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Album Review

© Russell W Elliot 1999

Last Updated: 03 October 1999

The late 1990s has brought fans of the legendary progressive rock band Renaissance a plethora of new recordings to add to their collections. Michael Dunford's Renaissance released alternative versions of classic tracks and a couple of new tracks with Stephanie Adlington on Ocean Gypsy (HTD CD71, 1997) and a compilation of this work with tracks from The Other Woman (HTD CD27, 1995) on Trip To The Fair (Mooncrest CRESTCD 034, 1998).

The long awaited rarities album by the classic Dunford—Haslam—Camp lineup entitled Songs From Renaissance Days (HTD CD 63) was also released in 1997. Unfortunately the only song including the full lineup with Terry Sullivan and John Tout on the album is "Island Of Avalon" which was originally cut from Azure d'Or and was released as a b-side to the 7" "Winter Tree" single.

Michael Dunford was heavily involved with the Scheherazade musical during 1997 while Annie Haslam planned her first solo tour in Brazil. Annie's Live Under Brazilian Skies (White Dove WD00-001, 1998) was released to commemorate the tour a year later. A promotional edition of songs from Dunford's musical, recorded in the summer of 1997 was the first collaboration of new music released by the two artists in many years. The musical was showcased successfully in London as 1997 drew to a close. A West End opening is expected in the year 2000.

With performances by the entire classic Renaissance lineup, 1997 actually began with two live CDs by the entire classic Renaissance brought out of the 1970s King Biscuit Flower Hour archives. Remixed under Dunford's expert direction with Annie's collaboration, the two individually released CDs treated fans to a unique and highly memorable performance from the Novella era and a few bonus tracks.

Released as part of the King Biscuit Flower Hour series and entitled Renaissance At The Royal Albert Hall With The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra (Part 1 and Part 2) (BMG/KBFH 70710-88020-2 and 70710-88026-2, 1997), the CDs were released in different forms in a great number of territories and actually sold quite well. The first (US) pressing of Part 1 included a live version of "A Song For All Seasons" where another of "Prologue" was meant to be. This led to a KBFH Records recall campaign that fans ignored and a second pressing with "Prologue" where "A Song For All Seasons" had been in the first. Despite all this excitement, many of the band's loyal fans felt that artifacts within the recording were distracting and therefore compromised the quality of the underlying music.

Rumors of a partial reunion that had circulated in the fan community—founded or unfounded—finally proved correct when Mike Dunford, Annie Haslam, John Tout and Terry Sullivan embarked on an all new project during two recording sessions in the summer of 1998. While the album has been completed, a deal for its release has not yet been announced, however the song "Eva's Pond" from it has been performed by Dunford and Haslam live (London Astoria, 1 Oct 99).

Never resting on their laurels or relying on their royalties, the artists collaborated with Wounded Bird Records and the BBC to produce this year's live release from the classic Renaissance lineup. Entitled BBC Sessions (Wounded Bird WOU 1001, 1999), the two-CD set includes tracks from the mainstream era spanning Prologue to A Song For All Seasons from annual BBC live recordings made from 1975 to 1978.

Pete Zorlakki digitally remastered the material and the album's liner notes are by Annie Haslam. The music on these CDs is unquestionably the highest quality set of live Renaissance tracks to emerge in many years, with the mix at times far surpassing the band's Live At Carnegie Hall double album.

The two tracks making their live debut on this release include "[The] Vultures Fly High" and "Day Of The Dreamer." While live versions of the other tracks have all at one time or another been released, the performances captured here are superb and the effects applied through the digital remastering process have achieved imaging quality known only to Mobile Fidelity Sound Labs releases earlier. The result has brought a new life to each of these classically stunning tracks. There are a small number of artifacts in the final mix, usually in the form of over modulation during a vocal excursion. But these have indeed been kept to a bare minimum unlike the KBFH CDs where a hum that could not be mixed out was a major distraction.

