Monday, September 9, 2013

Ingranaggi Delle Valle - In Hoc Signo


5 stars  Believe the hype - In Hoc Signo is among the best RPI albums this year and one of the most solid contemporary prog releases I've heard in ages.  Ingranaggi Della Valle are a Roman quintet of ridiculously talented young musicians, whose influences seem to range from Arti e Mestieri and Quella Vecchia Locanda to King Crimson and Mahavishnu Orchestra.  Their sound is firmly steeped in the RPI mold, and never deviates too far from the subgenre to question its classification.  What sets Ingranaggi Della Valle apart from its peers is an astoundingly high level of composition and instrumental skill, paired with youthful exuberance and raw, passionate performances.  The relatively dry production of In Hoc Signo straddles the murky sound of vintage prog and modern technology, never relying on studio wizardry for novelty or unnecessary polish.  The final product is a conceptual affair which hearkens back to Campo di Marte and Alusa Fallax while never succumbing to impersonation; though In Hoc Signo wears influences on its sleeve, the album flows with an energy and pace unmatched by those classic archetypes, and dare I say even improves upon them.  Ingranaggi Della Valle has renewed my faith in the genre and encourages me to share in the near universal praise of their debut.

"Introduzione" sets up the bombastic "Cavalcata" which immediately previews the album proceedings.  Guitarist Flavio Gonnollini alternates between volume swells and thunderous riffs, clearly paying homage to Locanda Delle Fate.  The song wastes no time getting to the verse and showcasing the expressive voice of singer Igor Leone.  The virtuosic keyboard work of Mattia Liberatti is sprinkled throughout, while the rhythm section is comprised of Shanti Colluci on drums and a committee of bass players.  Colluci practically steals the show, providing one head-spinning beat after another with a flurry of fills in between.  Time changes stop on a dime and polyrhythm/odd-meter exercises do not seem to challenge the impressive drummer.  As a case in point, check out the sextuple hi-hat at the 4:30 mark of "Cavalcata."  Colluci makes the impossible possible, and not since Marco Minneman has such a capable performer impressed me so.  His playing shifts to a more tasteful and less eye-popping achievement on "Mare in tempesta," allowing violinist Marco Gennarini room to solo and double the melody when needed.  After only ten minutes, the band is just getting warmed up and some of the best is yet to come.  "Via Egnatia" slows things down momentarily before exploding in a schizophrenic tirade.  A fade to "L'Assedio di Antiochia" slowly builds to heavy prog dirge, finally erupting in tech prog metal, stopping abruptly and converting into a funky fusion jam out of nowhere!  Then the song really finds its legs as the breakneck middle section evokes the frantic quality of early Arti e Mestieri.  The theme is reprised again at the end and concludes the first half.

"Kairuv'an" shifts gears a bit and starts off with a Tunisian jazz before a gorgeous acoustic guitar transition gets us to the verse.  The band begins to incorporate some more modern rock elements toward the latter half of the song, and conclude by recapitulating the jazzy introduction.  "Musqat" sounds quite unlike anything else on the album, yet the instrumental seems to fit and is a welcome addition to the group's already stunning catalog.  The psychedelic "Jangala Mem" will have you looking over your shoulder as the chilling melody and sound effects set an eerie atmosphere.  "Il Vento del Tempo" continues the horrific feel initially, but then transforms into a dazzling symphonic wonder.  This is the moment In Hoc Signo earns masterpiece status in my opinion, and "Finale" only solidifies that conclusion.  The nine-plus minute opus drifts from romantic flair to jazz rock and from wild fusion to neo-prog, doing so seamlessly and with such taste that I can rate it nothing short of essential.  To quote prog guru Greg Walker:  "...simply put, this is one of the best Italian Prog albums to come along in a while..."

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Enzo Capuano - Storia Mai Scritta


 4 stars Initially transparent and one-dimensional, Storia Mai Scritta is really a folk suite disguised as prog and a definite grower.  The seemingly simple and mostly instrumental arrangements contradict the sheer depth and amount of creativity artist Enzo Capuano pours into it; while only the first and last tracks feature lyrical content, the album as a whole tells a story musically and speaks volumes through its sparseness rather than its orchestration.  Limited instrumentation is used to accomplish this task, with only Capuano's 12-string guitar, a drumset, and various synths at the helm.  Piano player Mario Panseri, for whom Enzo Capuano had previously contributed guitar on 1972's Adolescenza, returns the favor here and does so in a tasteful fashion.  Though Panseri was classically trained and a competent composer in his own right, his performance is restrained compared to similar synth-heavy albums (Luciano Basso's Voci, for example).  Though you won't find any Mellotron or Eminent, the synths, organ and piano are used to create a dreamy atmosphere only accentuated by sparse percussion effects and arpeggiated guitar.  And while Storia Mai Scritta has a fairly average length of 38 minutes, its running time flies by and the album is over before you know it.  A truly great album always leaves you wanting more, and this one does just that.  "Essential" and "Masterpiece" are not quite terms I would use to describe it, but Enzo Capuano's lone foray into the world of Rock Progressivo Italiano is an easy four-star recommendation.

