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First working with an orchestra on Ashes are Burning
, Renaissance further expanded on their classic style with Turn of the Cards
, their fifth album overall and third with their best line-up. The group are known as one of the very few in progressive rock who successfully integrated a classic ensemble in their sound, able to make band and orchestra work as a seamless whole.
was already a really good symphonic progressive album, particularly standing out because of Annie Haslam’s beautiful voice, applied to its full effect in the vocal leads and harmonies. Turn of the Cards
followed the same path, but the similarity between the two was anything but disappointing. Renaissance’s next record featured lengthier and more complex tracks, filled to the brim with beautiful melodies and grandiose symphonic arrangements. If anything, it is more balanced than both its predecessor and Scheherazade and Other Stories
, which would follow after.
The music is driven first and foremost by John Tout’s classical-inspired piano playing and the crystal-clear, pitch-perfect voice of the inimitable Haslam. Her spectacular vocals add a compelling beauty to Renaissance's sweeping, romantic soundscapes, and Turn of the Cards
contains some of her best performances, at turns commanding and soothing. Grand piano and acoustic guitar remained at the core of the group’s sound, with drums and electric bass being the only traditional rock elements still present. Apart from his leading role on the acoustic, Michael Dunford had already played an important part as composer for the band, even though he only became an official member from this recording onwards. Bass player Jon Camp’s work is comparable to that of Chris Squire, but without Yes’ self-indulgence. Terrence Sullivan rounded out the formation on drums.
Most of the compositions show a blend of classical music with amounts of jazz, pop, folk and rock, worked into one cohesive offering and uniquely enhanced by the orchestra. The interplay between musicians is terrific, and the overall result not overly bombastic. The truly symphonic instrumentals within the longer songs are all arranged orchestral parts. There is no room for soloing or jam sessions here; everything is carefully arranged.
Renaissance had a lot of talent in both the writing and performing department. Turn of the Cards
represents another evolutionary step for them, mostly in terms of arrangement, dynamics and production. The pieces flow naturally from start to finish, encompassing melodious singing and vivid instrumentals in a continuous wave of crescendo and lull. If Prologue
created the formula and Ashes are Burning
defined the template, then here is where the band found the spark of creativity that lasted throughout their next couple of albums.
Highlight opener Running Hard
is often considered one of Renaissance's greatest songs. It is the first to include a lengthy piano intro (something which would return more strongly on Scheherazade
), and home to intricate, yet accessible vocal harmonies. Things I Don’t Understand
has an absolutely haunting first section, with a powerful melody and choral effects, almost sounding like mellotron; later on, Haslam demonstrates her lyricism and exceptional vocal harmonization.
is another magnificent composition, one that’s actually too short for its own good. Its brilliance builds from the interaction between keyboards and bass, with the guitar arpeggios soon entering the spectrum, and ultimately, Haslam completing the sonic palette. The record’s best piece is however Mother Russia
. While not diverting from a standard structure, it is executed exceedingly well and has a strong sense of purpose. The mood is more sombre, and heavier in tone than anything else on the album.
Turn of the Cards
proved that Renaissance could develop the symphonic sound they created to further and even greater results. Together with the preceding Ashes are Burning
, the album led the band towards a wider audience, and easily stands among their strongest efforts. The mysterious and ethereal nature of their music is a perfect fit for Annie Haslam's angelic reverberations. After all, when you have a vocalist with the voice of an angel, all you need to do is play some great songs for her to sing.