Renaissance – Azure d’Or: Album Review

Renaissance’s Azure d’Or is reissued in a very fine box set, that does full justice to an excellent album. Azure d’Or was the final album by the band’s classic line up.

Release date: Available now

Label: Esoteric Recordings/Cherry Red Records

Format: 2 CD and Blu-ray Box Set

Renaissance is a band that thoughtfully combines progressive rock and classical influences, and has produced some highly original and musically rewarding albums. For this writer, the band’s Turn Of The Cards from 1974, is an album that stands out as perhaps the best creative merging of progressive rock and classical music. It is an album that remains fresh, ambitious, and thoroughly modern, even on repeated listening over time.  

Azure d’Or, which was released in April 1979, was the final album, by the classic lineup of highly talented vocalist Annie Haslam, Michael Dunford (acoustic and electric guitars), John Tout (keyboards, vocals), Jon Camp (bass, acoustic and electric guitars, vocals) and Terry Sullivan (drums, percussion). The album was produced by David Hentschel, who produced one of the best post-Peter Gabriel Genesis albums, A Trick of the Tail. Noticeably, the album comprises of shorter pieces, with John Tout’s synthesisers replacing an orchestra, although his superb piano playing is still very present. 

This expanded edition of the album comprises two CDs and a region-free Blu-ray disc, in a beautifully presented clamshell box, that also contains an illustrated booklet with an informative new essay by Mike Barnes which has interviews with band members and lyrics and recording information. There is also a reproduction of the band’s 1979 UK tour programme.

CD one, has the remastered original stereo mix of the album and CD disc two has a new stereo mix from the original 24-track master tapes, by Stephen W Tayler. Both discs contain bonus tracks, including single versions, extended and early and demo versions. The Blu-ray disc contains two high-resolution stereo mixes (the original and new 2022 mix), and new 5.1 surround sound mix, again by Stephen W Tayler. In addition, visual content on the disc contains promotional films made in 1979. This then is a comprehensive box set, that lifts the experiencing of hearing the album to a new level, whether you are very familiar with it, or hearing the album for the first time. 

We will concentrate in this review on the superb new stereo mix on CD two, and the Blu-ray disc. The first thing to say about CD two, is that Stephen W Tayler’s new stereo mix, has a much more dynamic soundstage than the original stereo mix, with the percussion and bass rhythms more pronounced and carrying more weight across the album. Individual instruments and Annie Haslam’s voice have a much greater definition and separation, that delivers a sound mix with real musical depth to explore. It is an engaging and immersive listen, that brings out the wonderful musicality of the album.

Jekyll And Hyde is the opening track, and sets the template for much of the album. It is an engaging contained song, with a striking melodic flow, accompanied by subtle musical flourishes from a number of the individual instruments. Annie Haslam’s vocals are wonderfully distinctive, adding emotional depth to the song. The musical depth of the soundstage is enhanced by the understated and sophisticated use of the synthesisers. The lyrics by Cornish poet and regular contributor to the band’s songs, Betty Thatcher, are brilliantly evocative and have a storytelling quality. 

The Winter Tree follows, and shows an endearing pop sensibility at work, with a hint of the sublime musical arrangements that Abba were adept at producing. There are also some nice progressive rock touches, supplied by Jon Camp’s bass and John Tout’s synthesiser, while Annie Haslam’s sweet-sounding lead and harmony backing vocals ascend and glide over the sound mix.

Golden Key and Forever Changing seem pivotal points in the album, where the shorter song structure and electronics, merge effortlessly with the ambitious big musical arrangements that Renaissance had favoured on albums like Turn Of The Cards and Scheherazade And Other Stories. Golden Key contains Betty Thatcher’s lyrical reflections on fame, commercialism, and freeing musical creation, complemented by the sweeping music written by Michael Dunford. John Tout plays some enchanting piano, which provides a sympathetic foundation for Annie Haslam’s graceful flowing vocals. Jon Camp’s striking bass lines and Terry Sullivan’s splashing cymbal work add another layer to the sound to explore, and the synthesiser parts feel completely attuned to the music. It is one of the outstanding musical moments on the album. Forever Changing has some of Betty Thatcher’s most evocative and moving lyrics:

We walked beneath the trees, so clear that day

Stark in winter, shadows black

Still in my mind, no turning back

Musically it has some exquisite 12 string acoustic guitar playing by Michael Dunford, and classically based percussion work from Terry Sullivan (who wrote the music) which includes timpani and glockenspiel.

Kalynda (A Magical Isle), written by Jon Camp, is a gentle ballad with a nautical fantasy type lyrical narrative, and is followed by a band instrumental he also wrote, called The Discovery. It is an intriguing ensemble instrumental piece, with rapid time signature changes, and a gamut of interesting musical moods.

The Flood At Lyons closes the album, and is a fast-paced, very rhythmic song, with lots of space for Annie Haslam to demonstrate her fantastic vocal range, and her ability to summon up imagery and emotions through her vocal delivery.  Amongst the bonus tracks on CD disc two, a standout is the acoustic demo for Forever Changing. It is magical in the way it conveys the lyrics with such power of emotion, and empathic understanding.

On the Blu-ray disc, alongside the high-resolution stereo mixes, there is a stunning new 5.1 surround sound mix by Stephen W Tayler. On, for example, Jekyll And Hyde, the piano comes from the rear speakers, and reveals an interesting percussive timbre in the playing. With Golden Key, there is a live-in-the-studio feel to Annie Haslam’s vocal, directed from the front speakers, particularly the centre speaker, and during the softer instrumental section, the gentle halting nature of the acoustic guitar comes through in the rear speakers. The subwoofer speaker gives the drumming and cymbals a real power and depth.

Forever Changing has the acoustic guitar floating around the room, seeming to utilise all the speakers, with Annie Haslam’s backing vocals from the rear speakers providing a choir-like effect. Terry Sullivan’s percussive phrases emanate from the front of the soundstage and have a rich and pinpoint precision quality.

The Discovery has a really enhanced dynamic presence in 5.1 surround sound as the rhythm part of the sound crashes out of the front speakers, with lead instruments seeming to utilise the full extent of the multiple speaker presence offered by surround sound. The above should hopefully give you a flavour of the additional musical insights the 5.1 mix offers to the listener.

The visual content on the disc contains promotional films from 1979. Of these, the acoustic versions of Forever Changing, and Carpet of the Sun from the Ashes Are Burning album, are real gems. The performance of Forever Changing is intercut with video of the band walking around a very pretty garden and the smiles show a band clearly at ease and enjoying itself. The video of the acoustic version of Carpet of the Sun looks to have been recorded live and is just fantastic.  Here you fully realise how amazing Annie Haslam’s voice is, and the acoustic instruments add a new musical perspective to this classic Renaissance song. This is a band completely at ease with itself and reaching new musical heights.

This is a quite wonderful reissue of a somewhat underrated album in the Renaissance musical canon. Esoteric Recordings and Cherry Red Records have done this album proud in a very fine package, which will enable its musical excellence to shine once more.

Here is the video for the acoustic version of Forever Changing:

You can find more information about Renaissance here: Website / Facebook

You can find out more about Cherry Red Records releases here: Website / Facebook

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