The longish "In Forma di Vita" sets the scene for Capuano's tale of rose-colored nostalgia; gentle percussion accompanies acoustic guitar, synth bass, and piano.  Enzo's strong, yet relaxing voice enters and impresses the listener with its calm command and presence.  After a brief transition, the suite's first part bellows and wails in crescendo, though even this is restrained and never showy.  A tempo change helps to ease into part two "La Nuova Stagione," which sounds a bit like Reale Accademia di Musica on Valium.  "Volo Nella Notte" is slightly more energetic, adding a pulsing tambourine and frantic hi-hat to the mix.  I especially love the way percussion like chimes and castanets are panned in the distance to create a swirly, psychedelic effect.  Storia Mai Scritta is good headphone listening for sure; the entire album is extremely well recorded and produced, and sounds amazingly ahead of and out of its time.

"Risveglio" ends what would be Lato A, or side A, of the vinyl LP and does so powerfully.  This provocative chord progression is really the first hint of melancholy and adds some welcome mass to an otherwise lightweight sequence.  "Dal Tempo Vissuto" continues the minor-key momentum before the short piece ends abruptly and fades to "La Natura Dentro."  For the first time Capuano and Panseri start to incorporate earlier thematic elements, giving the album a sense of coherence and musical "glue" that holds everything together.  The long "Memoria" does a good job of filling out the second side without ever becoming stale or long-winded.  My favorite moment on the entire disc occurs at the four-minute mark when an unexpected key change comes out of nowhere and takes the song in a totally different direction for about thirty seconds and disappears, never to be heard again.  The extended instrumental workout eventually gives way to "Il Buio" and again Enzo Capuano is heard as if singing his own movie credits.  Like Adolescenza, Storia Mai Scritta is very much a musical motion picture that ebbs and flows, and is forever memorable.

Friday, May 31, 2013

RDM - Contamination


4 stars By 1975, the golden era of Rock Progressivo Italiano had all but ended, leaving bands like Rovescio Della Medaglia at a crossroads; many folded up entirely, some formed new groups and went on to play jazz fusion (Etna, Il Volo, Baricentro, etc.), and a few sought the international market (PFM, Le Orme, Banco).  RDM, willing or not, were lumped into that last category when RCA decided to milk every last drop of their classic 1973 album Contaminazione for all it was worth - by releasing an English-sung version for Europe and the US.  RDM had essentially ceased to be a band by this point, having nearly all their equipment stolen resulting in an indefinite hiatus for most of 1974.  A changing of the guard was occurring, as new groups like Maxophone, Arti e Mestieri and Agora were finding success with a hybrid of progressive rock and jazz like never before.  Why the label had RDM overdub English lyrics on an already perfect album is anyone's guess; to me Contamination is like painting a smile on the Mona Lisa, but there are also unnecessary sonic choices that prevent the album from equaling its 5-star counterpart.

Reviewing a variation of an already classic album is challenging in that the music itself is not really subject to critique.  The physical product in and of itself is the object being reviewed.  And in this case, Contamination has some subtle, almost undetectable flaws that may not be apparent unless a side by-side comparison is done.  Take for instance the initial surge of "Johann's Rock" aka "Il Suono del Silenzio" - the original sounds blisteringly heavy and crisp while the English version is a midrange mess, flat and compressed, atop with a pale imitation of those cavernously resonant vocals.  By the time Luiz Bacalov's orchestration comes in, the harpsichord sounds listless and ordinary, and the strings lifeless.  If you had never heard Contaminazione, it would be a non-issue and the impressive quality of the composition would shine right through...but the obsessive RPI clinician will notice right away, and always prefer the genuine article.

This is not to say the lyrics themselves are laughable and embarrassing - on the contrary - Contamination succeeds where earlier attempts by Osanna and Acqua Fragile failed.  Here the affect is limited, and only a remnant of Italian accent is heard.  The original lyrical concept is intact and even benefits from translation.  Fortunate we are to have corresponding language copies of Maxophone, Felona and Sorona and Photos of Ghosts; in the case of mistakes like Ibis' Sun Supreme we will never be so lucky.  But the fact that Contamination cannot stand on its own and is a supplemental purchase by nature prevents it from being essential in my book, the high level of music on display notwithstanding.  Having said that, completists and those struggling with foreign-language prog will eat this up, and hopefully develop a more sophisticated palate because of it.

Thursday, May 30, 2013

I Teoremi - I Teoremi


 I Teoremi is easy to discard and pigeonhole as heavy prog, which it most certainly is, but there is some astoundingly impressive musicianship happening on the album that cannot be easily overlooked.  This self-titled 1972 affair begins placidly enough, but don't let the fluid blues facade mislead you; Teoremi blast through 45 minutes of proto-prog rock like a hot knife through butter.  Of particular interest are the guitars - Mario Schiliro masterfully commanding the Les Paul, and Vincenzo Massetti continually raising eyebrows with his bass playing.  The pair recall the likes of Clapton/Bruce one minute, and Flea compatriots Pennisi/Volpini the next.  But the most fitting comparison I can make of these two is to Alberto Radius and Bob Callero; though these masters would join forces in Il Volo, their early work with Formula 3 and Osage Tribe respectively is more similar to what I Teoremi were doing.  And what they do is wake up the neighbors.  Play this puppy LOUD.

