Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Renaissance Man(?)

In a complete non-sequitur, Anonymous commented on yesterday's entry with a question on my feelings about the high-prog band Renaissance.

Here's the dialogue, for those who can't be bothered to scroll down and check yesterday's comment section:

Anonymous said...
On a completely unrelated you know of the band Renaissance? What do you think? Worth getting? I heard one really great song so far.

Dave Kopperman said...
I'm not the greatest expert on Reanissance. I have a couple of records (Sheherezad and Live at Carnegie Hall) and I've enjoyed them, but baroque grand piano mixed with rock is kind of a tough sell with me. The Live disc is excellent, though.

Maybe I'll listen again and give myself a better idea of my own response...

Anonymous said...
I really like the song "I Think Of You"

At which point I decided to take this one out front and show it to the nice people.

For those who haven't heard them - or heard of them - Renaissance were a 1970's prog band that centered their sound on rolling grand piano in a baroque style and (a rarity) a female lead singer, named Annie Haslem.

Turns out I have four of their records, all on vinyl. The two I mentioned, plus "Prologue" and "Novella." I threw some on earlier, as backdrop for arriving trick-or-treaters. None of them have I Think of You on them, but I checked out a snippet over at iTunes. Nice song. I've never heard it before. Right in their pocket, stylistically. From what I've heard on their four albums, the mid-70's line-up handled smaller ballads pretty well, but they tended to get really lost and rambling whenever they tried to rock it up - Annie Haslam's voice works very well over softer accompaniment, but when she has to push it, all her sweet shading gets lost, and (to me) she ends up sounding kind of shrill.

For contrast, compare this sweet, soft ballad, Forever Changing:

with this song, from 1977:

Admittedly, she doesn't sound 'shrill' on this one - just a little out of place - but on some of the heavier stuff from the records, it's just harsher than they should go.

The stuff that's aged the worst (as with most prog bands) are the extended instrumentals, which don't seem to differentiate themselves from the songs at the arrangement level enough to justify them jamming out. For starters, there isn't a moment's worth of improvisation on an entire album's worth of their instrumentals, and while improvisation is far from a necessity for good instrumental music in rock, when the dial is turned too far the other way into 'tightly arranged riffing for days, man,' you're just left to confront a lot of very soulless puffery, sort of like Phish if Tori Amos and her piano were dropped into the mix. Secondly, the band plays exactly the same whether Haslam is singing or not, which is kind of odd - maybe it's me, but when the singer is singing, the band should give them a little room to do it, and then step out to fill the space when they're out for a few measures.

All of that having been said, I really do like their ballads, and I think I'm going to track down a couple of their earlier records.

Why earlier?

If Renaissance is anything like every other progressive rock band, their early work will have a sweetness and soul, with the band playing soulfully together for the express purpose of making a unified sound, and the recording engineer will ensure that the instruments will be warm and inviting, and the voice will sound completely a part of the band. Plus, the compositions will be shorter and more melodic, and the lyrics will be worth listening to for poetic imagery mixed with some substance. Later records will have them every member of the band competing for room and to see who can fit the greatest number of notes into the shortest amount of time, the overall sound will have sifted from grandeur to bombast, and the lyrics will have gone from charmingly cosmic to mind-numbing stupidity.

Sadly, it's a formula that every prog band repeated without fail. Only those that were able to move out of prog entirely - see Genesis - were able to avoid that fate. People may take issue with Phil Collins's remaking of the band into an overly smooth pop machine, but if they'd kept on progging, they'd have ended up sounding like Dream Theater, which is the worst fate that can befall both a band and an audience. And possibly a planet.

(Careful with that Dream Theater link - it's ear-blisteringly bad.)

(In the category of band that kept progging way after it was time to change genres, worst offenders? As in everything else bad in prog, it was Emerson, Lake and Palmer.)

Anyway, I couldn't find a version of I Think of You by the band, so I'll instead have to share with you this curiosity that I found on YouTube:

You know, I kind of like that? I mean, he's no Tay Zonday, or nothing, but, still...



Anonymous said...

F-ing fantastic! Thank you!

Dave Kopperman said...

No, thank you for suggesting a topic. These things don't grow on trees....

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