September 28, 2022

If you’re a fan of Renaissance and don’t have this, well, you need it. It’s the roots of the band without doubt, produced by boldly adventurous trailblazers who left a map for others to colonise, and their work should always be acknowledged.

Before we get into the nuts and bolts of this reissued album from 1969, the debut from Renaissance, let’s deal with the elephant which is hanging round the room. While this is indeed the first album from the band which morphed into the Annie Haslam-led outfit so revered in prog circles for the last half decade, there is no connection personnel-wise at all here. None. This first iteration of the band was put together by ex-Yardbirds duo Keith Relf and Jim McCarty, bringing in keyboard player John Hawken and bassist Louis Cennamo to round things out. There is also a place on vocals along with Keith for his sister Jane Relf, though she is a little under-used. This line-up went on to record a second album, entitled Illusion, on which Michael Dunford contributed guitar to one song. When the band crumbled not long afterward, Dunford perhaps surprisingly kept the name, assembled the familiar crew of Haslam, Camp, Tout and Sullivan – and the rest, as they say, was history. A bizarre twist in the tale occurred in the late ’70s when the original band reformed (minus Keith Relf who sadly died just as they were regrouping), only to be denied the right to use their own name, and instead recorded two albums under the name Illusion, taken from their second album as Renaissance. In fact, their second album in this new guise was itself titled Illusion, making it the second time the same band had recorded a second album called Illusion, under different names. Still with me at the back there? There will be a test. To make things even more convoluted, they briefly resurfaced again decades later under the band name of ‘Renaissance Illusion’, but let’s not even go near that rabbit-hole…

Anyhow, now that particular surreal rock history lesson has made all of our heads spin, let’s look at this album – which, especially considering its release date of late 1969, was something of a groundbreaking effort. Relf and McCarty had the idea of creating a totally new blend of rock, folk and classical music, and for the most part here it really works. This is where the connection to the more familiar Renaissance incarnation really does make sense, as this is undoubtedly the blueprint for their material. For a start, although Relf does play guitar, it is mainly rather low-key, and the dominant instrument almost throughout is Hawken’s piano, taking virtually all of the solos and lead melodic lines. The opening track, the eleven minute epic Kings And Queens has established a reputation as a noteworthy piece, and the standout track on the album, and this is entirely warranted. Pivoting around Hawken’s magnificent piano work, the piece manages to snake its way through ten minutes of fairly lengthy alternating vocal and instrumental sections without ever growing stale. Perhaps the only criticism to be laid at the track is that Keith Relf’s voice really wasn’t the best suited to this sort of material, but he gets away with it through the sheer quality of the writing and the instrumental execution. It is a deservedly acknowledged classic, but it is far from alone on an album with several high points among its five tracks.

The original UK cover

Making up the original vinyl side one was the seven minute Innocence, again sung by Keith, which mines a similar furrow to the opener but with a slightly less ‘baroque’ feel to it, and more of a contemporary prog sound (in as much as ‘prog rock’ even existed at the time, so ambitious was this release). Following this are two shorter tracks, the six minute Island and four minute Wanderer. Both of these feature lead vocals from Jane Relf, who displays an excellent, if untrained voice, and one cannot avoid the impression that she really should have been given more lead vocal work – which was overly hogged by her brother (in fairness, perhaps understandably, as he had been lead singer with The Yardbirds whereas this was her first ever recording). The rather lovely Island is a noteworthy piece historically as the song Annie Haslam sang at her audition for the band, and also featured, uniquely among the Mk I band’s material, on the 2018 Renaissance 50th Anniversary live album. The piece is extended to its six minute length by the surprising and one must say blatant hijacking of Beethoven’s Pathetique Sonata for the instrumental halfway through. It is superbly played by Hawken, with inventive bass and drum backing, but a lack of credit to Ludwig does seem a little jarring! Wanderer, following this, takes us even further into ‘it’s only baroque and roll’ territory, based as it is around harpsichord this time out, as if Hawken was frustrated by having to play this new-fangled piano instrument! It works extremely well with Jane’s clear, pure vocal tones, however, and as a result these latter two tracks will probably form the clearest link to those expecting a female vocal to be an absolute given for a Renaissance recording.

There’s one more track to go, however, and it’s the longest on here – as Bullet takes eleven and a half long minutes to hit its target. An almost complete departure from the rest of the album, it is the most divisive track among fans, with as many praising its wild experimental bravery as those decrying its meandering and unfocused nature. My vote lands in the middle, though slightly more towards the naysayers if I had to take a side, as an interesting opening section featuring blues-influenced rock playing and some fascinatingly abstract lyrical content gives way around a third of the way through to instrumental sections which often veer into the realms of ‘noodling’. There is even a bass solo of around two minutes in case you thought you needed it (which you most certainly don’t, by the way), and the lack of a strong thematic finish to tie things up and resolve the piece makes the album drift towards a disappointingly loose conclusion. This release includes two bonus tracks, being a single version of Island (which is a completely different version incidentally, and not an edit), along with its B-side, a rather nice song featuring Jane Relf entitled The Sea. To these ears, had Bullet been edited down by several minutes and this song included to fill that space, the album would most certainly have been improved. But hey, this was the late ’60s, and King Crimson were happily recording Moonchild with its nine minute coda of dribbling improvisation, so the times were different then!

UK readers of this review may notice the unfamiliar nature of the cover design used for this release. I for one had never seen this artwork, being used to the striking and intricate artwork used on the original UK release. In fact, the art used here is from the US version of the original 1969 release, which makes it an interesting, if somewhat puzzling, choice. Mind you, it could be worse: the album was reissued on CD back in 1998 retitled for no apparent reason as Innocence, and the cover design used then was the Mona Lisa with a cat’s face. So let’s count our blessings… The booklet with this reissue also includes some new notes of esoterically flowery prose about the recording from bass player Cennamo, who sounds rather as if he took a rather interesting trip 50 years ago and is expecting to come down from it any day now. It certainly strikes the authentically ‘1969’ tone of the album if nothing else!

If you’re a fan of Renaissance and don’t have this, well, you need it. It’s the roots of the band without doubt, produced by boldly adventurous trailblazers who left a map for others to colonise, and their work should always be acknowledged. Even if you’re not a Renaissance die-hard, if you like melodic yet ambitious rock music with a determinedly classical slant to it, you’ll find much to like here. One thing is for certain, The Yardbirds it most certainly was NOT!