The 1999 Akarma CD has a different running order than the Vinyl Magic, but it is the Akarma to which I am accustomed and will refer to that version here.  The album begins with "Nuvola Che Copri Il Sole," a bluesy number with tons of energy right out of the gate.  Immediately noticeable is the attention-grabbing voice of Vincenzo Massetti, who sounds like a soulful Roman version of Paul Rogers.  This guy isn't afraid to belt it out, and does so early and often.  By "Qualcosa D'irreale" you start to realize this isn't typical rock music, as the rhythm section starts doing some unexpected odd-meter and syncopated unison work.  The three musicians are clearly rehearsed and tight, yet retain an off-the-cuff realism that is much appreciated.  Massetti  especially goes for it, attempting a high-string tightrope walk that isn't always pretty, yet he somehow never falls.  At the four-minute mark any doubts you may still have subside, as the guitars interlock for a classically-inspired break that will make RDM and New Trolls fans blush.

Three shorter songs follow which further demonstrate the remarkable riff-writing abilities of I Teoremi.  Of main interest to prog rock followers are the two long songs that follow:  "Impressione" (which opens the original LP and CD) shifts from weighty electric R&B to spacey psych in one fell swoop; "Mare Della Traquillita" features a lengthy drum solo and even some cavernous piano to up the prog ante.  The Akarma CD has a couple of bonus tracks featuring the group's first single and B-side, which are nice additions.  The digital delivery of I Teoremi offers the same track sequence, and is a cheap $8 download.  I Teoremi should belong in any Heavy/Psych collection, but RPI purists may be turned off by the seemingly one-dimensional aspect of the album; repeated listens may win them over.

Procession - Fiaba


3 stars Fiaba is Procession's second (and final) album, and a far cry from their blissfully heavy 1972 debut.  By 1974 only singer Gianfranco Gaza and guitarist Roby Munciguerra remained from the original group; the twin-guitar approach from Frontiera is abandoned in favor of woodwinds, sparse percussion and walking bass lines.  I prefer the first album, but Fiaba has its moments and definitely belongs in any complete RPI discussion - although the impact on progressive music as a whole is negligible.  Sales for Fiaba were virtually nonexistent and Procession folded shortly upon release.  Highlights include the opening  "Uomini Di Vento" and somber "Un Mondo Sprecato."  I tend to lose interest after those first two tracks and wish the aggressive swagger of Frontiera would kick in, but it never does.

"Uomini Di Vento" is the closest thing to 1972 Procession found here.  Francesco Francica of Raccomandata Ricevuta Ritorno plows a funky path, laying down a solid drum beat upon which bassist Paolo D'Angelo treads assuredly.  Flute and sax solos are skillfully played by Maurizio Gianotti.  Gaza's voice is in top form, retaining its warbly, emphatically powerful quality.  The tone shifts dramatically on "Un Mondo Sprecato," as the singer displays a seemingly new-found tenderness.  The slow tempo allows Munciguerra to explore a soaring Gilmouresque solo; finally Gaza reenters and gently closes the song on verse, which creates a sense of unresolved tension.  "Un Mondo Sprecato" abruptly ends and we are treated to another stylistic change on "C'era una Volta" - to Jazz Rock this time.  Sizzling cymbals support a sleazy sax while guitars chug along in the background.  Suddenly, the mood shifts to upbeat Neopolitan folk, sounding not unlike Citta Frontale.  This middle section fades out a little too soon for my taste, as the last three minutes build to a cliché crescendo.

Side two still suffers from an identity complex as Procession try to work through various passages, impersonating a classically symphonic RPI band at times ("Notturno"), and a folk/canzone group at others ("Il Volo Della Paura").  The title track seems to finally settle on a cohesive style, but feels too little too late.  I do not regret adding Fiaba to my RPI library, but the title will be largely irrelevant for most and only mildly enjoyable for Italian Prog newbies.  I recommend the debut to hear Procession in its element and at the peak of their powers; Fiaba displays a shadow of that great band trying to adapt and catch a break near the end of a creative wave.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Nascita Della Sfera - Per una Scultura di Ceschia


4 stars Equal parts electronic avantgarde and traditional acoustic folk sandwiched in a sound collage, Per una Scultura di Ceschia is the 1978 work of mastermind Carlo Barbiera and musical collective Nascita Della Sfera.  The album plays like a movie soundtrack to the life of sculptor Luciano Ceschia and in fact reminds me of another soundtrack - Goblin's score to Solamente Nero, released that same year.  Both works rely on a blend of structured composition and calculated improvisation, electronic experimentation, tape manipulation and tons of atmosphere.  In Barbiera's favor are a talented ensemble cast full of risk-takers, competent enough to bring melody to the table when necessary, but humble enough to step aside if the piece dictates.  Per una Scultura di Ceschia is noisy and seemingly random yet there is a simple logic to its intended purpose:  Music is more than just notes and rhythm, but a journey; a discovery waiting to be made, a blank canvas ready to be filled in.  Nascita Della Sfera in their search for three-dimensional music have left a curious yet memorable mark on the Italian Prog map, and I can't recommend it enough to those with an open mind.

