Renaissance, what a name, and what a band. This is another band that travelled the third way, I wrote about yesterday in Amazing Blondel’s post. The third way was a path where you didn’t necessarily have to leave your musical chops or imagination at the door. This group, especially with 1973’s release Ashes Are Burning, said to hell with limitations on what folk should sound like, lets go for broke and harken to a time when folk music could be grand and epic. At the time of its creation they were taking equal influence from the likes of Ralph Vaughan Williams, Debussy, and the likes of Pentangle and Curved Air. Somehow, they found a way to turn their original classical and rock influences into something more decisively perceptive and jaw-droppingly astounding. To me its just surprises me how they even got to that point.

Renaissance version 1.0

Imagine, Fleetwood Mac’s creation story…then knock off Mick Fleetwood and John McVie. Originally, created by ex-Yardbirds lead singer Keith Relf and drummer John McCarty, they rounded up a group of like minded musicians who wanted to create music that drew from mostly classical sounds (something unsurprising if you’ve ever heard “Turn Into Earth“…) and would wed that complexity with other influences. It wasn’t quite prog but something else. Their first self-titled album in 1969 gave you a semi-literate glimpse of the sound Keith was after. At times symphonic, rocking, funky, jazzy, and eastern-influenced when it clicked like on “Island” or “Wanderer“, which, as sung by Jane Relf (Keith’s sister) provided an initial glimpse of their later female-led incantation man was there a sound that hinted at something special. However, when it wasn’t (like on most of the rest of the tracks) boy did it sound dated and half-baked. Somehow, though this lineup was especially popular in the US and somewhat elsewhere.

Sometime, a bit later, in 1970-71-ish, this original lineup was falling apart. Constant touring severely limited the sense of joy Keith had conceived the band would give him, and McCarty’s fear of flying was forcing him to relinquish his role in the group. From that point on, they would slowly try to save what was left of the ethos of the band by giving up their places in it and much of the control as well. They had by then ceded lyrical duties to a Cornish poet Betty Thatcher who wrote all the music for their 1971 release Illusion onwards and Keith himself effectively quit the band by starting a new hard rock outfit called Armageddon. McCarty sensing the true end of the band, would rather hand it off to a mate of his Michael Dunford, a guitarist/singer-songwriter than see its original goal lost. Michael was tasked to round up a proper band and continue where they left off. Unfortunately, for him Jane Relf, the last remaining original member up and quit the band as well.

Renaissance version 2.0 with Binky Cullom (justly forgotten!)

By 1971, with no original member left in the band Michael, with the help of McCarty, set up adverts to start from scratch. Their first goal was to get a new vocalist. During the auditions for their band they were graced by the presence of Annie Haslam a fashion student from Bolton. This student had been trained by Sybil Knight, a noted English opera singer, and had a 5-octave range that dwarfed Jane’s prowess. Now, they had something. Somehow, they rounded up the core with the immensely important John Tout on piano and Jon Camp on bass, which would record 1972’s Prologue, an ever apropos name, even though Michael Dunford absolved himself from group duties to focus on upping his songwriting game.

Prologue, provided a small taste of the grandeur which was coming. Splitting duties with Jon Camp, it was their first tentative step moving away from strictly classical and rock motives, and moving into distinctly Impressionistic and folk music. Now, hardly an electric guitar was heard. Pianos, bass, drums, and acoustic guitars danced around Annie’s growing full-throated vocal flights. The title track gives you a taste of this sound. The main fault of the band was failing to go all in on this new sound. Rather than use actual strings to accompany them, they’d use a mellotron. Rathern than, go bigger (something you rarely ask in a band!) for songs that seem like they could do so, like “Sounds of the Sea” they held back so as not to appear too progressive and decidedly un-Rock. You could tell that their was the sound of massive heart tugging experience lurking in the album but too much worrying about sounding with the times was still holding them back.

Renaissance 1973

1973’s Ashes Are Burning, was that release. Now, with Michael Dunford back in toe, he’d convinced them to get rid of all their electric rock underpinnings and harken back to their name. Rounding up a symphonic orchestra he’d let every member contribute much a classical orchestra would. The acoustic guitar, piano and string orchestra would move the listener to Annie’s charms. That’s what you hear so gloriously in the waterfalls of sound that introduce “Can You Understand“. Driven by John Tout’s simply marvelous piano playing, that owes more to Neo-Romantics than the Slavic, Tchaikovsky-esque playing of Proggers like ELP or the Austrian school by the likes of Tony Banks in Genesis, or Yes’ Wakeman, he’d know the role of such complexity was to maintain a memorable melody. This all starts around the 2:55 minute mark, as John plays the piano strings directly with his hands to accompany Michael. From then on, the album just gets golden.

Ashes Are Burning album cover.

Simultaneously soft but powerful, the interplay between the band and their string orchestra grows ever more intuitive. Reels, airs, dervishes, crescendos and more all combine with Cornish poetry sung Annie in only the way she could into one epic symphonic folk sound. This isn’t the music of the English country anymore, but the music of its dance halls. Can’t you picture a song like “Let it Grow” with such erudite arrangements forming the soundtrack to an imagined Romantic England, that Charlotte Bronte, Jane Austen, W.B. Yeats were trying desperately to intone. Where rock and prog bands had members jostle for dominion in a track, with Renaissance you could hear an ensemble unafraid to work as a tandem.

When you get to “Carpet of the Sun” their most pastoral song, you get a quick glimpse of this inviting sound. Naturalist in feeling, its sonic images reminding us of the beauty of our Earth in plain-spoken terms as their grand music conjures up all the glory one can’t simply speak of with any word. Then you get to one of the tracks of the day “At the Harbour” the most Impressionistic track of them all, which opens with John playing excerpts from Debussy’s La Cathédrale Engloutie which then leads off to Michael’s intricate acoustic guitar playing and Annie’s elegiac voice which finishes the track in siren-like fashion. This track starts their ascent to greatness. Grand in its ideals, but deeply humble in sound, it harkens to folk music that could flow like mercury, yet remain deeply moving no matter what shape it took.

My favorite track, by a hair, is the final track “Ashes Burning.” Which perfectly encapsulates in lyricism and melody this new sound, that rose from the ashes of extinguishing tradition. Annie joined by Michael on background vocals commune with John’s shifting neoclassical piano lines and John’s genius bass lines to take you on a revival of their own creation. It all culminates with Andy Powell from Wishbone Ash giving you the pay-off you never saw coming at around the 8 minute mark, the one and only electric guitar solo, one that fits in the grand scheme of this new sound: Symphonic Folk-Rock. So, electrifying, was this new sound that it signalled that neo-folk had a rebirth to tend to. More of this new life tomorrow though…

Bonus track, a great live version of “Can You Understand” at Don Kirchner’s Rock Concert:

Listen to Ashes Are Burning at Spotify.