For British progressive and art rock, the relatively short period between March 1973 and December 1974 was particularly fruitful. Roxy Music released ‘For Your Pleasure‘ and ‘Stranded’, Genesis released two of their most ambitious works in ‘Selling England By The Pound’ and ‘The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway’, while King Crimson gave us ‘Larks’ Tongues In Aspic’ and Emerson, Lake & Palmer tipped the scales of self-indulgence with their ‘Brain Salad Surgery’. Meanwhile, Yes continued their long voyage into the epic with the help of ‘Relayer’, and Pink Floyd and Mike Oldfield released albums that would eventually become worldwide all-time best-sellers. Given the quality and love for each of these records, it’s hardly surprising that, in comparison, ‘Turn of The Cards’ – the fourth studio release from British symphonic rock combo Renaissance – hardly ever gets talked about.
That Renaissance ever got off the ground as a band at all, of course, is a small miracle in itself. Starting out as a ‘folk-rock with classical influences’ project for Keith Relf and Jim McCarty (both from the disbanded Yardbirds), the original band cut one full album together. Tensions grew during the recording of the follow up and most of the band left before completion, leaving keyboardist John Hawken and vocalist Jane Relf to pick up the pieces of what would eventually become ‘Illusion’. They completed part of the album with a pick-up band (including guitarist Michael Dunford), after which Hawken upped and left. The original band (minus Hawken) then reconvened to record the remaining album tracks. A messy affair in terms of its construction to say the least; you’d think with the band in such disarray, after that, they’d have thrown in the towel.
Various short-lived line-ups existed over the next few months. By the release of 1972’s ‘Prologue’ LP, against the odds, the beginnings of ‘classic’ Renaissance were in place. The band had been augmented by vocalist Annie Haslam, bassist Jon Camp, drummer Terence Sullivan and keyboard player John Tout. Interestingly, however, Dunford had already departed, meaning this release featured nobody connecting this band to the original Renaissance. He would return, however, for the following year’s ‘Ashes Are Burning’ – and this best-known line-up of Haslam, Tout, Dunford, Camp and Sullivan would embark upon their musical journey releasing a short run of critically acclaimed works. Although ‘Ashes’ defined the classic Renaissance sound, ‘Turn of the Cards’ is a far more assured, slightly more accessible album. This is partly to do with its selection of near-faultless material, but also owes a lot to the band achieving a final stability within their line-up.
Taking the classical elements of their previous work and pushing them to their extreme, ‘Running Hard’ opens the album with an excerpt from an existing classical piece. In this case, John Tout hammers his way flawlessly through ‘Litanies’ by French composer Jetan Alain on the piano and, in doing so, he highlights what a great piece of music this is. The piano gives the piece a much lighter touch than the organ for which it was originally intended. As the last Renaissance album to feature known classical arrangements, ‘Turn of the Cards’ goes in with all guns blazing here. After a couple of minutes, the rest of the band gradually put their mark on the remaining seven-plus-minutes of this epic. In the section, the way the piece blossoms and eventually dances happily around a sixties pop motif – not too dis-similar to the more adventurous pieces by US acid rockers Sweetwater is a pure joy. The piano still retains a very strong presence, colliding with Haslam’s voice. She beams with confidence as she cries and wails a hippy-inspired melody with a voice that rarely sounded better than it does on parts of this number, all the while the drums lay down a rattling jazz rhythm and a underplayed orchestra fleshes out any space. Already a great piece of adventurous writing within a vaguely rock idiom, but it gets better.
Breaking into a new movement, brass flourishes as Haslam delivers perfect “la-la”s. At the point where you’ll begin to wonder what role the classical piano intro actually had beyond “bolted on introduction”, the rest of the band break into something even more adventurous, with complex drum parts and piano meshing with orchestral backing – the high point of which is the inclusion of a frivolous xylophone. With all guns blazing, Renaissance briefly give up any pretence of rock and enjoy their neo-classical leanings…and sound pretty untouchable in the process. A huge climax of strings and brass gives way to simpler acoustic tones over which Haslam delivers a slower rendition of an earlier musical theme, before the orchestra slowly rise again for a slightly ominous finish. To begin the album with such a bold statement shows a band (almost) at the peak of their powers. It could have seen the rest fall short – and in the hands of lesser arrangers, this may well have been the case – but thankfully most of the rest of ‘Cards’ is equally as well played, even if the material isn’t always so indulgent. […And if you think ‘Running Hard’ is the pinnacle of Renaissance’s indulgences, the band would actually top this the following year with the opening number on 1975’s Scheherarazade & Other Stories’. ‘Trip To The Fair’, a piece combining classical themes and bombastic instrumentation with minor key spookiness, remains an oddly unsettling masterpiece.]
