This double-CD set managed to sneak onto the market in the mid-'90s, below the radar of all but the most diligent fans and the best record stores. Across their history, through two different "original" lineups, and the variants and offshoots of the more enduring second incarnation (as well as its splintering into at least two groups sharing some of the same repertoire), and releases on more than half a dozen labels, Renaissance
piled up a significant body of music. Astonishingly, this double CD was the first serious attempt in a quarter century to compile the best parts of the output of both versions of the group, covering a period of 13 years, from 1969 until the dissolution of the second lineup in 1982, and it succeeds despite the vast changes in sound and personnel represented. The slightly more pop-oriented material off of the original group's second album, for example, is quite jarring in the wake of two tracks off the first, which are much more intense virtuoso showpieces; on the other hand, "Love Goes On" and "Love Is All" serve as a bridge to the smoother, more elegant sound of the second "original" lineup. Interestingly, although the material from the first lineup's two albums sounds very good, the music from the second version of the group, from Prologue
and beyond, is astoundingly crisp, clear, and sharp, and puts the mastering on One Way Records' domestic versions of Prologue
and Ashes Are Burning
to shame. Indeed, the change between the fidelity of one body of music and the next is so startling that the transition is almost the audio equivalent to that moment in The Wizard of Oz
when Technicolor replaces the black-and-white shooting. The selection of material is also very fair, although one suspects that one more Capitol/EMI-era cut would've given a slightly more balanced view of their music. On the other hand, there are a pair of previously unissued tracks, "Africa" and "Writers Wronged," both from the 1980s -- the former sounds unlike anything the group ever did elsewhere, emphasizing percussion, while the latter is a very pretty acoustic guitar-dominated track. Between their presence, the comprehensive nature of the programming, and the superb sound, there are about 150 minutes of great and diverting listening, supported by a decent essay (though the song list could have been made easier to follow), all at a very reasonable price and outstripping all earlier CD versions of the music in question.