Saturday, November 21, 2009

Renaissance: Ashes Are Burning

For the last two Saturdays, I’ve been featuring cuts from albums that have had profound effect upon the expanse of my own musical horizons. Though lesser known to my contemporaries than my past two examples (see: Cream’s “Disraeli Gears” & King Crimson’s “In the Court of the Crimson King”), the British progressive rock band Renaissance’s album “Ashes are Burning” is one of those albums. The album has numerous classical and folk influences and the impeccable five octave range of lead vocalist Annie Haslam.

I found it difficult to pick one song to feature as this album must be heard in its entirety. The Top-40 programmer in me allowed the decision to be an easy one, as “Carpet of the Sun” is obviously the most commercial cut on the album. At 3:31, the length was perfect for a pop single.

Renaissance was originally a spin-off from the rock/blues heavy hitters, the Yardbirds. As most people are aware, the Yardbirds provided a proving ground for exceptional guitarists Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, and Jimmy Page. When they disbanded, Jimmy Page recruited a new crop of musicians to fulfill contractual obligations of a Scandinavian tour.

Known as the New Yardbirds, the band quickly metamorphosed into Led Zeppelin. It is hard to imagine that Renaissance and a later incarnation of the original Renaissance named Illusion were spawn of the Yardbirds; however, this strange but true musical twist of fate actually happened. Renaissance and Illusion exhibited a musical style quite different from their parent organization.

Renaissance was birthed from an idea of ex-Yardbird vocalist Keith Relf and drummer Jim McCarty. Keith’s sister Jane Relf was enlisted as the lead vocalist. The band had several transformations until the lineup featured on today’s release with Annie Haslam as the band’s third female vocalist – undoubtedly, the best known of the three.

I first heard this LP on WOHI in East Liverpool, Ohio when I was living one summer across the river in Chester, WV. That summer, I became familiar with this 1000 watt AM station that played an Adult Contemporary mix during the day and the night jock was pretty much free to play whatever he pleased.

It seemed that I was exposed to Renaissance's “Ashes are Burning” and its progressive mix of songs nearly every evening. Part of this may have been related to my frequent calls to the disc jockey (whose name escapes me some 34 years distant) and requesting to hear the album. Yes Virgina, there is a reward in persistence.  After being exposed to the entire album for a period of two weeks, I traveled across the river to the nearest record store and added this album to my ever growing collection - now some 15,000 in number.

Many of the songs on this album are arranged in a manner that each song is made up of several movements – not unlike one would hear with the Moody Blues, Yes, Genesis, and numerous other progressive bands of the period. There is also an influence of classical music. This is evident on one cut in particular as Claude Debussy’s “La Cathédrale Engloutie” appears at the prologue and epilogue of “At the Harbour.” Because of changes in English copyright laws that were passed after the initial release of this album, the Debussy’s song was edited out for the later repackaged version of the LP.

The LP’s opening track, “Can you Understand” liberally borrowed from the soundtrack from the movie Dr. Zhivago. It incorporates a piece written by Maurice Jarre called "Tonya and Yuri Arrive at Varykino." It was originally thought that the tune was a public domain Russian folk. Later releases carefully credit Jarre as a contributor to this symphonic piece.

"Ashes are Burning" cover issued in the UK

"Ashes are Burning" cover issued in the US

Additionally, the covers for this release in the UK were different from the US release. Although I have the US version (on Capitol-Sovereign), I prefer the UK cover as the photos of Annie Haslam and Terry Sullivan seem less serious and the cover is less orange. John Camp and John Tout appear on the album cover’s reverse – which I believe was a gatefold in England – it was not in the US. Michael Dunford, who appears on the LP as a composer and side musician, did not officially become a member of the band until after the album was released. He is not depicted on the cover.

Hear the LP in its entirety (in order)

The cuts in the above YouTube playlist are as follows:
  1. "Can You Understand?" (Dunford/Thatcher/Jarre)* - 9:51
  2. "Let It Grow" (Dunford/Thatcher) - 4:14
  3. "On the Frontier" (McCarty-Thatcher) - 4:55
  4. "Carpet of the Sun" (Dunford/Thatcher) - 3:31
  5. "At the Harbour" (Dunford/Thatcher/Debussy)* - 6:48
  6. "Ashes Are Burning" (Dunford/Thatcher) - 11:20**

*Neither Jarre and Debussy are credited on the original release. 

**"Ashes are Burning" is over 11 minutes long and YouTube imposes a 10 minute limit on video length - it is here in two parts - there is a break in the middle of the song before it resumes.  Just pretend that you are listening to an 8-track tape in your car.

Later edit of "At the Harbour" sans Debussy's composition - it can stand on its own


1 comment:

  1. Now I understand what it was all about the different covers.
    I grew up in East-germany, listening to Radio Bavaria from the west. They played this record a lot, it went on my all-time wish list, if ever the wall would fall down. Of course it was in the first batch of records I bought, when finally the moment in history arose.
    Thanks for the reminder.