May 13, 2024

Renaissance have a cherished place in ‘70s progressive rock music history. Annie Haslam’s marvellous voice combined with the group’s ability to produce epic symphonic landscapes created a truly unique sound. That period was immortalised on stage in the album Live At Carnegie Hall in 1976, but a subsequent attempt to write music oriented towards an ‘80s audience (including the obligatory hair perms) failed and the band fizzled out by the mid-80s. But as often happens, a reunion eventually took place. That was in 1998 and consisted of all core band members, even if John Tout could only contribute partially to the resulting album, 1999’s Tuscany.  Reinvigorated, Renaissance then headed off on a tour of Japan and recorded In the Land of the Rising Sun: Live in Japan 2001. The live performance is included here in this reissue of Tuscany to make it a comprehensive three-CD set covering their turn of the century output.

Tuscany was of course the cradle of the historical Renaissance so I couldn’t help wondering if the band had gone to the Chianti Hills hoping that the land of the Renaissance might provide a renaissance in their own fortunes. But despite the archetypal Tuscan farmhouse on the cover, the album was actually recorded in Kent! The album title would appear to have been drawn from the opening track title, Lady From Tuscany. This song begins splendidly with vocalising over symphonic strings but the spell is broken by a slightly grating upbeat synth theme. The main part of the song is quite strong and the atmospheric opening part returns to close the piece. Several songs meander along at a similar sedate pace to Lady Of Tuscany. In Pearls Of Wisdom, probably the highlight of the album, the mix of piano and acoustic guitar and the soaring chorus generates a more classic Renaissance sound. Eva’s Pond has a haunting piano theme, the added texture of a violin, and a vocal delivery that has a touch of Kate Bush. In My Life has a magical chorus that sounds straight off the West End stage but the verses drag along slowly. Dolphin’s Prayer is similarly dirge like too, and the one thing that all of these songs have in common is that at the end of the day they hang on the sheer quality of Haslam’s voice. They are pleasantly average songs that would be forgettable with an average vocalist. Haslam was almost 50 years old when this album was recorded but her voice was as powerful as ever.

The original cover of the live Tokyo release

Attempts at producing more upbeat fare generated mixed results. Dear Landseer is a nice folk-sounding singalong with a flourish of the orchestra in the chorus. In The Sunshine has a fine chorus melody but ultimately is a very predictable pop song. The ‘80s synth pop of The Race would be best left in the ‘80s, and the Latin rhythms of Life in Brazil would have been best left as a demo! There is an attempt at an epic closing track, One Thousand Roses, and Haslan’s delivery of the opening ethereal melody is quite outstanding. The main part of the song though is fairly ordinary.

I think it’s fair to say that this isn’t the best Renaissance studio album by a long way, but there are still are flashes of excellence. If this were a single album release, I’d be hard pressed to recommend buying it to any but diehard fans. However, the meat of this compilation is really the two CDs worth of live performance and they are a different kettle of fish. After the release of Tuscany, Renaissance performed a gig in London and a further three in Japan, all during March 2001. It is the Tokyo gig that was recorded to form a live release.

The set opens with the evergreen Carpet Of The Sun. If you listen to the live set directly after Tuscany then it’s like night and day. The energy and class on show makes them seem like a different band, and that’s despite this being one of their more straight-forward songs.  The wonderful Opening Out from A Song For All Seasons follows and it’s a fine version, losing some of the bombastic nature of the studio version but more stately and equally epic.  This is followed by Midas Man, which is more restrained than the studio version on Novella but if anything is superior. Having reminded us of how good their ‘70s material is, Renaissance then test their audience with three songs from Tuscany in the form of Lady From Tuscany, Pearls Of Wisdom and Dear Landseer. To be fair, they are probably the best choice from Tuscany but you can almost sense the energy in the hall evaporate.  The hit single Northern Lights puts things back on track, Mike Oldfield’s Moonlight Shadow maintains the momentum, and the first CD closes with two tracks from Annie Haslam’s solo album The Dawn Of Ananda, including the Indian-tinged Ananda which nicely adds a different dimension.  

The final CD opens and closes with two bona fide prog classics: Mother Russia and Ashes Are Burning. Mother Russia can’t match the grandeur of the Carnegie performance in 1976 when Renaissance had the forces of the New York Philharmonic at hand, but it remains an impressive version all the same. Take the vocalising mid-way through which is supported only by acoustic guitar – this stripped-down approach is quite stunning.  Conversely, you sense Haslam struggling to reach those high notes in the vocalising in Ashes Are Burning but it’s still a remarkably good stab at the song. Between these two epics, there is One Thousand Roses from Tuscany and two less frequently performed ‘70s songs: the ten-minute Trip To The Fair and the short ballad I Think Of You. The concert ends with the band thanking the audience and Haslam’s final words are ‘Hope it’s not too long before we come again’. She giggles on that last word as if knowing that the reunion was already over – which it was. As it turned out, further reunions have since taken place and Tokyo has been visited twice more.

The question that crossed my mind is this one: Could this Live In Japan set topple Live At Carnegie Hall as the favourite Renaissance live testament? That’s probably impossible due to the emotional attachment of many fans to the Carnegie recording, but the Tokyo set has the best of Carnegie material and it contains subsequent classics too, giving perhaps a more comprehensive view of the ‘70s output of the band. Wherever you place it, it’s a must for all fans of the band.