I don’t remember the name of the magazine, but I still remember being so impressed by a review of a band I’d never heard of that I went out and bought their new album at my first opportunity. It was an investment at the time, since it was a double-live album, but one that paid off huge for my young ears, opening up the possibilities of what a rock band could be.
That band was Renaissance and the album was Live at Carnegie Hall. Several sounds jumped out as I played it over and over, absorbing the perfect marriage of rock and classical, beginning with the soaring, five-octave range of singer Annie Haslam. I’d never heard anyone in rock music sing like her, with the same power as Robert Plant but always crystal clear and beautiful. I’d discovered Lord of the Rings only a year or two before, and I always thought Annie’s voice was to rock music what Galadriel was to Middle Earth.
The musicians were just as impressive, but most notably, Michael Dunford only played acoustic guitar; that’s right, no electric guitar in an age when a band’s guitar player was a demigod. John Tout’s piano skills were not only on par with Rick Wakeman or Keith Emerson, but always managed to evoke emotion in me that perfectly matched the lyrics. Jon Camp’s bass was the electric force of the band, a melodic power not unlike Chris Squire in Yes, and Terry Sullivan’s percussion were subtle yet drove the band. His playing was never “over the top” like a Neal Peart, but it wasn’t simple either.
The funny thing, I learned later, is that none of the musicians were original members of the band, with most not joining until after the second Renaissance album was released, and this lineup, which is considered the classic band lineup, did not coalesce until the band’s fourth album, Turn of the Cards. Also of interest was that the lyrics were written by a woman named Betty Thatcher who wasn’t in the band at all!
The next delight was the band’s sixth member, the orchestra. I grew up in a home where my parents regularly took me to classical concerts so that I developed a strong love of Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, and Mozart, which is why I am such a fan of progressive rock. There had been other bands before Renaissance, beginning with the Moody Blues, that had incorporated orchestras into their sound, and other bands that had experimented with live recordings in front of orchestras, such as Deep Purple or Procol Harum, but no rock band before or since Renaissance has made the orchestra an essential part of their sound.
As attractive as all these elements sound, without the evocative, emotional songs, the band would be nothing. The album opens with Prologue, a tour de force in which the vocals are merely another instrument. The remaining songs on sides one and two all feature beautiful, haunting melodies over rich, complex arrangements, including two of my favorites, Can You Understand? and Mother Russia. Only one song clocks in at less than seven minutes, Carpet of the Sun (which is still twice as long as a typical Beatles single!).
Side 3 was, at the time, the longest rock song I’d ever heard, the Song of Scheherazade. It begins with a three-minute story explaining the story of the Arabian princess before moving through a nine-movement suite that is equal to Tchikovsky’s 1812 Overture or Beethoven’s Symphony 9 in terms of breadth and scope. Even at 25 minutes, no single part ever feels extraneous.
Side 4 closes with Ashes Are Burning, which was originally an 11-minute epic, but is here expanded to twice that. It’s the band’s chance to open up and jam, especially Jon Camp, who has an extensive bass solo at one point. It’s the one song that might feel a bit out of place, since the orchestra is left out, but by the end, I’m left with a satisfied feeling that I’ve enjoyed a complete music set, a pleasure I still enjoy today listening to it again for possibly the thousandth time.
The classic lineup fell apart in 1980 and today, Annie is the only member left. Sadly, Michael, John Tout, and Betty Thatcher have all passed in the past few years. Their latest album, Symphony of Light, is as good as any of their classic albums from the 70s, however, and well worth picking up. For more information, visit the band’s website here.