Graded on a Curve: Renaissance,
Ashes Are Burning

Good morrow, dear readers. This is going to be the shortest record review I’ve ever written. Because I don’t know what to say about Renaissance the band other than that they make me wish the real Renaissance had never happened. The Dark Ages could hardly have been worse than this.

Fronted by Annie Haslam with her 93-octave vocal range, these English prog rockers were the aural equivalent of attending one of those unspeakably horrible Renaissance Faires. I attended one once, sober no less, and the sight of all those doxies, strumpets, and wandering minstrels gamboling about was more than I could bear. Within an hour I was exhibiting all the symptoms of a serious case of black bile. And I had an almost irresistible urge to bludgeon yon errant knight with an industrial-sized turkey leg. And don’t even get me started on the human chess game. Why, the mere sight of such caused me to cry, “A pox upon thee!” For verily, dear reader, I would have sooner drained a flagon of dragon piss.

Okay, so where we? Ah yes, Renaissance. During the highlight of their career they sang the praises of leather jerkin and faire merkin, the latter of which is a female pubic wig. I should add they did not do so literally. What they did in reality was fuse the gossamer sounds of the Renaissance with a rock beat, and while there’s much to be said against this unholy combination, it’s to Renaissance’s credit that they occasionally came close to pulling it off. And the reason for this is they liked their songs up-tempo. No threnodies for this gaggle of gentle minstrels. Had they fretted lugubriously about with lute, psaltery, and clarion, the results would have caused any sane human to raise the old broadsword and cry, “Fie!” But 1974’s Ashes Are Burning is far from being the musical equivalent of internment in your king’s iron maiden, a device which you’ll be pleased to know never existed. From fair merkins to iron maidens—who says you can’t enrich your mind while reading record reviews?

I’ll say this for Renaissance; they may have stretched your nerves to their breaking point, much as your limbs might be stretched on the rack, but they had the uncanny ability to pull back at the last minute, just before you said to hell with it and heaved their record into the nearest moat. For example, “Can You Understand?” opens with a gong. And one’s natural inclination, when one hears a song open with a gong, is to flee. But then a piano commences to tinkle and one is reminded of Genesis. And this is followed by what is, I hate to admit, one fast-paced little groove.

What I’m trying to say is when it comes to Renaissance you mayhap have to hang around until things get bearable. Unfortunately on some songs things never get bearable. I’m thinking in particular of such tunes as the ponderous and piano-heavy “At the Harbor,” the gentle and too-precious-by-half “Let It Grow,” and the epic 11-minute-plus title track, on which Haslam hits stained-glass-shattering notes whilst declaiming about “the mist of time,” in which one could presumably lose one’s car keys. Haslam has a lovely voice, and if a lovely voice coupled with an organ is your idea of heaven, this is the one for you. And Wishbone Ash’s Andy Powell makes a guest appearance, playing some great guitar towards the end, if you can only get there.

In very sooth, I find the entire concept of Renaissance as risible as I do yon merkin. But the reality is not as horrifying as the concept. I would much sooner listen to the surprisingly likeable “Carpet of the Sun” and the more than bearable “On the Frontier” than say, Emerson, Lake & Palmer. Or Pentangle. Or even the more delicate tapestries of Crosby, Stills & Nash for that matter. That said, thou art safer by far to avoid this band of minstrels from England’s green and pleasant land. At least at a Renaissance Faire you can purchase a turkey leg to defend yourself with. Although I suppose you could just as easily buy a turkey leg to beat this LP with in the privacy of your own castle. So before listening to Ashes Are Burning be sure to buy a turkey leg. Make sure it’s as big as a mace. And should the need arise commence thumping.

Zounds! And anon!

GRADED ON A CURVE:
D+

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