December 10, 2022

We need to give Michael Dunford immense thanks and kudos for his writing skills on Azure D’Or. It was his spirit that helped keep the band ‘alive’!”

Annie Haslam

Back in 1979, things were getting tricky for the old guard. Few progressive rock bands escaped the punk and disco eras unscathed, and many who kept afloat found themselves compromising or bowing to record label pressure to conform to slick commercial trends. It was a tightrope walk even for the best bands, and with a new decade just around the corner, Renaissance had to learn to roll with the punches.

The band’s classic lineup had coasted through much of the 1970s with a string of masterpiece-status albums, and even found themselves with a top 10 single the previous year with Northern Lights. The following spring saw the release of Azure D’Or, a simultaneous farewell to one decade and quizzical glance in the direction of the next. The final album with the winning lineup of Michael Dunford, Annie Haslam, John Tout, Terry Sullivan, and Jon Camp, Azure D’Or was comprised of ten shorter songs – surprisingly sans the customary epic-length piece. It also saw a shift from the orchestral nature of their past, with modern synthesizers such as the Yamaha CS80 and ARP replacing the familiar strings and horns. A few of the tracks seemed to be chasing the success of Northern Lights, and even the stark cover art felt less adventurous than that of the back catalogue. Any way you sliced it, this was not going to be Scheherazade And Other Stories part II. But revisiting the album in 2022, I’m reminded of how charming and energetic this album really is.

The crew at Cherry Red’s Esoteric label are no strangers to the Renaissance catalogue, faithfully reissuing titles that stretch back to the early lineup’s eponymous debut, and rolling out a series of expanded multi-disc boxed sets that each showcase a classic album. These glossy clamshell collectibles have proven wildly popular among fans, who appreciate the sensible packaging and the reasonable price tag. The series maintains its excellence with Azure D’Or, newly remastered and given new stereo and 5.1 surround-sound remixes courtesy of Stephen W. Tayler (the quickly rising darling of the reissue world). Tayler avoids awkward and jarring changes, instead focusing his energy on simply improving the sound. He ushers in a newfound clarity to the mix, giving the muffled and tinny original some breathing room with a sonic polishing that brings a more timeless quality. His obvious respect for the artists’ original vision is perhaps his greatest asset, and it’s no wonder his name is cropping up more and more often with modern reissues of classic material.

If some elements of the band’s sound had changed by the end of the seventies, the unique stamp Renaissance put on their songwriting was still evident, and retained a level of elegance and sophistication that set them at least a half step above many of their contemporaries. While Azure D’Or may not be widely mentioned in the top tier of their oeuvre, many of their winning ingredients are there in abundance: Haslam’s angelic vocals, Betty Thatcher’s lyrics, Camp’s classic Rickenbacker tone, Dave Hentschel’s production, and of course the sterling songwriting. A transitional album? Yes. A bad album? Absolutely not.

The hooks of memorable album opener Jekyll & Hyde and the soaring Golden Key, for two examples, wouldn’t be out of place on any number of classic Renaissance albums with their majestic melodies. The Discovery is among the most underrated pieces in the entire Renaissance canon; a shifting prog-rock instrumental built on a grooving foundation that explores a variety of moods and never devolves into the aimless showboating of some of their peers. Sullivan gets a rare writing credit with the dreamier Forever Changing, featuring silky vocals from Haslam and the chiming acoustic guitar of the dearly missed Micky Dunford. The quirky and more dynamic Secret Mission is another key track, with its caffeinated pace, rolling tom-toms, and lush keyboards.

The quintet + comb.

The album’s dramatic finale, The Flood At Lyons, is a typically grand and rousing Renaissance piece with Haslam’s voice gliding over the fluid rhythms of Camp and Sullivan (such an impressive and criminally overlooked pair). Haslam described the song as an ‘incredible standout’ in our interview with her in 2021, and it’s hard to disagree with that assessment. Bonus tracks abound too, such as the jangly Island Of Avalon (originally the b-side to The Winter Tree single), the zippy single version of Jekyll & Hyde (what is it about radio stations that they need a four minute song shaved down to three, anyway?) and perhaps most notably, an extended version of the song Friends. And when I say extended, I mean almost doubled in length, with a spirited prog-rock middle instrumental section that may have been frowned upon and thusly axed in 1979, but is heartily welcomed in 2022!

The original mix is included in high resolution stereo on the Blu-ray disc, so anyone humming and hawing about keeping their older CD version need not fret; this is a full and complete upgrade. The Blu-ray is rounded out with bonus video content too, such as two 1979 promo films shot at The Mill House and Bray Studios in Berkshire that showcase the new material (and the earlier Carpet of the Sun for a dose of more classic-period Renaissance). Contained in the box as always is a spiffy illustrated booklet with a photos, lyrics, and a brand new essay with exclusive band interviews regarding the album and tour.

In the world of Renaissance fandom, it’s cause for celebration that Esoteric continue to cast spotlights on every corner of their catalogue. If they had gone the easy route and simply highlighted the obvious choices, we may not rediscover these little gems dotted throughout their later albums, and that would be a shame. If not every track is a clear-cut winner here, the ones that do succeed hoist the album to a higher plane than our dusty memories might have indicated over these many years.

There are equal numbers of people now who say, ‘I don’t know why people don’t like this album so much, I think its brilliant’, notes Camp in the booklet. ‘It was like a faction was scared to come out of the woodwork and say that they liked it. But they do now. Having so much fun with it and discovering new things, I would rate it in the top four Renaissance albums.’