By ProgBlog, Jul 22 2018 05:05PM
Taking their name from the 1873 extended poem Une Saison en Enfer by Arthur Rimbaud, dramatised in the 1971 film Una Stagione all’Inferno, a French-Italian production directed by Nelo Risi which tells the life and death of Rimbaud and his troubled relationship with the poet Paul Verlaine, Una Stagione all'Inferno were formed in 1997 by Fabio Nicolazzo, a guitarist from Genoa's gothic rock scene and the classically trained pianist Laura Menighetti. Augmented by bassist Diego Banchero from Genovese prog band Il Segno del Comando, original Il Segno del Comando drummer Carlo Opisso and Francesco Scariti, they released their interpretation of the theme tune to 70s Italian TV mini-series L'amaro caso della Baronessa di Carini, renaming it La ballata di Carini, which was included on the soundtrack compilation E tu vivrai nel terrore released on the Black Widow Records label in 1998. The band had originally intended to write a concept album based on the show but disagreements within the band led to a rejection of the idea, and put the group on hold.
Nicolazzo and Menighetti reformed the band with new members in 2011 and, undeterred by the difficulties posed by complex concepts, decided to write a piece of music based on Il Mostro di Firenze (The Monster of Florence) which was eventually released in spring 2018 on Black Widow Records (BWRDIST 676). Il Mostro di Firenze is the name commonly applied by the Italian media for a series of eight double murders that took place between 1968 and 1985 in the province of Florence. Law enforcement departments conducted a number of investigations into the cases over the course of several years; the victims were young couples who parked or camped in countryside areas in the vicinity of Florence during the new moon, killed using a variety of weapons including a .22 calibre gun and a knife. There appeared to be a sexual element to the murders because the sex organs were cut out from the bodies of some of the female victims. After an innocent man was convicted, the killer struck again and eventually the authorities concluded that the murders were not committed by a single person but by a group of at least four perpetrators the so-called ‘Picnic Comrades’ who were later caught and convicted.
This release falls very neatly into the category of dark prog, something I didn’t know existed until I got chatting to the proprietors of Genova’s Black Widow Records shop. The shop itself is named after the original purveyors of dark prog, the UK’s Black Widow, a favourite of Massimo Gasperini. Black Widow’s debut Sacrifice from 1970 is considered a prog classic, possibly due to the controversy stoked by the media surrounding the inclusion of occult themes, absent on subsequent releases, although they were quite innovative for a band with heavy rock leanings (c.f. Black Sabbath) with flute, sax and clarinet supplementing the usual rock instrumentation. Massimo explained that they ticked all the right boxes for a rock band: a powerful and hypnotic sound; gothic in nature; a spectacular live show. I think that the flute and clarinet add a folk element, so perhaps it’s not surprising that Massimo also adds Comus to his list of dark prog bands, along with Atomic Rooster, Audience, Beggars Opera, Bram Stoker, Dr. Z, High Tide, Indian Summer, Kingdom Come (and other Arthur Brown projects) and Quatermass. These groups represent the early period of progressive rock and, as far as the British incarnation goes, that might be part of the defining feature as there are often psychedelic and more blues-based influences; he’s even willing to suggest that some Hawkwind, the first two King Crimson albums and the 68-76 incarnations of Van der Graaf Generator are dark enough to fit the description. The inclusion of flute is considered an important instrument in the genre, along with up-front guitar and Mellotron but the demonic band name King Crimson and some of the dark themes of Crimson and Van der Graaf Generator, like Necromancer from The Aerosol Grey Machine (1969) and White Hammer from The Least we can do is Wave to Each Other (1970) are surely sufficient to warrant an inclusion.
Though there are worldwide examples like Akasha (Norway), some material by Amon Düül (Germany), some Ange (France), Coven (USA), some Magma (France), Morte Macabre (Sweden), Univers Zero (Belgium), the examples that are most true to form are Italian, from both the classic period in the 70s and the present, and this is where Black Widow Records excel; not only do they have a great reputation for seeking out classics for re-issue, involving getting approval from the bands themselves for a re-release and working out who owns the phonographic rights, but also nurturing new talent.
Turin-based Abiogenesi released their self-titled debut in 1995, incorporating a blend of 70’s hard rock and a more melodic, modern symphonic prog sound. The main songwriter of the quartet, which has undergone a few personnel changes over the years, is guitarist and vocalist Toni d'Urso, who was influenced by groups as diverse as Black Widow and Camel and who drafted in guest musicians (including Clive Jones from Black Widow) to help create their particular brand of dark prog.
