April 25, 2023

…in 1978 Renaissance sailed on as if punk hadn’t happened and managed to produce the last great prog album of their career and most likely the last great prog album of that decade.

It’s fascinating to look back and see how bands reacted to the explosive impact of punk and new wave. If you examine 1978 when the impact was really filtering through, then things didn’t look so good for prog. Genesis had released  …And Then There Were Three…, and were in the first stage of reinventing themselves as a pop band with chart hit Follow You, Follow Me. Yes released Tormato, which I think most fans would agree was the start of a terminal decline. ELP released Love Beach, and the less said about that, the better! Amidst that bitter dismantling of the first wave of British progressive rock music, one band that was a sitting duck was Renaissance. Surely their lengthy and pompous classical-influenced prog creations were doomed? Indeed, they were to eventually and embarrassingly transform into a synth pop band in the ’80s, but remarkably, in 1978 Renaissance sailed on as if punk hadn’t happened and managed to produce the last great prog album of their career and most likely the last great prog album of that decade.

A couple of years back, Cherry Red released a remastered and extended version of this album on CD with two of the three-disc set consisting of a live 1978 concert tour to promote the A Song For All Seasons album. Now, Cherry Red have released a vinyl version of the remastered studio album with the original artwork of the 1978 LP release including the enormous fold out poster.  The lineup for this album was the well-honed unit that had been together since 1973 – Annie Haslam (vocals, percussion), Michael Dunford (guitar, vocals), Jon Camp (bass, vocals), Terry Sullivan (drums, percussion, vocals) and John Tout (keyboards, vocals).

As an indication that there would be little concession to changing musical taste elsewhere, they pulled in The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra to provide what proved to be a very rich accompaniment. The remastering brings that orchestration even more clearly to the fore. Perhaps the only compromise to changing times made by the band was the more concise writing, resulting in eight tracks, whereas previous releases from this line-up had consisted of just five or six. That didn’t prevent them from creating long songs – there are two around the ten-minute mark – but to these ears the highlights on the album are in the two sub-five-minute prog pieces, Opening Out and Kindness (At The End). Opening Out is a brilliant choice for the first track on side one – you wonder what is happening in the doodling around of the first forty seconds or so before possibly the most sublime theme the band wrote bursts in with the full orchestra. That same theme is then picked up beautifully by Haslam as the melody of the chorus. If it had been written a couple of years earlier, it would very probably have been at least ten minutes long. It might have been better, but it could also have got lost in the meanderings that sometimes afflicted the band. The second highlight, Kindness (At The End), begins and concludes with a dynamic and theatrical theme while the song is characterised by the spine-tingling moment as the beautiful chorus comes in. Camp takes the lead vocal on this track which I’ve always thought was a pity because Haslam could have really shone singing this one.  

The fold-out wall poster that comes with the vinyl version

The two long tracks are very much in the Renaissance tradition. Day Of The Dreamer is one of those multi-part pieces which to some ears (including mine) might appear a little disjointed. The main vocal section is cheerful and exuberant, almost a tip of the hat to Steeleye Span. There’s a dramatic orchestral section, and a good piano theme (with a touch of Firth Of Fifth) which develops a little jazzily. The main vocal section returns in more serious and serene guise later on which provides a fitting climax, but overall the song falls short of being a classic.

The title track closes side two and has another of those fine melodies that this band could pull out of the hat at will during this period. There’s a rather bombastic orchestral prelude and as the track reaches its climax, the band throw in everything but the kitchen-sink – including the 100 members of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. Releasing this in 1978 can only be interpreted as a spiteful poke in the eye of punk!

Of the shorter songs, Northern Lights is the one that undoubtedly every reader will know since it was the band’s one and only UK hit single, reaching number 10 in the charts. Two other short tracks, Back Home Once Again and Closer Than Yesterday, are equally straight forward and both quite commercial with the vocal harmony parts from Haslam in the chorus having a distinctly Abba-like feel to them.

The use of orchestral arrangements is of course nothing new but in A Song For All Seasons, the orchestra plays a crucial role in creating a rich, warm and epic soundscape. Going back to the 1978 concert that I mentioned, there’s a version of Opening Out which, shorn of the orchestra, is quite frankly feeble. If Renaissance had given in to the times, then that’s what this entire album might have sounded like. We should be grateful to them for resisting, and for their label at the time for allowing them to go ahead and produce one last moment of ‘70s progressive rock glory.