❉ Is it the fate of Renaissance to linger as a footnote in the chart history of 1978? Fortunately, the answer to this is a resounding ‘No’.
“The decision, by the redoubtable Esoteric Records label, to release A Song for All Seasons is a welcome chance for aficionados of prog-rock to acquaint themselves with one of the most talented and musically interesting bands to emerge out of the 1970s prog scene”
The phrase ‘one-hit wonder’ is one that has often been used with a slight sneer. Indeed, one could go further and say it has a snooty implication that the band has little to offer pop culture apart from one fleeting song. Reducing a band to a snapshot in time ignores the long and often interesting career path of some artists. Folk-Rock progressives, Renaissance, are one such band who could legitimately be described as one-hit wonders. The operative single, Northern Lights, reached number 10 in the charts in 1978 and, to this day, it serves to prop up play lists of AOR focused radio stations. Other than that, however, they made little commercial impact apart from the brief, ephemeral appearances on Top of the Pops and other entertainment shows. Even the album, from which the single emerged managed only to graze the UK charts, peaking at number 35.
So, is it the fate of Renaissance to linger as a footnote in the chart history of 1978? Fortunately, the answer to this is a resounding ‘No’. There is far more depth and richness to be had from Renaissance than one single – however magnificent that song might be (and more of Northern Lights later on). They are a band whose career has spanned nearly 5 decades, with 13 studio albums, 5 live albums and a style that combines jazz, folk and classical influences as well as the ambient progressive rock oeuvre which they are perhaps most well known.
Whilst it represents a snapshot of a wide and diverse career, the release by Esoteric Record of their 1978 album A Song for All Seasons is the ideal entry point for showcasing the individual talents and collective chemistry of the band. Underpinning the whole piece is the glorious, soaring, five-octave ranged voice of protean singer and artist, Annie Haslam. In a decade replete with stunning female vocalists, Haslam can stand shoulder-to-shoulder with anyone, using her voice with the precision of a surgeon using a scalpel, yet maintaining the searing beauty in her delivery.
Haslam’s vocal talent notwithstanding, Renaissance are an accomplished collective of musicians. A Song for all Seasons boasts the considerable keyboard talents of John Tout. A classical pianist by inclination, his distinctive, layered style provides a crucial backdrop over which Haslam’s precision vocals can truly be enjoyed. With John Camp and Michael Dunford providing an intricate and layered guitar sound, and Terry Sullivan on drums, this album sees the recognised classic line up for Renaissance (if such a thing truly exists in a band with such a fluid membership).
The album itself is, therefore, an accumulation of collaborations, with the band calling on the production talents of erstwhile Genesis producer, David Hentschel and orchestral arrangements arranged by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra’s Harry Rabinowitz. All of these diverse musical elements are encapsulated in the spectacular opening track ‘Opening Out’, a piece which actually prefaces the direction of the album. Tout’s classical piano is eschewed in favour of intricate synthesisers, there is considerable orchestration and, of course, Haslam’s vocal prowess.
The rest of the album is a concoction of musical styles. Day of the Dreamer and Kindness (at the end) are clearly heavily rooted in progressive rock and would not have been out of place on an album released 5 years earlier. Despite this fused style the album manages to maintain an internal coherence. The acoustic-folk of Closer than Yesterday sits comfortably alongside accessible tunes such as Back Home Once Again. The eponymous A Song for All Seasons nicely rounds the original album off and provides a welcome reprise of their genuine prog credentials. The only real discordant piece on the album is She is Love, a track sung by John Camp but which would have perhaps made more sense if it had been sung by Haslam as originally intended.
The decision, by the redoubtable Esoteric Records label, to release A Song for All Seasons is a welcome chance for aficionados of prog-rock to acquaint themselves with one of the most talented and musically interesting bands to emerge out of the 1970s prog scene. The packaging – as one comes to expect from Esoteric – is exquisite. The Clamshell box set contains 3 CDs, the remastered album, some intriguing extras and a previously unreleased series of live recordings. Accompanying this is a wonderfully interesting glossy booklet containing a reprint of their 1978 US tour programme. Truly, this can claim to be the definitive version and as an insight into one of progressive rocks more interesting collectives, it is most definitely worth investing your time and money.
But, despite all of the packaging, and the glorious madness of styles which run throughout the album, it is the mesmeric beauty of Northern Lights which provides this album’s standout moment. It is a perfect coming together of all of the elements of Renaissance in which genius can be glimpsed. Haslam is haunting yet crystal-like in her clarity. Tout’s piano and synthesisers layered with lush guitar providing an accessible yet intricate and sophisticated sound. While there is much more to Renaissance than this, if a band is to be remembered for one thing only then there are surely worse things to be remembered for?
❉ CJ Newman combines a lifelong love of music, science fiction and cult movies with his alter-ego, as an academic writer on space exploration. He can be found on twitter as