25 September 2010

CD RETRO REVIEW: Renaissance - Novella (1977, Sire Records)

Fandom knows no bounds.

Back in 1990 or 1991, I discovered a British group called Miranda Sex Garden.  They began life as a vocal/madrigal group, signed to Mute Records, but over time developed a heavy sound, steeped in metal, with what were (to me) very progressive overtones and lush multi-part female vocals. 

One night at the local independent record store, I was talking about MSG, and one of the staff said to me, “If you like them, I have a group you might really get into...”

Curious, I asked him who it was, and he said Renaissance.  I went to the R section of the racks, and saw 2 albums: Tales of 1001 Nights I and Tales of 1001 Nights II.  I was about to pick them up when he said, “No, those aren’t the best way to discover them.  You need to hear the original albums.”  He offered to make me copies of a couple of the LPs, as at the time their entire catalogue was out of print in the US save for those 2 compilations.  I eagerly took him up on his offer.

A few days later I stopped back and he had a cassette tape for me.  I took it, thanked him, and popped it in the tape deck in my car.  I was transfixed.  I’d never heard “rock” music quite like this before...loads of orchestration, operatic female vocals, no electric textures at all.  It was amazing.  As I’d heard everything was out of print (and at the time not knowing about the whole idea of import CDs), I started scouring used vinyl bins for their albums.  I ended up finding copies of a few and grabbed them.

Over time, and not finding anything else by them anywhere, I picked up cassette copies of the two comps I mentioned above, and heard other material that I was unfamiliar with.  The liner notes referenced a massive epic track called “The Song of Scheherazade,” which was supposedly 25 minutes long...the compilation only had a 4 or 5 minute excerpt of it.  The music brought me such joy, and coincident with it sadness, as I figured I’d have a very difficult time finding any of the other albums.

In the mid 1990’s I finally had a CD player, and started discovering that albums out of print here in the US often were in print elsewhere.  One of the first groups I looked for was Renaissance, and discovered a number of their releases in print in the UK and Germany.  At $18 to $20 US per disc, I figured it was worthwhile, and grabbed them.  Sadly, three of the albums I wanted (2 of which I had on vinyl and didn’t want to wear out) were not in print in Europe...only available on Warner Brothers Records (the band’s parent label) in Japan.

Here is where fandom has no bounds.

The discs (all single CD albums) were $40, $40 and $50 US a piece.  In 1995.

I bought them without a thought.

Let me tell you about Renaissance a little bit.

The first thing most people notice is the voice.  No, make that THE VOICE.  Annie Haslam has one of the most identifiable voices in music, period...glistening, crystalline, and pure, with a 5 octave range and dramatic, operatic delivery.  In high school, I would sing along to her vocals to keep my vocal range up (by senior year, I was singing countertenor, and could hit a decent bit of her range, save for the top end).  Her voice meshes perfectly with the band’s richly orchestrated sound; with a very few exceptions earlier in the band’s career, and then at the end of the band’s career, the group eschewed the traditional trappings of a rock band (electric guitar, synths), instead extensively using piano, acoustic guitar, and orchestra backing to create a sound unlike anyone else in the genre.

John Tout (piano), Jon Camp (bass, vocals), Michael Dunford (acoustic guitar), and Terrance Sullivan (drums) were perfectly suited to this task.  Dunford composed the majority of the band’s songs, working with a Cornish poet named Betty Thatcher who provided lyrics via post.  Additionally, his guitar playing was rich and textured, avoiding solos for the most part in exchange for adding colour and fullness.  Jon Camp’s bass playing is warm and lyrical, and his vocals harmonize wonderfully with Haslam’s.  Sullivan is a dexterous drummer, equally adept at light percussion and heavier, rockier beats when necessary, and Tout’s piano and organ playing is expressive and emotional, showing restraint where necessary while easily blasting out powerful chords and melodic lines when needed.

All of this is a long build up to me talking about Novella.  The album came out in 1977 on Sire Records (yes, the name label that held the Ramones and a load of other punk/new wave bands), and is my favourite record by Renaissance.  Released one year after their monumental 2-LP live set recorded at Carnegie Hall, the album features some of the group’s widest range of material, solid production, and fantastic packaging.

