When I was in elementary school, my family lived in a large, yellow, old farmhouse. The kitchen was my favorite room in the entire house: the counter traveled along one wall before turning out into the room, creating a small hallway that led to the pantry/laundry room, and the doors to the back porch were directly behind the sink. The linoleum floor of the kitchen proper curved into a brown carpet that flowed into a spacious dining nook. The entire nook was lined with large windows, one right after the other. Those windows looked out to three old, enormous pine trees, so tall that only one or two lower branches were visible, with a wall of thicket on the far side.
Nestled into a series of salvaged concrete blocks and old, dusty wood taken from the carpenter’s workroom over the garage (a story, perhaps, for another time), placed where the floor had just barely transitioned to carpet, sat a monstrosity of a music center: purchased by my mother as a gift for my father, it was a multi-level, black brick of a thing, with a turntable on top, a radio display below, dual tape decks beneath that, all heaped upon a five-disc CD changer, which frankly was the most amazing thing I had ever seen in my life. The beast was perched on a bowing slab of wood propped up on two concrete bricks, between and around which were clusters and clutters of shoe boxes filled with tapes, a small rack of CD cases, and a very dusty, very fascinating line of old vinyl record cases.
I don’t remember exactly when I first started pawing through my parents’ music collection. I don’t remember what I started with, but I do remember putting on Led Zepplin’s IV and immediately cringing at the electronic screeching on “Black Dog,” and I remember my father recommending Steely Dan’s Aja and my subsequent listening to two minutes and then dismissing the album entirely. [Note, Led Zepplin and Steely Dan are now among my most admired artists of all time. Holy smokes.]
What I remember most clearly is pulling out album cover after album cover before finding one that caught my eye.
I can’t even begin to describe how many things about this cover appealed to me, still appeal to me: the castle, the dreamy, swirling landscape, the long, flowing hair, the intent eyes of the children, the yellow dress with its loose sleeves. I was a child with an extremely active imagination and a love of history. I had spent my childhood hours roaming the wooded hills behind our house, seeing the largest pyramid in the world, the King’s Forest where even the squirrels were beyond reproach, the secret grove where the pirate queen stashed her bottles of cosmetics and exotic perfumes from the West Indies. Some time before my finding this album, Ancient Egypt had given way to the Middle Ages with their heraldry and chivalry and citystates. This album artwork captured me whole.
I lifted the cover of the turntable and set the vinyl in place. I lowered the needle. I waited.
…Nothing…? I turned the volume knob up almost as far as it would go, just in time for a rush of echoing, dark sound. I fell back, actually rolling away from the machine, as bright notes tinkled before a chorus let out a war cry.
Regimented orchestra, determined electric base, soaring strings.
I was a hawk, swooping over a wooded landscape, flying over lakes and ponds, following a stream which led me to a grey castle. Troops nestled at the base of the structure, banners and standards swirling in the wind. I zoomed to a parapet. A woman began singing.
I walked the dark, damp, cobblestone streets of a murky city. Carriage wheels clattered like ghosts in the distance. Mist curled around the streets. A woman in a cloak stood in a doorway, singing, while strangers in black coattails, hats angled low, brushed past.
I was a mote of warm light, drifting slowly upward in a dance of embers, caught in an errant wind and sent tumbling over low fields and old trees. I saw quiet cottages, clashing battlefields, men huddling over campfires deep in the forest, auroras fluttering across the sky.
I was a breath of wish, called by a young child to summon a great sorceress. I was a Druidess in emerald robes striding from the shadows, clasping the hand of that child, spreading my innate power through the blades of grass and the viney brambles which sprang up around the villages at my bidding. I was a reincarnation, fully aware of my past, calling the sparrows to carry messages of my return to the secret places where magic remained, watching as the grey shadows of my previous life rose to greet me.
For the first time in my life, I had encountered a modern music which grasped me and would not let me go. It wasn’t until graduate school that I learned about movement called Prog Rock and the groundbreaking work of this band: I had discovered Renaissance.
My parents can’t seem to agree upon who owned which album in their collection. After a series of garage sales which weeded out duplicate copies of things, this perhaps shouldn’t have ever surprised me, but to this day it frustrates me to not know which of them to blame for not telling me about Novella the moment I first picked up a fantasy book. I am exceedingly grateful to them both for allowing themselves to cling to a selection of their music despite moving a couple of times and sometimes scraping for things we could add to the 50¢ table to try to ease the impact of purchasing the new furnace just a little bit.
The fact is, purely and simply, that vinyl records have a depth which digital recordings have never been able to emulate. There is space inherent in the sounds which emerge from a record player that does not exist even in the most impressive of surround sound systems. Digital music encloses you; vinyl embraces you. Tapes have a muted sense of space, much less sense of music being your entire environment, but far more than mp3s or mp4s or wavs or aiffs or other digital formats. In all things sonic, vinyl is by far the most impressive record material.
