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Renaissance - Prologue CD (album) cover




Symphonic Prog

3.74 | 441 ratings

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4 stars Annie Haslam's Debut

Prologue is the sound of a band in transition. Members had come and gone with monotonous regularity as Renaissance strove for a settled line-up and their own place in the scheme of things. By 1972 none of the original band remained, though Dunford and McCarty were still actively involved behind the scenes. A new quintet of Haslam (voice), Camp (bass), Tout (keys), Sullivan (drums) and Parsons (guitar) undertook a brief tour before entering the studio to record their first album together, but sadly, young guitarist Mick Parsons was killed immediately prior to recording so Rob Hendry replaced him in the studio [Hendry left the band soon after recording the album].

Lovers of classic Renaissance will immediately recognise this material with its intricate piano flourishes, complex arrangements, lyrical bass runs and Annie's unmistakeable voice. Most of the elements are in place but with rough edges that would be honed to perfection on later albums: the sound is looser, less polished, and Annie's voice is not yet fully matured. Perhaps the most noticeable difference is the use of electric guitar, mostly as a rhythm accompaniment, only occasionally coming to the fore as a lead, but its absence would later be a key aspect of the definitive Renaissance sound. Likewise, there is no orchestra here and virtually no keyboard other than piano so the sound is much sparser than will be evident in later years.

Performances are dominated by piano, it is all over this album like a rash. John Tout's playing is exceptionally assured from big dramatic statements to delicate trills and subtle accompaniment. He reigns supreme as the spotlight instrumentalist, even more so than in later years. Camp's bass is also well to the fore, as it should be, full of light and inventive touches yet solid and dependable. Sullivan's drumming is excellent without being obtrusive - in other words, he does all the right things for the context without overpowering the rest of the band. Hendry's guitar work doesn't always gel, probably because he didn't have the benefit of touring with the band before recording. In places he sounds like he doesn't quite know what to do and I am not keen on the lengthy passage introducing Raja Khan. Annie's voice is already wonderful, but perhaps lacks fullness, a richness that would develop with time.

The album is topped-and-tailed by a pair of lengthy Prog 'instrumentals' by Michael Dunford, of which the title track would remain in their repertoire as a concert favourite for many years. Both include Annie's voice as an additional instrument - they call it vocalese, singing without words - which works fine in a strange sort of way. Prologue, despite being credited to Dunford, is very much a Tout tour-de-force, heavily influenced by classical pianist-composers with a touch of jazz and containing some of his best playing. Rajah Khan is quite a different beast entirely. Named after a dog owned by a former bass player, it is awash with eastern influences and references, including an "Indian man dressed in white robes" playing tabla and Jon Camp playing a tanpura [a fretless stringed instrument used as a 'drone' in Indian classical music]. Rajah Khan is built around a main theme with Annie's vocalese and an eastern sounding chord-less riff, followed by a bridge leading to a jam section. This format is repeated a couple of times and works well, with each jam section featuring a different lead. Overall, a good attempt at a lengthy, almost psychedelic Prog instrumental, but I don't like the tedious 2 minute electric guitar intro, nor a rather uninspired synth solo from Francis Monkman.

The remainder of Prologue features four conventional songs with lyrics by Cornish poetess Betty Thatcher. Kiev is a beautiful haunting melody sung by Jon Camp with gorgeous harmonies by Annie on the second part of the verse and bridge, but an up tempo instrumental break rather spoils the mood. Kiev's lyrics invoke an image of a sad Dr. Zhivago world of an old man kneeling in the snow by the lonely grave of his son 'Davorian'. Today, the seashore effects which start and finish Sounds Of The Sea are rather predictable, but not so in 1972. With very personal lyrics about Thatcher's affinity with the shore and sea, something with which I can identify, the song has a nice melody but its arrangement doesn't have enough movement and feels under-developed. At more than 7 minutes it is perhaps over-long. Spare Some Love is a straightforward song with simple lyrics, nice chorus and harmonies, and another contrasting middle break. Finally, Bound For Eternity has an almost folk-rock feel to it, with lively instrumentation trotting along happily to a very slowly sung melody before raising its game for a "ba da da" chorus.

Clothed in a weird Hypgnosis sleeve, Prologue's presentation is fairly minimalist - my CD is a Russian issue which may explain the numerous spelling mistakes in otherwise interesting notes by Chris Welch. At worst this is an accomplished album, a solid base-camp for Renaissance's assault on the slippery slopes of Prog, mostly displaying an astonishing maturity, showing great skill in songwriting, arranging and handling their instruments, yet at times exposing an endearing naivety. It is this naivety which gives Prologue its special charm, which makes it stand out a little from the remainder of their 70s output, and which makes up for the lack of lush orchestration.

Not quite a classic, but still highly recommended

Joolz | 4/5 |


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