Though the painfully rare LP is sequenced into 19 separate tracks, each side runs seamlessly from one musical vision to another with only brief transitions between them.  The actual running order is an art form unto itself, as these transitions, whether they be jarring or fluid, add nearly as much to the music as the music itself.  To play the album on shuffle or random order creates an entirely different experience.  Of the two sides I prefer the latter, folky one to the former, more abstract one.  The first side may seem somewhat slow at first but it sets the template for the album's cohesive conclusion.  Side B begins with the honky-tonk horror of "Puntine," before a ticking alarm clock abruptly stops; the gentle "Verdi Prati" and its solemn flute then calms the listener.  We fade to Echoplex nightmares as a distant fingerpicked guitar announces "Magia."  Spoken word and sound effects introduce "Adam," the highlight of the disc, as a beautifully played folk jig is buried beneath heavy breathing, childlike speech and even animal mimicry.  The guitar chimes harmonically and segues to "La Fonderia" which briefly mixes spacey minimalism with tape loops.  "L'incoronazione" layers these sounds with flute and airy synths, echoing the melody of "La Sfera" from Side A.  The jazzy "Luci Dal Pianeta" leads into "Sotto Il Ponte," which sounds like a twisted theatrical rehearsal.  "Nell'Universo/Sul Ferro" anticlimactically concludes the album with a lo-fi electric blues.  Weird.

To describe Per una Scultura di Ceschia is a bit like giving directions to someone who's never driven a car.  In order to get where you're going, you first have to understand the methodology.  Barbiera and Nascita Della Sfera knew where they wanted to go, they just didn't have the directions.  The anecdotes included in the generous CD liner notes paint a serendipitous picture of how this group of kids went from being a sleazy cover band to art-rock pioneers in only six gigs; perhaps some embellishment livens the story but Barbiera seems like a captivating character and his accounts only add to the value of this package.  Also included are some forty minutes of bonus tracks, featuring live rehearsals, outtakes, and additional material that didn't make the final cut.  Per una Scultura di Ceschia may not fit the traditional RPI mold but its contribution to the genre is worthwhile and heartily recommended.

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Museo Rosenbach - Barbarica


3 stars Rosenbach is back!

The latest in a trend of classic RPI bands reuniting for one more round, Museo Rosenbach join the ranks of Alphataurus, Locanda Delle Fate, and Garybaldi with new releases in the last year.  Of those, only Alphataurus has offered a new studio recording, which Barbarica easily tops in both originality and authenticity.  Original Museo members "Lupo" Galifi, Giancarlo Golzi, and Alberto Moreno are again joined by guitarists Sandro Libra and Max Borelli, bassist Andy Senis, and keyboard player Fabio Meggetto as on the Zarathustra Live in Studio album.  These new recruits are able to achieve the rarely possible task of breathing new life into an old band while maintaining that group's original sensibility.  Barbarica actually sounds like Museo Rosenbach, which is amazing considering the amount of time passed and changes in the musical landscape.  A leaner, more aggressive band has emerged and while this suits the lyrical theme of war-torn civilization, it may rub some Museo stalwarts the wrong way.  Heavy Prog has morphed into a hybrid Symphonic Metal genre that Museo Rosenbach seems to embrace, and this stylistic choice prevents the album from becoming a four-star affair in my book.  Still, Barbarica is one of the better contemporary Italian Prog albums I've heard this year.

The album's centerpiece of course is the 14-minute "Il Respiro Del Pianeta" which hearkens immediately to the sound of 1973's classic Zarathustra.  Though Barbarica never approaches the genius of that album, it keeps an eye to the past while trying new ideas.  At times however, this new Museo relies a little too much on its own legacy and uses some of the same stylistic changes and mood shifts that so define the band's classic sound:  In the first four minutes alone, no fewer than six distinct sections introduce "Il Respiro Del Pianeta," which borders on excess in my opinion.  This Economy of Scale approach belies the individual members' contributions, and almost seems like too many cooks are stirring the broth.  Though the sheer amount of compositional concepts is impressive, the transitions between them can feel forced in some cases.  For instance, the pause at 5:30 as the song shifts from romantic balladry to testosterone-laden Hammond Rock...perhaps this respite was intentional but it seems like the band just couldn't find a way to get from point A to point B without simply stopping in between.

The remaining four tracks do a better job of progressing the identity of the band without being nostalgic.  Lupo leads a determined bunch on "La Coda Del Diavolo," which reminds me a lot of his work with Il Tempo Delle Clessidre.  "Abbandonati" reflects the album's cover art with its African themes and tribal chanting.  "Fiore Di Vendetta" is the most modern sounding track here, and doesn't impress.  "Il Re Del Circo" has a much darker tone and does the best job of blending the classic Museo sound with a new twist.  Barbarica is a must-have for Contemporary Italian Prog fans; RPI collectors will no doubt be intrigued by its appeal, and even adventurous Heavy Prog listeners may find something to take away.  The average Prog fan though will probably want to pass on Barbarica for now, and come back to it when a taste for foreign-language music has developed.  Three really strong stars.