Taking a well-earned step back (after all, few prog-related bands – save for perhaps Transatlantic or The Flower Kings – can go all-out constantly), ‘I Think of You’ allows the listener time to regroup. A gentle ballad falling somewhere between Steeleye Span and the more reflective side of Yes, this is very much Annie Haslam’s time to shine, her voice blending with a perfect blend of piano and acoustic rhythms. Sure, it’s syrupy…almost to the point of easy listening, but the performance is almost ethereal (much like the Genesis tune ‘Entangled’ from 1976, which Haslam would later cover). For those hoping for a proggy flourish, salvation is almost at hand when a harpsichord tinkles during the number’s closing moments, but again, this shows more of the band’s love for classical themes than the then popular bombast of progressive rock music. ‘Things I Don’t Understand’ falls happily between the two musical camps and represents the strongest track on this release. A busy fusion of psychedelic and twee sixties pop, with hints of Margo Guryan and Vertigo signings Infinity) brings out the best in each of the musicians. The piano lines – when they appear – are dominant, hard and relatively simple for the most part, while acoustic guitars fill out the core of the tune. Under this, Sullivan indulges in some superb jazz drumming, before the piano lines eventually stretch into something more of the neo-classical. It’s not the push and pull between the classical and the pop-ish that’s the big draw here, as with the best Renaissance numbers from the period. While each band member brings something wonderful, the real star is John Camp, constantly pushing his bass playing techniques into hard and overdriven territories rivalled only by Chris Squire. With fuzzed out and fat notes, his bass anchors almost everything, driving it forward apace. At the point this tune reaches a natural conclusion, it lurches into a second movement, where Haslam delivers wordless vocals with (once again) an absolutely pure tone – her voice one of the finest of the age. The piano, meanwhile, slips into more neo-classical meanderings akin to Tony Banks on Genesis’ ‘Firth of Fifth’ and ‘Mad Man Moon’ (although at the time of this recording, the latter was not even a glint in the Genesis founder’s musical eye). Few of the elements present here seem to fit the first half of the tune especially, but in terms of accessing the full range of Renaissance’s power when everything is just so, fewer recordings capture that power so well.
Just as ‘I Think of You’ provided a counterpoint to ‘Running Hard’, the gentle ‘Black Flame’ is on hand to bring something swooning and relatively gentle. Again, Haslam’s booming delivery is one that will divide listeners, but sounding like a booming Maddy Prior, the Englishness in her approach is perfect for the material. There’s a slightly darker tone in comparison with ‘I Think of You’. This may have something to do with a more dominant drum in places, it may be the unexpected harpsichord, it maybe the underlying sadness in the performance…or, indeed, a combination of these. The result – a kind of quasi-‘Scarborough Fair’ affair – still ranks as a particularly strong offering, even if on first listens it lurks in the huge shadow of the previous track. Any darkness here is fleeting in comparison to the appropriately titled ‘Cold Is Being’, opening in a very stark manner with Haslam singing over a church organ drone. A track that feels a little like filler (or as a pre-amble to the closing epic), this sinister tune reworks Albinoni’s ‘Adagio In G Minor’ in a typically Renaissance fashion – using the simple, yet domineering arrangement as a dark counterpoint to Haslam’s soaring voice. As an example of how the band often liked to rework existing classical pieces [though this would be the last time they did so], it works relatively well. However, in comparison to the other self-written material – or, indeed the usage of ‘Litanies’ at this album’s outset – it’s clearly the weak link in relation to the rest of ‘Turn of the Cards’.
‘Mother Russia’ finishes this fourth Renaissance album with something suitably bombastic. he piano crawls in, hammering a slow piece in minor key, before a huge chord signifies the beginnings of something big. Bringing in strings and flutes, the orchestral elements opt for an unsurprising foreign bent, before a rolling piano and brass briefly evoke a score from a James Bond love scene. This is as fleeting as the opening motif; any hint of other-worldly romance is quickly swept away by swelling brass – more action than romance – quickly shifting again into the main musical thrust. Haslam pitches a booming yet sweet vocal against the cinematic backdrop, all elements pulling together in a typically cock-sure way. With passages of quiet flute jostling against blustery orchestral strings and a haunting wordless voice, the band the middle of the tune with something that at first has the air of playing for time, but soon becomes apparent that this is the only natural way to shift back towards a grand piano climax. Although the piano is joined by full orchestra and more wordless vocals this almost bringing the album full circle, with John Tout marking his territory as (arguably) the band’s natural leader. With a brief reprise of the main vocal, the bombast increases until the nine-minute mark, at which time, the tune reaches a natural end, all elements ebbing away, leaving a softly struck piano and oboe to close. If you’ve not stuck with the album thus far, somehow finding the style too self-indulgent, this track definitely wouldn’t have won you over at the final hurdle. For those who’ve enjoyed Renaissance’s grandiosity, ‘Mother Russia’ ensures ‘Turn of the Cards’ ends on a suitably high note. It may not be as instantly gratifying as the initial rush brought forth by ‘Running Hard’, but there’s no argument that it is very much a jewel in the band’s catalogue.
You’ll find lots written about supposedly “symphonic” bands recording in the twenty-first century, but compared to this, none of those acts barely know the meaning of the word. ‘Turn of the Cards’ is a cornucopia of brilliantly over-blown pomposity: its arrangements flying in all directions, the band’s playing confident to the point of almost being overbearing at times. But therein is where its magic truly lies. For all the press column inches given to the over-rated Mike Oldfield in the seventies (and, indeed, since), so many more of those should have belonged to Renaissance; their run of albums between 1973-75 are superbly complex – especially given the short time in which they were written and recorded. For so many, this is a band that needs (re)visiting and re-evaluating…and for consistency, there’s no better place to start than here.
January 2010/August-September 2013/March 2014