This isn’t the first (and won’t be the last) time I’ve rattled on about the Esoteric label and their powerhouse reissues of classic progressive rock titles, such as their new four-disc expanded edition of the triumphant Renaissance album Turn Of The Cards. Released in 1974 – squarely in the middle of their legendary run of six albums that began with the arrival of Annie Haslam (on 1972’s Prologue) – Turn Of The Cards finds the band at the near-peak of their artistic creativity, and is home to some of the most celebrated and definitive tracks in the Renaissance catalogue.
With their magnum opus Scheherazade And Other Stories only a year away, the band was quickly building on the classically-influenced compositions of their previous two albums, adorning these new pieces with full-on orchestral arrangements for the first time, and allowing them to flower into six works of true symphonic magnificence. A glance at the track listing reveals one classic work after another, and in the mists of time, one sometimes forgets that these were all on the same album! Opening track and fan favourite Running Hard is pure, vintage Renaissance, as is the captivating Black Flame, the mournful Cold Is Being, and of course the stunning epic closer Mother Russia, long considered one of the absolute top Renaissance tracks, and for good reason – a truly timeless and majestic piece of music, it’s the kind of thing Renaissance did best.
Sonically, the album has been given a fresh coat of paint with a new remaster from the original master tapes (and it sounds quite spectacular), but the real gems of this set are uncovered the further we explore. Perhaps most noteworthy to some will be the inclusion of a previously unreleased studio track from the album sessions, a straightforward mid-tempo song titled Everybody Needs A Friend. The original vinyl single version of Mother Russia is also included here for the first time on CD. Rounding out the first disc are new stereo mixes of three of the tracks, which may be of interest to some fans who like to play ‘spot the difference’.
The whole of discs two and three are taken up with a complete concert from The Academy of Music in New York City in May of 1974 (this recording has seen unofficial, dodgy quality releases in the past, but has been properly remixed from the original tapes for the first time here, and finally sounds like a proper live album – a double, at that!) Complete with 25-piece orchestra, and with Andy Powell of Wishbone Ash in a notable guest lead guitar spot, this impressive live performance is an absolute must-have for any Renaissance fan. Surely the highlight of this set for many people, the show was naturally heavy on material from Turn Of The Cards (the live version of Mother Russia here outdoes the already splendid studio track!), but also featured other classic tracks from up to that point their career, such as Can You Understand, Carpet Of The Sun, Prologue, and of course the monster opus Ashes Are Burning. Home stereo listeners will also delight in the fourth disc, a splendid DVD featuring hi-res stereo and 5.1 surround mixes of the complete Turn Of The Cards album, taken from the original 16-track tapes.
As with previous expanded titles in this ongoing series (such as Live At Carnegie Hall, Novella and A Song For All Seasons), the set is housed in a glossy clamshell box that highlights the beautiful Hipgnosis cover artwork. In the illustrated booklet included with the set, Annie Haslam explains: ‘The castle in the background of the artwork is Warwick Castle, and that is haunted. In fact, it’s been said that the whole of Warwickshire is haunted, because there have been so many battles fought there. I also love the album title… it is so striking.’ An essay on the album is also included, along with further quotes from Annie, Terry Sullivan and Jon Camp. An interesting read, it’s tempting to pluck from these quotes and insert them here, but in the end it will be a better experience for the fans to read them all at once, for themselves. These detailed liner notes provide an excellent companion piece to pore over, particularly while that surround mix bounces around the room – a true immersive experience, Renaissance-style. Overall, there are a lot of goodies here, and I can only tip my hat and look forward to the next title in this Esoteric series. They really do a top-notch job from a fan and listener perspective, and this gorgeous expanded Turn Of The Cards comes highly recommended.