Let's enter the Wayback Machine today.
'Back in the day,' I used to spend a lot of time in record stores...so named because they carried records. Records are these big pieces of round black vinyl with grooves on them, and you put them on a device called a turntable, and...
Oh wait...most of you know this.
Anyway...I used to spend a lot of time in records stores. I'd browse through the bins, talk to the staff and so on. At the time (I'm thinking 1992-1993 or so), I was getting into a group called Miranda Sex Garden, which started out as a trio of a capella vocalists performing madrigals and evolved into a dark, goth/fetish/semi-industrial group with angelic vocals and a dark, driving musical backing that could be called progressive in its own right. In any event, I'd just picked up Suspiria, their full length rock release, and was raving about it in the local shop when a guy whose musical opinions I generally respected said 'If you like MSG, I have got a band for you.'
I was intrigued, especially as he said that they were lighter by far than MSG, but with a singer that'd blow any of the three female vocalists in MSG away. Sadly, he said, all their albums save for 2 comps were out of print in the States, and the comps, while good, weren't really the best way to check them out. He said, if I bought a few blanks for him, he'd dub copies of a few albums for me to check out. I took him up on the offer, and a few days later I was gifted with a pair of taped labeled 'RENAISSANCE.'
Yes, they were lighter by far when compared to MSG.
And yes, their vocalist blew away Katharine Blake, Donna McKevett and/or Kelly McCusker, perhaps all at the same time.
A few weeks later a friend of mine and I were in Vintage Vinyl in Fords NJ...one of the biggest and best record stores in NJ. They actually had a prog section (still do, and it's one of the best...no real large amount of French prog, sadly, but still...) and as I was going through it, I found...Renaissance CDs...A Turn of the Cards...Scheherazade...Live at Carnegie Hall...Novella...A Song for all Seasons...and a bunch more besides. Sadly, they were all imports, all priced between $25 and $50 a piece...and I didn't have a CD player yet.
I resigned myself to buying the two comps (Tales of 1001 Nights in 2 volumes), on Sire Records and available at stateside prices, on cassette. I wore them out. Played them constantly. And over time, I began to buy the albums...first actually on vinyl, used. Played them all the time. Wore them out. Sang along. Was blown away by their material...the operatic vocals of Annie Haslam...a guitarist who played to add colour and tone to the music, not to solo. A pianist who sounded like he should be playing Rachmaninoff, not 'rock' music. A bassist who blew away Chris Squire, in my not so humble opinion. And a drummer who had to handle some impressively complex rhythms and move a song along that didn't necessarily rock out.
How could this group not have been huge?
Was it the fact that their material was more classically informed?
Was it the fact that they didn't 'rock out' like Yes or Crimson or Tull?
I wish I knew.
Certainly not having their albums in print in the US was not a help. Sire really dropped the ball on that, and the same could be said for a lot of major labels' handling of newer prog...or prog that wasn't played on classic rock radio (ref. echolyn, Annie Haslam on Epic, et cetera). Realistically, Renaissance's fan base in the US was/is in a band that stretches from Boston to DC...the traditional prog corridor in the US. Unlike Rush or Kansas, they didn't have much chance to expand beyond that. The fact that they were at their best live with an orchestra behind them to realise their richly textured compositions was a drawback as well, I'd wager, in terms of touring.
All of this moves away from the point...or points...of all of this.
1) To this day, Renaissance remains one of my most loved groups. I was very nearly starstruck when I got to meet Annie Haslam a few years back at NEARfest...I had to be pushed into going over to say hi and ask for a photo with her, such was my terror of actually being able to say something to someone whose voice I had fallen in love with. For someone whose favourite group is probably King Crimson, meeting Annie was perhaps the biggest highlight of my life.
2) I think more people should check out Renaissance. Seriously. Their material is awesome...the run of albums from Prologue through Azure d'Or is nearly flawless, in my not at all humble opinion. After that...hit and miss...sometimes more miss than hit. But that run of 7 studio albums and 1 live album...almost the pinnacle of musical perfection in 'rock' music.
3) Now that record stores are going the way of the dodo and the passenger pigeon, it's going to get harder and harder to have that kind of communication where discovery is the end result. There ore, of course, some very good web forums out there where one can trawl and dig and look for gems, but I miss the one on one connection I had at the local. One thing I hope in time that I will be able to do is be kind of a 'local' for any of you out there...telling you about what I've found, what I think, and so on.