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Biglietto per L'Inferno - Il Tempo Della Semina


 What would have been Biglietto per L'Inferno's second album is anchored by two exceptionally strong pieces at the beginning and end, and what I would consider filler in the middle.  Finally seeing release in 1992, Il Tempo Della Semina was recorded in 1974 and a causality of the Trident label's collapse; luckily a cassette copy survived and is the basis for this reissue.  In some ways this album sounds better than the debut which is amazing considering the source material, although it can sound flat and lifeless at times.  Biglietto still had some good ideas here resulting in twenty minutes of captivating material, and fifteen minutes of drudgery.  I would rate Il Tempo Della Semina good, but non-essential for the casual prog fan.  RPI collectors will want to seek it out for historical significance alone, as it has steadily been in print and is easy to come by.

The original 1992 Mellow CD is the only version I've heard, and will refer to that release; later issues apparently have a differing track sequence which may or may not alter the listening experience.  The album begins with the explosive title track, which was also captured on the Live 1974 album with a slightly different arrangement.  "Il Tempo Della Semina" picks up right where the first album left off, featuring plenty of articulate drumming, mounds of keyboard, heavy guitar, and of course the enigmatic voice of Claudio Canali.  The singer sounds uncomfortably determined and cinematic, reminding me very much of Christian Decamps from Ange.  Canali's mysterious vocals hide for much of the song, as the band takes front and center through various twists and turns.  The sextuplet organ figure at the five minute mark is impossibly great and propels the group into overdrive, pausing only briefly to set up dynamic contrast.  This trademark light-and-dark is what makes the debut so enjoyable, and that feeling continues throughout "Il Tempo Della Semina."

"Mente Sola - Mente" is a throwaway vaudeville piece that totally halts the album's momentum.  "Vivi Lotta Pensa" recaptures quite a bit of that energy and the short song doesn't outstay its welcome.  "L'arte Sublime di un Giusto Regnare" threatens to do just that, but luckily fades out before becoming overly laborious.  "Solo Ma Vivo" is the best of these three shorter tracks, and gives the best indication of the direction in which Biglietto was heading - a more succinct, almost commercial one.  At last the long "La Canzone Del Padre" completes the set, and strikes a balance between the band's earlier, heavier material and more lighthearted work.  The song sounds like a cross between Banco and Jumbo to me, though it never really approaches either in terms of creativity or emotional value.  The last minute of the song however is utterly brilliant  and the payoff makes Il Tempo Della Semina more than worth the purchase price.  Italian Prog fans will have a difficult decision to make in buying the album, because it's not a matter of "if," but a matter of "when."

Monday, April 1, 2013

Osanna - Milano Calibro 9


 Despite being largely instrumental and partially composed by Luis E. Bacalov, the soundtrack to Milano Calibro 9 is Osanna's most successful effort as a band and their best album in my opinion.  L'Uomo was a laborious debut, and the popular Palepoli is too fractured and chaotic for my tastes; Milano Calibro 9 finds a perfect middle ground, blending the band's hard-rocking beginnings with later diverse influences seamlessly.  Interestingly, the album is not a soundtrack at all but a separate studio recording of the film's score - the music heard in the actual film was performed and recorded live and differs significantly from the LP version.  The album is a more concise and calculated rendering of those somewhat raw and off-the-cuff performances.  Also of interest is "Canzona," which is not featured in the movie at all, but tacked on to the end of the soundtrack and the only true vocal track here.  Milano Calibro 9 can be placed among the great film soundtracks of all time, matching Goblin's best work and even exceeding it on some levels.

Milano Calibro 9 is an Italian crime thriller with plenty of action and creative cinematography.  After the respective success of L'Uomo and New Trolls' Concerto Grosso, Osanna and Bacalov were paired to score the film.  Bacalov's distinctive orchestration is primarily limited to the first two pieces, "Preludio" and "Tema."  The first is led by a repeating piano figure that is used throughout the film as incidental music.  "Preludio" builds on the piano motif, gradually adding heavy guitar and strings, before the band proper enters fully.  Osanna's characteristic flute sound makes an appearance or two, while singer Lino Varietti is no where to be found (he is also credited with ARP synthesizer, which is heard briefly oscillating at the end).  "Tema" is a far more restrained affair, gently balancing delicate piano and strings as Danilo Rustici strums crystalline chords.  The guitarist then impresses with a backwards guitar solo as drums and bass pump and sway.  This first nine minutes of music are moody, over-the-top and self-important...a true RPI fan's dream.

A series of "Variazione" pieces make up the bulk of the album, and are nothing more than Osanna jamming out to the movie.  The music is strong enough to stand on its own, but seeing it in context certainly helps.  Highlights abound, but specifically "Variazione II (My Mind Flies)" and the spacey atmosphere it creates is extremely rewarding, particularly the acoustic bridge where Varietti enters for the first time.   The instrumentals continue with the Tullish "Variazione III," heavy riffing on "Variazione IV," bluesy swagger of "Variazione VI," and jazz tones on "Variazione VII."  Though these diverse elements seem random and arbitrary it somehow just works.  Tying everything together is the saccharine "Canzona (There Will Be Time)."  The song showcases the collaborative spirit with Bacalov, perhaps even more than his work with New Trolls.  Lyrically the song is inspired by T.S. Eliot's poem "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock," and embodies the anguish and cautious optimism of that work commendably.  Milano Calibro 9 is a must for OST collectors and any RPI enthusiast; the general prog audience may find the album boring with repeated listens.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Il Balletto di Bronzo - Ys