"Prologue" opens the first CD and is followed by an absolutely wonderful version of "The Vultures Fly High" from 1978 with perfect vocals underscored by wonderfully imaged instrumentals. "Midas Man," also from 1978, follows again in a similar vein with crystal clear vocals and perfectly balanced instrumentation. The album's highlight tune "Day Of The Dreamer" follows suit with luscious keyboard work by John Tout and an incredible drum performance by Terry Sullivan.

The 1977 version of "Touching Once" has a lovely acoustic guitar part in the instrumental bridge before the reprise and further serves to illustrate just how great a drummer Terry Sullivan is and showcases Tout's keyboard skills. Annie's stunning vocal performance has not been mixed as high on this track as on many of the others in this release.

Unlike the Live At Carnegie Hall and the Royal Albert Hall releases, "Song Of Scheherazade" is performed on BBC Sessions without an orchestra. It brought fond memories of the live performances of the band I attended in upstate New York during the 1970s. Truly amazing in the depth achieved without the orchestra, the twenty-five minute track showcases each of the artists' talents throughout the song's many movements. Tout's multiple keyboards, Dunford's different guitars, Camp's bass and Sullivan's percussion are especially noteworthy in this performance. Tout's keyboards carry the orchestral parts wonderfully. A major improvement in this recording of the suite is Annie's lead vocal work—it has been brought way up in the mix throughout. The mix has also dealt with the suite's dynamic range effectively, especially that very quiet moment (13:06 into the song) between "The Young Prince and Princess" and "Festival Preparations"—a certain testament to the quality of the recording and the remastering processes.

The second CD's tracks, with the exception of the last one, were recorded in early 1977. Unlike the other sources used for the CD, this one is riddled with little bits of distortion. "Can You Hear Me," opens the second CD and like the others from this performance saturates in spots and there's a tendency to overcook the reverb occasionally, however, the remastering process has done an outstanding job of ensuring that the musical elements remain distinct—one can even hear the snares on Sullivan's drum rattling against the lower head during the quietest portions of the song. Dunford's acoustic guitar is certainly at its best here.

An absolutely stunning rendition of "Ocean Gypsy" follows. First and foremost a vocal number with Annie in top form, Sullivan's extremely crisp percussion accompanies Camp's melodious bass and Dunford's guitar and the entire band sings with Annie in the choruses of this wonderful song.

"Carpet Of The Sun" is most notable for the clarity and mixed level of Annie's lead vocals. The shortest song on the album, it lacks the excursions taken by the band in each of the other live performances that have been included although the variety of the synthesizer work in this live performance is notably more pronounced than the earlier studio version.

Two classic tracks from Turn Of The Cards, "Mother Russia" and "Running Hard" share the qualities with the earlier tracks on the second CD however both have more prominent piano work than the earlier tracks on the album. The bass mix has been brought up to accurately reflect the live performances of the age, well above the studio version, effectively adding to the overall ambiance of the album and buildup to the closing number.

While some fans might be dismayed that the album closes with yet another rendition of "Ashes Are Burning," this stunning version from 1975 is pinnacle recording of the band's most frequently played closing track. It is where the band completely lets themselves go—improvisation during the instrumental bridge provides each of the artists an opportunity to show the depth and breadth of their talent in its rawest form. A spotlight on the mirror ball would accompany Annie's swirling vocals as the improvisation comes to an end and the song's final reprise begins. Enhanced by one small feedback squeak, the recording's imaging has enabled the production staff to effectively capture the true ambiance of a live performance.

Clearly 1999's live Renaissance release BBC Sessions is one of the finest live recordings of the classic lineup to be released. A treasure for fans and newcomers alike, the album features some of the band's best live performances and with it's superb mix, showcases each of the artists' talents extremely well. The album's artwork is perhaps a bit understated for the quality of the music contained within, but the individual CDs are silk-screened quite nicely with complete details. A marvelous compilation of live recordings, Renaissance’s BBC Sessions will certainly psyche up enthusiasts for their next album in the new millennium.

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