Can You Hear Me? (13:39) – Novella opens with the longest track on the album, a nearly 14-minute long epic.  We begin with a slight orchestral build up and piano, leading to some powerful vocal shots and melodic lead bass playing, under which the orchestra (real strings!) handles the main musical these.  Dunford’s guitar adds a sense of insistence...propulsion...with excellent stereo separation of multiple parts creating a semi-counterpoint feel.  One channel features a more rhythm-based part, while the other has Dunford picking chords to match the keyboard and orchestration.  Haslam sings a good bit of the song in a lower, alto register, leaving her clear soprano for the last four minutes.  Her voice takes on an almost child-like sound here, and it fits the distant, lost vibe the lyrics present.

The Sisters (7:12) – This is one of the tracks referenced in the liner notes to the Tales of 1001 Nights compilations that I longed to hear.  Often I find that anticipation leads to disappointment, but here the opposite occurred, as I could not have anticipated what the song offered.  Spanish in tone, apocalyptic lyrically, and with an incredible Michael Dunford acoustic guitar solo (one of very few) which I feel David Gilmour ripped off for his PF song “High Hopes,” this is an epic’s worth of music and intensity in just slightly more than 7 minutes.

Midas Man (5:46) – Strummed acoustic guitar, layered vocals from Haslam and Camp, flourishes of piano, tubular bells, and a simple insistent bass drum beat.  The lyrics are cynical and sardonic, decrying the upper class and their affinity for the acquisition of wealth at all costs.  It’s a heavy song without relying on speed beats and heavy rock production.

The Captive Heart (4:16) – John Tout shines on this lovely piano ballad, which also features multiple Annie Haslam vocal parts arranged in a shifting canon style.  Lyrically wistful and longing, it ranks among my favourite Renaissance tracks despite being so “atypical” compared to the majority of their material.  Limiting the arrangement to vocals and piano is a nice touch, as it suits the song wonderfully...it maintains the slightly sad wishful feeling of the track without drenching it in unnecessary layers of sound.

Touching Once (Is So Hard To Keep) (9:27) – This is perhaps the rockiest track on the album, and even at that it doesn’t truly rock out until the end of the song.  All the band’s hallmarks are on display here; simple but beautiful orchestration, Jon Camp’s bass playing (taking more of a lead role here), deft drumming from Terrance Sullivan (including a neat little flourish/solo at app. 6:00), and fantastic vocal harmonies from Haslam and Camp.  Lyrics are again willed with longing, regret and sadness; in fact, much of Novella is drenched in this lyrical theme.  The song ends with a fantastic sustained note from Haslam and an intense orchestra fanfare/flourish, offering up an actual proper ending rather than a fade out.

Annie Haslam - lead & backing vocals
Jon Camp - bass, backing vocals, lead vocal cameo on "The Captive Heart"
Michael Dunford - acoustic guitars, backing vocals
John Tout - keyboards, backing vocals
Terence Sullivan - drums, percussion, backing vocals


Anonymous said...

I have this one on vinyl/LP - wonder if it's worth much? I really wouldn't want to sell it though because I love it!
Yeah, when Annie sings "keep" on 'Touching Once (Is So Hard To Keep)' it nearly could break glass!
Great review - Great LP, great band!

Steve said...

i never see any one like Annie when she sing than it create different atmosphere really so touching once..definitely it could break glass...

Anonymous said...

I prefer Ashes are Burning but this is a strong album. It gets such bad reveiws I don't get it. Defining moment is that sustained note. You keep thinking she'll stop but she doesn't.

wayneswhirld said...

I love Renaissance and this album in particular. I discovered them in 1977 with Novella and then listened to the earlier albums. Then I didn't pay them much mind until a few years ago and now have all their albums in my iTunes. "Can You Hear Me" is my favorite. When I have difficulty falling asleep I just sing/play it in my head, never making it to the end of the song. I finally saw the latest version of Renaissance in a small venue White River Junction, VT last June. Only Anne is an original and while a shadow of their former selves, the band put on a good show, playing faithfully many of the classics, and Anne at 67 y/o still hit some amazing high notes!