its main motif to be yet another classic quotation and the way how the band moves to and fro from more of these fast J.S.Bach-Invention-ish scales to medieval harpsichord fanfares - without that polyphonic stuff - and back to constructions not unlike Bach's Brandenburger Concerto does make an impression on me. Evil-minded people might suggest that the vocal part is only accompanied by the cembalo because the guitarist could not play it on the guitar. Yes, the harpsichord sounds as midrange-biased as a harshly recorded 12-string guitar, and yes, Keith Relf is neither pretty active as a guitarist on this album nor an outstanding guitarist, but the solo in Kings and Queen is too tasteful for a sub-par guitarist to compose and play. Anyway... The minor-key vocal part sounds like an ancient British madrigal because the percussion section is reduced to the tambourine and due to the dark cembalo, plus a very special detail. At the end of the verses Jim McCarty adds some fairly quiet, but effective strokes on the bell of the crash cymbal. It's not a lot, but the piece would be less haunting without it.

Now back to the 'heady' part again. Bullet is megalomaniac, without a question. But where else can you hear a grubby fusion of R&B, jazz, tribal stomping, Rachmaninov-ish piano madness and psychedelic vocal parts? The harmonic frame of Bullet is pretty simple and there's a lot of soloing around, but it never becomes boring. The timpani-driven intro with a dissonant unisono piano/bass line leads into the strange vocal part via a slapped bass fanfare. From one second to another the classical influences are vanished and we are totally in the districts of Relf's and McCarty's former band, the Yardbirds: bluesy piano, a shuffling R&B rhythm and some nice riffs - but on the top Relf or McCarty sing something like black mambo bamboo business under red sunlight while the backing vocals command hey lady sodom ramana until a distorted blues harp solo takes over ... when I first listened to that stuff consciously I really asked myself what the hell was going on there. I mean, the vocals are distorted, too. It might be because my CD version is pretty old, but it rather sounds like the singer is in total frenzy. Around 5:00 Rachmaninov slowly metamorphoses into Bartok with a pretty free-form drum backing and arhythmic piano clusters. Next, Cennamo plays a three minute unaccompanied bass solo, and he simply plays the bass guitar as if it was a mandolin: the rapid tremolo and the full chords he plays all the way through create tension quite similar to Soft Machine's Facelift intro. Quite like a boss, in a way. Although he plays some little baroque piano pieces on the bass guitar, the attitude is as anarchic as many of the better jazz recordings are. And at the place where you'd expect the next piano vamp or a big explosion the band carefully deconstruct the tension in a three minute vocal part with creepy falsetto tones played through loads of reverb devices with increasingly loud tape hiss. Kudos to Mr.Samwell-Smith, the ex-Yardbird who produced the band. Right now, as I am writing this, I ask myself: what could I criticize about this track? Frankly, I don't quite know. Maybe the bass solo could have been a tad shorter, after all it's more than three minutes long, but the self-assurance of the band is infectious: those who can play and who know a frame can also afford doing this stuff and forcing the listener to stay through the whole track. They were pretty successful in this case.

While writing this review I had to relativise my objections to the classical parts quite a lot, which moves this album quite close to the 5 star territory. There are just so many unexpectedly successful experiments, beautiful melodies, mind-blowing arrangements and this punky rawness which most of the classically influenced rock albums don't have (except for The Nice, of course). Regarding the year when this stuff was recorded this is an accomplishment which needs to be acknowledged adequately. Still, a really strong 4 star rating feels better this time, I don't quite know why. Remember that it might as well be 5 stars and get the album, favorably the expanded reissue - it's historically relevant and damn entertaining. Highly recommendable!

Einsetumadur | 4/5 |


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