(RED RIVER ENTERTAINMENT/SYMPHONIC ROCK RECORDINGS; 2014)
Quick, name the most prominent female-fronted progressive bands of the ’70s. Not so easy, is it? That’s ’cause there just weren’t that many, which makes Renaissance an extremely important band in the history of prog. So let us now salute the band’s five-octave-ranged vocalist Annie Haslam, for however she did what she did. Namely, to make exceptional ’70s classics like TURN OF THE CARDS, ASHES ARE BURNING and NOVELLA, to keep it going fairly consistently through subsequent decades, and to take care of her classically trained pipes so that Renaissance could remain a going concern into the modern age. The public at large, of course, probably didn’t realize the band was still around past the ’90s, and truthfully, there is something a bit anachronistic about this band in the new millennium. But that said, the level of musicianship in Renaissance has always been incredibly high, and Ms Haslam has a stellar voice, soaring, commanding, sometimes ethereal, and always displaying warmth and something more than a little regal. Her songwriting partner, and the other rather indispensable long-time member of the band, was Michael Dunford, whose guitar work had elegance and shimmering musicality; Dunford drew from folk, classical and rock in somewhat equal measures. Sadly, he passed away during the making of this album, which took the band by surprise and could have spelled the end. But… Haslam and company carried on to pay tribute to Dunford’s talents, which are plentiful here.
Although I’d be lying if I said this album approached the classic sound of their amazing ’70s run, it’s still lovely and listenable. I particularly liked the cinematic dramatics of “The Mystic and the Muse,” with its rapid changes and the vibrant keyboard work of Rave Tesar, and some of the shorter, more evocative tunes like “Waterfall,” which casts a nice Pagan-like tranquil spell, and the gender-balanced, accordion-flavored pop truffle “Air of Drama,” which is nicely crafted. “Porcelain” is also a highlight, very musical and airy, with one of Haslam’s more relaxed vocals, and some nice chord progressions. The background vocals are charming. And let’s give it up for Haslam’s ability to still hit those amazing high notes without much trouble. Being operatically trained has its advantages, for sure. By the time I got to the last track, “Renaissance Man,” I felt rather melancholy, though. It felt like this music belonged in the past, and I almost wanted to be back there.
That’s the thing with bands you remember from their prime. You were younger, so were they, and the whole dang music business was a different animal back then. What is the significance of a band like Renaissance in this day and age? Any band, of course, has a right to keep doing the things that distinguished them in the first place. But Renaissance don’t sound like the NOW, and their classically infused brand of prog just sounds a little out of place. I couldn’t help thinking about an amazing date I had around 1977 or so, taking this girl to see Renaissance in concert and watching her awestruck face as this unique band served it up in their prime. And I got chills listening to stuff like “Midas Man” back then. I like Renaissance, and Annie Haslam is a true pioneer among female vocalists, capable of stunning emotional heights and stirring forays into your subconscious. But I seldom truly LOST myself in this new music; I couldn’t escape the underlying theme of time going by. There are moods when you WANT that sort of thing, however, even if it makes you sad. The loss of Michael Dunford hangs over this project, as does the loss of youth itself. Ms Haslam, however, always sounds wise and knowing and devoted to the graceful acceptance of what must inevitably be. It’s not always easy to do that as a listener, though, and SYMPHONY OF LIGHT put me in mind of a trip to the art museum, struck by the vivid colors and brief sensations and indescribable nostalgia for something I never truly experienced. And leaving, all I could think of was the march of time and the yearning for something different. Such things are buried in this music despite the peppy, pleasing production. How to grow old gracefully, even rock groups gotta deal with that.