Jacula (possibly from the Latin word meaning ‘short, fervent prayer’) were formed in Milan 1968 by the charismatic singer and guitarist Antonio Bartoccetti along with electronic music pioneer Doris Norton (as Fiamma dello Spirito) and keyboard player Charles Tiring. They recorded their debut album In cauda semper stat venenum in 1969 which had a private pressing of only 310 copies but was never distributed, remaining unpublished until the updated 2001 edition on Black Widow Records; their first record to appear on the shelves was 1972’s Tardo pede in magiam versus. The songs featured Norton’s ethereal voice and Latin texts, funereal organ and dark, disturbing sounds conveying esoteric themes and though classed as prog, they were considered apart from the mainstream. Adding drummer Albert Goodman to the line-up, they became Antonius Rex in 1974 and released the album Zora in 1977 which was closer to other Italian prog bands around at that time. The gothic album sleeve imagery adds to the dark prog tag.
Devil Doll, made up of band members from Venice and Ljubljana, Slovenia were influenced by Jacula and old silent horror films. They released five studio albums between 1989 and 1996 but disbanded in 1997; reviewers use adjectives like ‘stark’ and ‘challenging’ to describe their music.
Malombra were one of the first of the new wave of Italian dark prog bands, hailing from Genoa and releasing their eponymous debut on the Black Widow Records label in 1993, only a year after the record label was founded. Described by one critic as ‘a baroque Devil Doll’, they took their name from a book subsequently made into a film, the debut gothic novel by Antonio Fogazzaro from 1881, set close to Lake Como. It was first turned into a 1917 silent movie and remade in 1942 by Mario Soldati. Around the time of their second album Our Lady of the Bones (released 1996), vocalist Mercy teamed up with Diego Banchero, a friend from her former band Zess, to form Il Segno del Comando whose name is another literary reference from the Giuseppe D’Agata book which became a highly regarded Italian TV giallo-fantasy mini-series in 1971.
Possibly the most well-known and successful dark prog protagonists are Goblin, who rose to fame on the back of the critically acclaimed 1975 giallo film Profundo Rosso. The soundtrack, originally put together in ten days after Claudio Simonetti’s band Cherry Five was asked to step in following a disagreement between director Dario Argento and original composer Giorgio Gaslini, has sold over a million copies. Cherry Five were influenced by King Crimson and Genesis and played extended compositions on the jazzy side of prog, though their underrated eponymous debut included tracks called Country Grave-Yard [sic] and The Swan is a Murderer; they changed their name to Goblin to fit in with the horror genre, in keeping with the material they were providing music for and went on to provide the score for other Argento films, Suspiria, Phenomena, Zombi and Tenebre. It’s interesting that Death Dies from Profundo Rosso sounds as though it was inspired by the bass guitar figure leading up to Vivian Stanshall listing the instruments used on Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells, and that the overture of Tubular Bells was used in classic horror film The Exorcist.
Il Mostro di Firenze is a worthy addition to this sub-genre. With a line up comprising Nicolazzo on guitars and vocals, Menighetti on keyboards and vocals, Roberto Tiranti and Pier Gonella from Italian prog metal band Labÿrinth playing bass and guitar respectively, Marco Biggi on drums, Paolo Firpo on sax, Kim Schiffo on cello, Laura Sillitti on violin and Daniele Guerci on viola, the band have created a dark symphonic soundtrack to the story, telling the tale from the new moon when the murders took place, to the full moon, linked by clever pieces of musique concrete like checking the action of a handgun and placing it in a zipped bag.
The use of the chamber ensemble adds to the cinematic sweep of the songs but the mood switches to oppression and terror with a simple device originally employed by Goblin, the nursery-rhyme like melody picked out on percussive instruments and taken up in wordless song by the ‘murderer’. The 10 minute instrumental Plenilunio with its false ending is the highlight, quoting from Chopin, nicely structured with emotive piano and plaintive guitar, but the album abounds with great instrumentation and playing. The one track that I’m not convinced about is Serial Killer Rock which, though brief, is stylistically at odds with the other material but, on balance, the album is a really good piece of work.
Il Mostro di Firenze by Una Stagioneall'Inferno, Black Widow Records (BWRDIST 676)