5 stars I can think of no other band making such an enormous jump from one album to the next than Il Balletto di Bronzo.  Their 1970 debut Sirio 2222 was a heavy psych/proto metal release - solid, but not exactly Prog.  Enter Gianni Leone:  The keyboardist and singer brought with him an arsenal of sound-shaping instruments, a challenging and frenetic energy, and an ostentatious concept with accompanying lyrics.  Ys was the result...a rock band playing opera music...not a rock opera, mind you, but a full-fledged opera in five movements or "encounters," all designed to paint a bleak, apocalyptic vision.  Often described as a masterpiece of the Italian movement, I can think of no better word to describe it; Ys is unquestionably a masterpiece of RPI, though each listener will approach and leave it a bit differently.  But each one is undoubtedly changed, at first unsure why such brashness and violently terrifying arrangement and instrumentation is necessary to achieve its purpose, but eventually reaching the realization that they have experienced something special and different. It is that singular experience that makes Ys a work of art.

The chilling, siren-like voice that announces "Introduzione" is a now iconic moment in prog, but it's easy to see why upon release Ys was largely misunderstood or even avoided.  This is not a lullaby.  "Introduzione" is a 15-minute nightmare, taking the listener on a startling musical journey.  Leone sings competently enough but it's his keyboard work that takes front and center - a battery of organ, piano, Moog, Mellotron and plucked keys generously drive the group, while the remaining band plays more of a support role.  This is particularly true of guitar, which typically takes a back seat to drums and bass.  The apropos accompaniment perfectly showcases Leone's grand scheme, and allows his brand of calculated insanity to roam and soar.  The end of "Introduzione" prefaces "Primo Incontro," the first of three short movements.  The combination of twisted tremolo guitar and unexpected spinet is an enticing combination, with plenty of explosive drum work and tasteful bass playing that only adds to the complex track.

"Secondo Incontro" is the closest Ys ever gets to traditional rock music, as Leone sings a bluesy introduction that quickly transforms into a brilliant vocal melody, frighteningly supported by Mellotron. The snare drum pops and bounces like a ping pong ball while bass slyly segues to "Terzo Incontro."  This third encounter features organ and choir, as drums bubble under the surface, only coming up for air at the end of each phrase in a tense fashion.  This suspenseful tension is fully heightened in "Epilogo," which begins with a repeating sextuplet figure before establishing something far more sinister.  If you want to sleep tonight, I would strongly recommend skipping the middle of "Epilogo."  Get up, grab a drink, check the mail, whatever.  Don't come back for five minutes.  The morbidly curious will likely be scared beyond imagination.  Those that survive are generously rewarded with one of the most haunting moments in all of Italian Prog.  You should already own Ys, but if you don't, get it now.

Alphataurus - Dietro L'Uragano


2 stars This collection of unfinished demos from 1973 demonstrates the potential Alphataurus possessed, but the absence of vocals and poor sound quality relegate Dietro L'Uragano to collector-only status.  The majority of these song structures would finally be fully realized some forty years later on AttosecondO, which also lacks the vocal duties of Michele Bavaro; his iconic wail is the main attraction of Alphataurus' stunning debut, and one which this flawed release is sorely missing.  Dietro L'Uragano is about half as good as that debut album, and earns two stars accordingly.

Though far from bootleg standards, Dietro L'Uragano is not exactly studio quality either, the first half sounding slightly more listenable than the second.  To make matters worse, these recordings were sullied with the use of NoNoise Sonic Solutions, a digital noise reduction tool which has notably compromised the catalogs of David Bowie and Jimi Hendrix, among others.  This 1992 archival release had the life sucked completely out of it, but you cannot degrade its importance or historical value because of these mastering choices.  If anything, Ciro Perrino is to be applauded for his tireless attention and hard work for Mellow Records in the 1990s and beyond, salvaging and publishing many such recordings.  On the flip-side, these releases were usually limited in nature, and the now-ridiculously-rare and overly expensive Dietro L'Uragano would not be a worthwhile pursuit for the average prog fan, or even the casual RPI fan.

Regarding the actual music:  "Ripensando E..." is the most complete of the four tracks, not suffering terribly from lack of vocals; this actually allows more space around the instruments, particularly keyboards, and permits the band to shine on its own merits.  Although the songwriting is not quite the same caliber as on the self-titled album, there are definitely some good ideas here.  "Valigie di Terra" is less successful, taking almost five minutes to find a groove before finally capturing that elusive Alphataurus magic.  I especially love the nasty cluster chord, previously used in "Peccato D'Orglio," courtesy of organist Pietro Pellegrini.  Unfortunately "Idea Incompiuta" and "Claudette" do nothing for me, despite the appearance of vocals in the latter.  Dietro L'Uragano displays a group at the peak of its powers, and though I still prefer these original recordings to the studio versions on AttosecondO, I can't really recommend either.

