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Renaissance - Renaissance CD (album) cover

RENAISSANCE

Renaissance

 

Symphonic Prog

3.75 | 355 ratings

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ClemofNazareth
Special Collaborator
Prog Folk Researcher
4 stars Renaissance were a fascinating band from the progressive rock heyday of the late sixties and early seventies who, like fellow British acts Babe Ruth and Manfred Mann's Earth Band, were undeniably English but enjoyed much more success in America and particularly the Northeast U.S. than back home. There were of course different reasons for this in each band's case. With Renaissance the previous success of several members in the Yardbirds and the fact that the later 'classic' seventies lineup built around Annie Haslam and John Tout kept the group name despite the absence of any original members may have accounted for some of the ambivalence shown toward their seventies releases, all of which were commercially and critically well-received in the States but few of which managed to chart back home (the worldwide hit album 'A Song for All Seasons' being the notable exception).

But before all that came this first lineup of the band, formed in early 1969 from the ashes of the Yardbirds by former members Jim McCarty and the late Keith Relf, along with former Yardbirds bassist Paul Samwell-Smith who would produce the group's first studio effort. McCarty and Relf had a notion of putting together a rock band that would focus on blending their interests in both contemporary folk music and classical arrangements and invited John Hawken based on a recommendation from a mutual friend to try out. Hawken, who showed up with several members of his own former bands, ended up joining the group along with one of those friends, bassist Louis Cennamo. Relf soon passed on most of the vocal duties to his hanger-on little sister Jane and Renaissance was born.

The band had already been on the road to play live several times before entering the studio to record their debut, which along with a brief stint as the acoustic folk duo Together with McCarty had given Keith Relf enough time to become familiar with the guitar he would play as opposed to harmonica which had been his trademark with the 'Birds. This first album seems a little self-indulgent today, although in 1969 given the rapidly evolving music scene it was not much more than one more band throwing something completely new against the wall to see if it would stick. Prior to bands like Renaissance and ELP there weren't a lot of groups trying to mix folk sensibilities and rock instrumentation with classical pieces and classically-inspired arrangements. Certainly folk-rock well past its infancy and progressive music was a tour-de-force in the rock world, but much of that and more conventional rock was based on blues rhythms and structures or, in the case of folk-rock, on country music. This was something quite different.

The real star on most of the album is pianist John Hawken who has a lengthy piano solo backed by McCarty on drums and not much else for nearly a third of the opening track, the ten-minute plus "Kings and Queens". Hawken's arrangements are clearly classically- based but incorporate a faster tempo and repetitive passages much more aligned to rock song construction than classical. The bookend sections of the song include a grooving blend of Keith Relf's rhythmic electric guitar and McCarty's percussion along with Relf's occasional vocals. McCarty and Jane Relf also provide harmonic backing vocals midway and toward the end of the composition. Even today, more than forty years later, this innovative blend of classical piano, rock tempos and folksy vocals is impressive.

The band follows "Kings and Queens" with the slower-tempo "Innocence", again centered on Hawken's piano work and Keith Relf's vocals and electric guitar. The folk-rock interests of the band emerge here with more extensive vocals and introspective lyrics leaning toward a 'meaning of time' theme. The interplay between the various musicians seems to wax improvisational at times, but clearly the overall score was well-composed and moves resolutely toward another classical Hawken piano solo about halfway through before returning to a folksy tempo including a bit of harmonium to close the piece. The sound here is somewhat dated but just the sort of thing that serious progressive rock fans tend to gravitate toward.

"Islands" was one of the first pieces of music McCarty and Relf worked on while putting the band together, and in fact was one of the numbers Hawken and bassist Louis Cennamo auditioned to. McCarty has said in later interviews this is the song that led Keith Relf to decide to include his sister in the band since her voice better suited the wide vocal range of the song, and in fact this is the first track where Jane Relf takes center stage on what ends up sounding a bit like a duet between her and her brother. The tone here is very much rooted in folk-rock, light and airy with transcendental lyrics. Hawken adds another piano solo, this time one that is mostly lifted right from Beethoven's Sonata No. 13 (Pathetique), plagerism that Hawken readily admits to and which greatly enhances the Romantic-era mood of the song.

Hawken gets most of the songwriting credit for "Wanderer", which at four minutes is easily the shortest track on the album. The song basically showcases Hawken's prowess on both piano and harmonium, often overlaid on each other. Jane Relf owns the vocals here with an unmistakably folk-nuanced soprano delivering vague, poetic lyrics that seem to have been an afterthought.

The album closes with the most rocking tune in the set, and also the only song with a blues-based rhythm and chanted vocals delivered by both Relfs and McCarty, with I believe McCarty assuming the lead role and Keith Relf adding a little harmonica in the early portion of the song. Hawken has another lengthy piano solo here, but this time he's accompanied by both members of the rhythm section and for the first time bassist Louis Cennamo really makes his presence known with some fat but sporadic picking. I have to say that this number suffers a bit from excessive noodling in the middle section though, and could have easily been contracted by at least a couple of minutes. Then again, life was a lot slower in the sixties so maybe this is just a case of modern-day expectations and not necessarily an indictment of the song.

I knew nothing of this band or this album back when it was released. The album made a minor splash in the UK but did nothing in the States although the group did hit the road for an extensive U.S. tour that garnered them some fans but also eroded the group's confidence and would eventually lead several members to depart. Too bad, as this is a great album and it would have been interesting to hear what this lineup sounded like were they given enough chance to gel. Most of them would hang on in one capacity or another for the group's second album, but after that the band would dissolve one member at a time until only Hawken was left. He left too but would ensure the group was stocked with replacements rather than shut the light out behind him. This album is an excellent example of progressive rock circa the late sixties and would be a solid addition to any prog- rocker's collection. Maybe a bit of a stretch at four stars, but that's where I'm going to go.

peace

ClemofNazareth | 4/5 |

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