“You see they’ve come so very far
But can’t believe that’s
The way it was planned
Just can’t understand
That only angels have wings
With all the love they could give
Is this a fit place to live
Where only angels have wings.”
When you go through the golden-era of Renaissance, you can see a band going beyond what Yes and Genesis were doing. They were never a singles band, but an albums band. Whether it’s Novella, Prologue, Ashes are Burning, Live at Carnegie Hall, or Scheherazade and Other Stories, they grab your heart and tug it very well. But when it came to their ninth studio album Azure d’Or, it was the beginning of the end.
Originally released on the Warner Bros label in the UK, Sire Records in the states, and reissued by the good people from Esoteric Recordings, Azure d’Or is finally getting the proper recognition it deserves. Let’s take a trip back in 1977. During this time frame, punk was the big thing. You have bands like the Sex Pistols, The Clash, and The Ramones, getting a lot of recognition across the globe.
It’s almost as if the progressive rock genre was under attack. But it was already waning because of the overblown touches that bands like Yes and ELP were doing. From Tales from Topographic Oceans that clocked in at 20-minutes on four tracks (let’s not forget Rick Wakeman had lemon curry during the Topographic tour), Rick doing King Arthur on Ice at Wembley’s Empire Pool in London 1975, and ELP were taking a big, massive orchestra during the Works tour that cost them a lot of money, and would later make them go bankrupt.
For Renaissance, they were different. While they had a good relationship with Warner Bros, after the success of the ‘Northern Lights’ single, the pressure was on. And it was also the changing of the times when they were making Azure d’Or at Maison Rogue Studios in Fulham, West London which was then owned by Jethro Tull’s Ian Anderson. And to be allowed to have David Hentschel in the production realms, they knew they had a big brother to watch out for them.
They had worked with David before in 1978 on their eighth studio album, A Song For All Seasons. And for him to work Renaissance again for their ninth album as prog bands were hanging by the ropes with him, they knew that David was like a big brother to them. The great thing about Azure d’Or was that it was a departure for the band as they moved away from their orchestral beauty, and going into a synthesised pool they were ready to dive into.
Now this may not have gone well with their fans, but I can imagine that it might have been too expensive to have an orchestra work on the Azure sessions. When the album was released in May of 1979, it didn’t do well. And they were dropped by their labels because of the disappointing sales. It was so far ahead of its time for Renaissance to move in a new direction to go beyond their prog roots.
Many years later, it is finally getting the proper recognition it deserves. Listening to Stephen W. Tayler’s remixes, gives it a breath of fresh air as he brings the original tapes, front and centre. Whether you prefer the original or Tayler’s mixes to Azure d’Or, he knows how much that this album may have been a dividing line in the sand among Renaissance fans, but as I’ve mentioned earlier, it’s time to give this album another chance, and understand why it was so far ahead of its time.
The fanfare ARP string ensembles and Yamaha CS80 intro on ‘Only Angels Have Wings’ details an autobiographical structure. Taken its name from the 1939 film starring Cary Grant, Jean Arthur, and directed by Howard Hawks, the third track has a narrative scenery, detailing the day in the life of a man, escaping from all of the craziness and flying towards a new beginning while Jon Camp’s vocal lines fill in the blanks on the person’s life, knowing how much he’s stuck in the same puddled mud, day after day, night after lonely night.
‘Secret Mission’ sets up this next high energetic guitar fret work by Dunford’s arrangements and Sullivan’s tidal-waving drum work before Annie Haslam climbs up to the Lighthouse by singing the line “So special can’t be told. Secret missions have you in their hold!”
After she sings the line, you can feel the sun coming over the horizon as the ships coming from South America bringing in the lost letters from their loved ones, arriving on time to get to their mailboxes straight away before the militant drum works and synthesisers, sets up the tubular bells, tolling like crazy across the ocean.
But it’s the opening track ‘Jekyll and Hyde’ that gets you. Now I remember hearing this track many years ago when I was in College, listening to Anton Roolaart’s Prog Rock Radio Station online in 2006. I think I might have requested it about four times. And that was where I first heard Renaissance’s music and fell in love with it.
Betty Thatcher’s lyrics have a tragic detailing structure, based on Robert Louis Stevenson’s characterisation of a man who has two personalities. And with Dunford’s arrangements, it just hits you in the guts with a galloping 12-string acoustic guitar, Camp’s thunderous bass work, and Tout’s rain-dropping midsection keyboards, you feel as if Henry Jekyll is trying to be free from all of the chaos that Mr. Hyde is doing by being obsessed with murdering victims, nonstop.
And Haslam warns listeners about the dangers of the schizophrenic man, being on the run after another killing last night across 19th century London. She’s not kidding, she’s being brutally honest on the tragic details of the doctor’s life, and how he paid the ultimate price by taking his own life.
‘The Winter Tree’ which was the first single that was released in April of that year, should’ve been a hit. You feel the gentle, crispy acoustic guitars, and synthesised beauty coming down the sky as Annie dances and sings around the forest of wonder as the months of spring, summer, fall, and winter come as a timeline to witness the trees, frozen in ice.
The B-side ‘Island of Avalon’ has a folky-sque medieval texture and it has them return to their symphonic roots, but having that animated beauty in the forms of what The Swan Princess was to come in 1994. And I just vision Princess Odette singing this song in a parallel universe in the film, and would have made Disney, shit their pants all over.
There’s something Joan Baez about that song as Annie prepares the next season of Christmas around the corner while preparing the tree with decorations and lights for everyone to see and enjoy while the country-tinged atmosphere of an Eagles approach with ‘Kalynda (A Magical Isle)’ and the nod to A Trick of the Tail and the Wind & Wuthering-era with ‘Golden Key’ would make you want to revisit what Genesis could have done before going into a pop direction in the 1980s.
Mike Barnes’ liner notes, gives a detailed history on what was going on in the band’s story during the making of Azure d’Or. The Blu-Ray contains not only Tayler’s 5.1 mix of the album, but promo films they did at The Mill House and Bray Studios. Not to mention a reproduction of a 1979 UK tour program that’s in the box set.
When you watch the films, you can tell that there is chemistry between the Quintet as they tackle an unplugged version of ‘Carpet of the Sun’, or miming ‘Jekyll and Hyde’, ‘Secret Mission’ or ‘The Winter Tree’, they still got it. And many years later, Azure d’Or remains a cult classic. And it’s also one of my favourite Renaissance albums that introduced me to the band’s music.
“Have you seen a better day
Though we follow many different ways
Though your mind may hold the winter time
Spring is never very far behind
In the summer under open skies
We’ll see the sunshine, shine on
Take it easy live today today
We’ll see the sunshine, shine on.”