Monday, March 18, 2013

Procession - Frontiera


4 stars Frontiera has it all - heavy guitars, shimmering folk passages, confident singing, powerful drumming and even some Mellotron - wrapped up in a convenient package you can carry with you (literally...the LP had a handle).  Though it did take a while for me to warm to Procession, the group is unique in the realm of RPI since they don't really fit the traditional mold; classically-inspired motifs are nary to be found, instead favored by molten riffs a la Black Sabbath mixed with regional sensibilities.  The band from northern Italy created a lyrically thematic tale of immigration and desegregation, which were apparently hot-button issues in Torino at the time.  The lyrics are lost on me but the push and pull between heavy prog aggression and whimsical flair speaks for itself; Frontiera succeeds on a musical level so much so that I would recommend it to all RPI listeners.

For a 1972 album, Frontiera sounds well recorded and produced.  The small Help! label folded shortly after this release, leaving the band on hiatus for nearly two years until they signed with Fonit.  I would describe Procession as a cross between Flea and early Il Balletto di Bronzo with Robert Plant singing.  The guitars are also reminiscent of Led Zeppelin at times, particularly in the extensive use of 12-string.  The instrument opens "Ancora Una Notte," drums and fuzz guitar join in, and massively booming bass feeds back before the whole thing roars to a stop.  Acoustic guitar supports vocalist Gianfranco Gaza, whose distinctive voice gives the group exactly the gravitas it needs.  "Uomini e Illusioni" features some dual-guitar riffage...again the bass is enormously omnipresent and sounds great.  Drums jam and bounce while Gaza floats along the top of the whole thing.  This is good, good stuff.  We transition right into "Citta' Grande," my favorite song so far, and an epic middle section reminds us this is definitely RPI.  A multitude of harmonized guitars and bass give way to a classical guitar interlude which somberly closes the song.

"Incontro" displays classic Torinese spirit, using mandolin and tamborine to achieve a singalong effect. This fades right into "Anche Io Sono Un Uomo" which is a dark, brooding piece amply colored with Mellotron strings.  "Un Mondo Di Liberta" is the song that elevates Frontiera from three to four stars in my opinion; the song contains quite possibly the most thunderous riff in all of Italian Prog and drums that sound like fireworks going off.  But this is just half the story - the eight-minute piece changes abruptly at the halfway mark, leaving Gaza to sing with only acoustic guitar support.  Eventually drums and bass enter and contribute accordingly.  The "Solo/Un'Ombra Che Vaga" medley starts off with straight rock swagger and then fades to another 12-string section with some clean tones added for good measure.  This brief respite is plundered by a reappearance of The Riff, of which I can never get enough anyway.  Finally "Solo 2" reprises its predecessor with some harmonica and lead guitar thrown in.  I can't say enough good things about Frontiera and will leave it at that.

Friday, March 15, 2013

Triade - 1998: La Storia di Sabazio


3 stars A criminally short album and yet another victim of the "one-album-wonder" curse, 1998: La Storia di Sabazio is a respectable offering but not one I reach for often.  Emerson, Lake & Palmer comparisons aside, Triade actually reminds me more of Latte e Miele than Le Orme.  Comparisons to all of the above are easily made as the album is fairly derivative, but more by wearing influences on its sleeve instead of a strictly hero-worship kind of way.  The second side is the more original of the two, and probably more listenable as well.  The longish title track in particular will be a breath of fresh air to even the most cynical RPI apologists, as it presents a different take on the sweetly melodic and romantic genre to which it belongs.  1998: La Storia di Sabazio is a good album, but not essential or even necessary.

Triade was a bit of a mystery for many years, as the original Derby LP did not specify the band members' complete identities, only pictures and songwriting credits.  Luckily this situation was resolved in 2003 thanks to the tireless research of Augusto Croce, which in no small part led to the CD reissue on BTF/AMS two years later.  The wonderfully recorded album begins with a side long, instrumental suite:  "Nascita" kicks things off with dark organ and cello overtones, before drums and bass conspire to attack in a classically-inspired fashion; "Sabazio: Il Viaggio" is silly at first, but turns far more sinister as tritone intervals dominate the harmony between bass and Hammond - some nice melodic synths transition to the next movement; "Il Sogno" features cello in a more obvious way, and to good effect before bass and keys piddle along to interrupt; "Vita Nuova" uses classical music as a framework for this pleasing piano composition; "Il Circo" recapitulates many of the previously used elements in a more aggressive way.

"Espressione" begins the disparate second side, which largely abandons the organ-bass-drums format in favor of lush keys, acoustic guitar, and vocals.  I could definitely handle an album's worth of this material, but these 16 minutes will have to do.  "Espressione" is a joy and the best example of traditional RPI on the album.  "Caro Fratello" regrettably returns to an ELP impersonation for the first two minutes, but is luckily saved by airy synths and guitar for its duration; drums enter toward the end and give the song a pensive, driving feel.  An extended organ solo closes the track. "1998 (Millenovecentonovantotto)" is a worthy closer as it does the best job at integrating these various elements - the classical musicianship, singer-songwriter vulnerability, and gentle tension - into a cohesive concept and one that finally works, at least for these six minutes.  1998: La Storia di Sabazio suffers from a case of quality over quantity, as the former is abundant...there's just not enough of it to go around.

