Progressive rock bands have come and gone since the heyday of so-called "art-rock" in the mid-70s; only a select few have survived the various infatuations of the pop music industry. Genesis and Camel are notable examples of progressive outfits that have endured by not resisting artisitc change but rather by allowing their styles to evolve and adapt to the changing music scene without losing their individual appeal or integrity.
Another such band is Renaissance, whose original incarnation in 1969 was masterminded by ex-Yardbird Keith Relf. Several confusing personnel changes later (none of Relf's original bandmates remain and Relf himself left the band shortly after he founded it), the unique sound of Renaissance remains a fascinating blend of classical progressions and rock rhythms which is as delightful as it is complex. Songs such as Ocean Gypsy, Day of The Dreamer, and the 25-minute epic Song of Scheherazade typify was has come to be known as "symphonic" or "orchestral" rock.
The core of this gifted band's sound presently consists of the unusually melodic bass playing of Jon Camp, the warm and ever present 12-string guitar and sophisticated songwriting of Michael Dunford and, of course, the beautiful soprano vocals of Annie Haslam, who posesses one of the finest voices in pop music.
Long known for their symphonic textures, both in the studio and onstage (the band played a highly successful series of concerts at Carnegie Hall in 1975 complete with full orchestra), Camp, Dunford and Haslam have forsaken the grandiose image that won them a huge cult following, but no real commercial success, in favor of a simpler, more rock 'n' roll style emphasizing Dunford's electric guitar.
The release of Camera Camera (their first album for I.R.S., a predominantly new wave label) in 1981 saw the unveiling of this new attitude, which has continued on their just released album Time-Line. The title refers to a device that the band uses from the effects rack in their recording studio.
An eclectic album, Time-Line boasts dance rock ("Electric Avenue," "Auto-Tech"), ballad ("Distant Horizons," a song with definite hit potential) and progressive influences ("Flight," "The Entertainer") and is constructed with the dense, rich production that has become a Renaissance trademark.
In a telephone interview from New Jersey, where the band had just finished a date on their current tour, Michael Dunford discussed the band's past as well as how the group evolved.
"Keith Relf and Jim McCarty formed a band, a spinoff from The Yardbirds," Dunford explained. "They had been touring for many, many years as The Yardbirds and they didn't really want to do that much touring or performing, but from a financial point of view you just can't do something on a part-time basis. So, basically, over a period of two or three years, one by one the members left to be replaced by us all, 'til it had changed completely in '72. That's when the first album [without Relf] came out [Prologue]."
This lineup, consisting of Camp, Dunford and Haslam plus Terry Sullivan and John Tout, lasted until 1980, when Tout and Sullivan called it quits after a tour for the 1979 album Azure D'Or.
"John and Terry, the original keyboard player and drummer, were pretty dissatisfied with the way things were going on--they weren't happy," says Dunford. "John Tout in particular was really a bit fed up with the day-to-day doings of rock 'n' roll; he couldn't handle it anymore." After a short tour of Israel, Tout decided to leave, followed by Sullivan, leaving the band a skeletal three-piece.
We decided, Jon, Annie and myself, " Dunford explained, "that we would take a little gap, a little break, for a couple of years and try to get out of the various contracts that were floating around with management, start afresh and just pursue a few other different things individually.
"Then we decided that we wanted to continue. The three of us got a couple of friends in, session players, and put together Camera Camera. We then decided we'd like a more stable lineup, so just prior to this tour we put an ad in the Melody Maker (a British music magazine) and were inundated with around 300 replies." That's how they found their current drummer, Gavin Harrison, a 19-year old prodigy. Keyboardist Mike Taylor turned up through connections and is still with the band.
The main obstacle for success for Renaissance has always been a frustrating lack of radio airplay, which is usually the curse of noncommercial bands. But Dunford and company have managed to get around this roadblock by wowing their fans over the years with superlative live presentations.
"Life's a big tough at the moment. . .at least. . .we're doing a really good live show. The stage is much cleaner, much neater. We are more rocking than we used to be; we all feel that's what we want to do. (Our concert is) a bit of a mixture of old and new. Even somebody who hasn't seen us before would like it. Our live show is very, very strong now, the strongest we've ever been. It's the best band undoubtedly--it's very exciting. Hopefully we'll create a bit of excitement which in turn will get the record more airplay, and just generally do more interviews and establish ourselves a bit more.
In promoting Time-Line, the band has slowly but surely won new fans while trying to satisfy the diehards and in the process has weathered the often harsh rock 'n' roll environment.
"It ain't easy any more," Dunford says, laughing. "We're going to keep going as long as we can and hopefully people will come and see us and buy the album." Hopefully, indeed, for this veteran band deserves to become an "overnight" success.
Renaissance appears Tuesday and Wednesday, 8 p.m., at the Park West, 322 W. Armitage. Tickets are $9.50. Call 559-1212 for more information.
Copyright ©1983 The Daily Northwestern. All rights reserved.