Warner Bros 1977 / Esoteric 2019
With a turn toward changes, symphonic rockers are beckoned to new horizons where past and future, and here and there, come together.
Here was an ensemble who, by 1978, had toured the world, graced the stages of prestigious venues and played with famous orchestras, and the only thing they didn’t have was a simple hit single: short confections couldn’t work for the quintet who needed a lot of space to spread their wings and take off. “Northern Lights” would change the group’s outlook. A straightforward, if still awash in woodwind, pop number, it signaled a fresh course for them and shone a different light on large-scale tapestries that always worked wonders for the band, even though “A Song For All Seasons” showed first cracks in their writing, with a few fragments edging dangerously close to pages from the Lloyd Webber book. While looking into the glamorous tomorrow, this very hopeful album allowed the collective to reassess their grandiose yesterday – “Back Home Once Again” rather deliberately borrows a line from “Carpet Of The Sun” – yet in trying to rein in the recent years’ splendor and letting David Hentschel take the reins as producer, they occasionally succumbed to saccharine sentiments.
Still, “Opening Out” is as spirited and optimistic as any of the ensemble’s earlier efforts, its serene prologue bursting into tremendous crescendo once Jon Camp’s bass cuts in with an Earth-shattering riff only to unfold it into supple rumble and lead the little oratorio towards catharsis before the strings reprise the composition’s main theme in “Day Of The Dreamer” – in the background of a piano-sprinkled swirl which holds additional drama thanks to Terry Sullivan‘s carnivalesque drums and John Tout’s cosmic synthesizers. The group’s overreliance on orchestra doesn’t necessarily serve them well, Annie Haslam‘s voice sounding too maudlin in “Closer Than Yesterday” and Camp’s vocals drowning in an awkward balladry of “She Is Love” – that he wasn’t meant to deliver in the first place – but, mostly stripped of outside instruments, his own dry “Kindness (At The End)” can be an exquisite acoustic anchor for the record’s exuberance and, as proved by this vastly expanded reissue’s bonuses, the five-piece band would pack much more power in live performances of the late-’70s material.
There’s spectral concept to it, marked with the motif of leaving and the mention of mist scattered across the tracks, that culminates in the album’s titular epic whose impressive swell will reveal not only MOR morality in the ensemble’s miraculous art-rock landscape, but also Michael Dunford’s electric guitars. This aural philosophy informed everything the group did from then on: spread over two extra CDs here, their concert in Philadelphia in December 1978 features, alongside new numbers, significantly revised versions of such favorites as "Ashes Are Burning" which hadn’t lose an iota of former glory. RENAISSANCE couldn’t remain the same after “Northern Lights” – the band’s sole Top 10 entry – yet they boldly embraced the change in music climate and soldiered on with dignity.