I was completely entranced by what I heard in Novella. This was music of legends and memory, imagination and magic. Homage to selflessness in the face of hopelessness, warnings about greed, wistful thoughts of misplaced love, thoughts simultaneously about stories and storytelling.
I’ve no idea how many times this album was played by either of my parents, but from me it saw enough table time that I’m honestly impressed there is no hole worn through the vinyl. I listened to “Can You Hear Me” until I had every second of those twenty minutes memorized, then sang along with it until my family begged me to find something else to do with my time. I moved on to “Touching Once (Is So Hard to Keep)” and then, when more pleading came, to “Midas Man.” I believe I was moving to “The Sisters” when my parents and sister gave up and accepted the cruel fate that had been handed to them and settled for just asking me to turn the volume knob back down.
Then, some months later, I made another discovery.
You’d better believe I worked on scales and the vocal exercises my teacher had drilled into me until I was able to sing along with that song. There was a time, my junior and senior years of high school, when my voice was seeing use multiple times a day in various choirs and chorales and musicals. I used to use that song as a warmup. Those days are no more; I still have the notes, but I’m out of practice and dusty and the upper ranges sound a bit strained even if I’ve done a thorough round of vocal stretching. Even knowing that it’s going to hurt doesn’t keep me from singing along now, whenever “Prologue” rolls around on my iTunes. Sometimes I just don’t sing the highest notes but most of the time I settle for sounding like a dying frog and hoping that, somewhere far away, the woman who was my voice coach for so many years isn’t somehow picking up on the damage I’m doing to myself. [Sorry, Sue, please don’t hurt me!]
In the Beginning is a double album comprised of Prologue and Ashes are Burning, Renaissance’s third and fourth albums. Imagine my confusion when, in college, I tried to track down a copy of this on Amazon.com and could only find a couple of CDs that each had some of the songs. Infuriating!
This double album was significant for me in a number of ways.
“Rajah Khan” was the first time I heard a tambura in anything other than a Philip Glass record. This song is where I fell in love with that instrument.
“Can You Understand” transported me immediately into the world of Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising sequence, the very first urban fantasy series I ever encountered, which to this day is one of my most beloved universes to have daydreams in. This song reminded me most prevalently of The Greenwitch, which was quite possibly my favorite book of the entire set.
“Carpet of the Sun” was light and lovely and perfect for singing along with, or for singing while perched on a downed tree halfway up the hill behind our house, looking out through a gap in the leaves to see the entire valley brushed with shades of sparkling green in the rare summer sunshine.
“On the Frontier” made me desperate to go out and explore some unknown wilderness. I wanted to strike out on my own, wander amongst wide, grassy plains, finding adventures in streams and canyons along the way.
I claimed the kitchen and dining nook as my personal space in that old farmhouse. I sang along with Annie Haslam as I pranced about the room, seeing before my eyes not counters and chairs and windows but moats and wagons and tigers and shorelines. Sometimes I didn’t sing at all, just danced without conscious knowledge of where my limbs were, garnering bruise upon bruise that I couldn’t explain later, once sliding across the line between linoleum and carpet on the floor and opening my knee nearly to the bone upon a carpet nail. [“We have to go to the emergency room,” cried my mother. “Nah,” said my father, “stick her in the bathtub, wash it off, and I’ll go get some Band-Aids.” The scar now only sits atop my kneecap but for several years I had a nice white line running diagonally from the upper left of my knee to an inch below the inner side of the joint. Mom has never forgiven Dad for that.]
I still don’t own the entire Renaissance discography. This sad fact makes me frown at my computer screen whenever I look for something amazing to listen to that I haven’t already memorized. It’s been several years since my last acquisition, which was Songs from Renaissance Days, and to be brutally honest that album was sort of a let-down for me, since I am so enthralled by their mystical works. “Island of Avalon” is a pale shadow of their capabilities.
If you have time some day and are interested in exploring the work of a group which pioneered the Prog Rock movement, I highly recommend you poke through the history of Renaissance. Jane Relf’s voice doesn’t hold half the mystery or an eighth the flexibility Annie Haslam’s does, but the earliest two records are really quite lovely to listen to. The later ones tend toward synthesizers and a heavier rock influence but have incredibly singable lyrics and some really well-formed messages.
To sum up, Renaissance were an amazing band through all of their incarnations. Go listen to them! They formed the basis of my unending desire to be in a rock band and their music is just as fascinating today as it was in the 1970s when they really found their feet. Most of the members are still performing in various pursuits and all are worth tracking down. Go forth! Enjoy! Live long and prosper by singing along like a madwoman without restraint. You’ll love it, I promise!