Monday, March 11, 2013

Officina Meccanica - La Follia Del Mimo Di Fuoco


4 stars Equal parts theatrical weirdness and captivating accessibility, Officina Meccanica never had the chance to release an album during their lifespan.  La Follia Del Mimo Di Fuoco is a compilation of singles and unreleased recordings, resulting in a surprisingly cohesive and fluid listening experience.  Often described as a cross between Chicago and Van Der Graaf Generator, Officina Meccanica (OM) employ horns in conjunction with the grand RPI tradition; an interesting combination to be sure, but one that works amazingly well due to the outstanding musicianship on display.  OM was fronted by the charismatic and mysterious Luciano Maiozzi, whose voice is a cross between that of Alusa Fallax and Corte di Miracoli; at times I hear Hunka Munka as well, but Maiozzi always manages to create his own unique identity.  This is evident to some degree on the three included singles (and bonus track "Angelo"), but especially so on the live studio tracks - they capture the OM experience perfectly.  That this material would remain unearthed for so long is offensive as the quality is immeasurably high...La Follia Del Mimo Di Fuoco is a five-star effort for me personally, but a four-star compilation.

The "Bambi Innocenti" video was broadcast on RAI in 1974, the exposure allowing Officina Meccanica to successfully tour in support of the single; unfortunately this delayed recording of the album proper, and the live studio material was not recorded until 1976.  By 1978 OM had folded, closing the book on this incomparable chapter of Italian rock history.  "Bambi Innocenti" crams about eight different songs in its relatively short seven-minute length, but never feels random or contrived.  The first three minutes specifically are magical, with Maiozzi singing tenderly and aggressively, often in the same breath; jarring horn blasts and overdriven amplifiers share equal time with spacious ambiance and classical guitar.  "Bambi Innocenti" is one of those songs that manages to summarize the entire RPI movement while sounding nothing like it.  If there was ever an argument about why RPI deserves its own subgrenre classification, this song makes it.

The other two singles, "Insieme al Sole" and "Amanti di Ieri," showcase the songwriting talents of the group and though the instrumentation is relatively sparse in comparison, stack up well against "Bambi Innocenti" if somewhat less successfully.  That brings us to the live stuff - this is the real meat of the compilation, and does a better job at capturing what an OM show would have been like:  "Primo Turno" sounds like Osanna with Claudio Canali singing; "Via Non Esiste" relies on a funky beat and plenty of trumpet manipulation before a heavy prog breakdown demolishes any semblance of danceability; "Nel Grattacielo Delle Idee il Pensiero...Piu Alto" starts with jerky Area rhythmicity, unison stacatto in the horn section, and plenty of Maiozzi weirdness; finally, the lengthy "Il Viaggio di...Nella Valle del Tempo" begins as a reveille, with languid cornet and a march beat, before guitar and bass float in seamlessly...then, as if out of nowhere, a frantic unison figure bursts forth and propels the song forward for much of the remaining ten minutes.

The hauntingly beautiful "Angelo" may well be my favorite track on the album; its inclusion is a treat and helps to flesh out the idiosyncratic identity of this odd collection of characters.  Officina Meccanica, in my opinion, is one of the most important historical finds ever, on par with Buon Vecchio Charlie and Sensitiva Immagine; all RPI devotees will need to track it down if they have not already done so.  The conventional progressive rock fan may not have the patience for this collection, but fans of VDGG and Gentle Giant won't have any trouble with it.  A bitter pill to swallow this is, but one that cures what ails you.  9/10.

Saturday, March 9, 2013

Le Orme - Smogmagica


 What a disappointment.  After an amazing four-album run between 1971 and 1974, Le Orme adds a guitarist and travels to California for the recording of their next album.  The result was Smogmagica, a radical departure for the band and a failure in terms of consistency and lasting appeal.  There are a few flashes of brilliance here and there, but they are so fleeting I can't get to three stars.  The album is also terribly front-loaded; the first two songs are the best on Smogmagica and everything else pales in comparison.  I hate to say the best thing about Smogmagica is its length...the short album doesn't outstay it's welcome.  All Le Orme fans will want to acquire this at some point but the typical prog fan and even most RPI collectors will find Smogmagica largely non-essential.

Some would argue that Orme had lost their way by 1974 on Contrappunti; I personally love that album, and don't see Smogmagica as a logical extension of it.  If only judging a book by its cover, you immediately know something is different here just from looking at the splendid Paul Whitehead sleeve.  Unfortunately the contents don't quite live up to these expectations, and within lies second-rate rock music.  Don't be misled by the excellent "Los Angeles" - it's all downhill from here, though the canonical "Amico di Ieri" has become a Le Orme staple over the years and deservedly so.  The only other highlight is the listenable "Immensa Distesa."  I can't figure out what "Ora o Mai Pui" is supposed to be...it sounds like the Beach Boys playing theme music for a TV sitcom.  The intentionally trippy "Laserium Floyd" is an obvious ode to its namesake; "Primi Passi" and "L'Uomo del Pianino" are poorly-executed commercial attempts; "Amanti di Citta'" and "Laurel Canyon" are decent but nothing extraordinary.  2.5 stars is generous for this lackluster Le Orme release.