By ProgBlog, Jan 31 2016 10:18PM
The Steven Wilson gig did not disappoint. It helped that I had a front row seat, pretty much centre stage (courtesy of Neil with his hyper-quick responses when booking opened) and though Craig Blundell was obscured behind his drum kit, this was a view as good as it gets. Being so close to the stage had the slight disadvantage of not getting the best sound balance; the mixing desk was at the back of the stalls so I imagine that was where you’d experience the perfect listening environment. Ian Bond, veteran front-of-house sound man did a pretty good job for the front row, too, because the only difficulties we had with the sound were a rather quiet Adam Holzman Moog and some indistinct bass, though the latter may have been a venue-wide problem because Nick Beggs was making full use of a range of 5 string instruments; needless to say Wilson’s guitar, from his Bad Cat amp and cabinet placed directly in front of us, was crystal clear. It was satisfying that they played the entire Hand.Cannot.Erase, including the short Transience which had been omitted from the UK shows following the album’s release. After the intermission we were treated to a range of other Wilson material from Porcupine Tree to Storm Corrosion (the dark, haunting but brilliant Drag Ropes) plus, as a tribute to the recently departed David Bowie, Space Oddity which was filmed on a series of Go Pro cameras. There was also an outing for half of his new album 41/2, a collection of five songs that didn’t quite make it on to either Raven or H.C.E, not because of a perceived lack of quality, rather that they didn’t quite fit in with the feel of those albums, plus a reworked Don’t Hate Me, originally recorded by Porcupine Tree that appeared on Stupid Dream (1999). Theo Travis supplied flute and saxophone for the original release and his contribution was covered by keyboards and guitar when the piece was played live. The 41/2 version includes Travis plus singer Ninet Tayeb and live, without Travis but with its trippy Floyd-inspired lengthy spaced-out middle section, was one of the highlights of the evening. Tayeb, who was guest vocalist on a number of songs, is such an incredible talent she’s still able to add an extra dimension to the stellar-quality line-up of the Steven Wilson band. It seemed somehow appropriate that she should sing on Don’t Hate Me which utilised eastern scales.
During an interview for The Pedal Show before the Bristol gig a couple of days earlier, Wilson described himself as approaching the sound from a producer’s perspective, hinting that his musical ability wasn’t perhaps in the same class as his band. This could be cited as an example of classic English reserve, for Wilson is an undoubted talent, but I’ve heard this statement before, in the same context, from Italian bassist Fabio Zuffanti. There are quite a number of parallels between Wilson and Zuffanti though apart from in his native Italy, Zuffanti has not really been recognised as a major force in modern progressive rock.
I saw Zuffanti and his Z band when Jim Knipe and I attended the Prog Résiste convention in Soignies in April 2014, showcasing his latest solo effort La Quarta Vittima but also playing songs from a back catalogue of 20 years in the music business; extracts from the Soignies performance are available to view on YouTube (Rainsuite https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y6Dlf3HmzAc is a good example.) It was at the post-performance interview, fortunately carried out in English, that someone suggested a parallel with Steven Wilson and Zuffanti, in a self-depreciating manner, suggested that he wasn’t in the same calibre as his band-mates. What he revealed at this interview were his thoughts on his musical projects. He suggested that if Quarta Vittima was going to be compared to Wilson’s The Raven That Refused to Sing (which had been released a few months before, and which Zuffanti obviously felt was the pinnacle of Wilson’s output at that time, Höstsonaten were the equivalent of the Enid, with a very symphonic palette. Though Porcupine Tree was on hiatus at the time, the inference was that PT was the primary vehicle for Wilson’s music, rather like La Maschera di Cera was for Zuffanti.
Though I was aware of other Zuffanti projects, at the beginning of 2014 I only had Maschera di Cera albums and the first Finisterre album (Finisterre, 1995). I’d bought LuxAde (2006) for £6 from Beanos second-hand store in February 2009, without listening to it, based on the instrumentation and the fact it was produced by PFM drummer Franz di Cioccio. I hadn’t appreciated that this was a band revisiting the Orpheus saga (c.f. Focus and Eruption) but it remains one of the best buys I’ve ever made; when I got home and checked my Progressive Rock Files, even before listening to it, it was evident that I had acquired something special. I wasn’t disappointed because the recording is as close as you can get to classic 70s Italian prog; analogue instrumentation including some excellent fuzz bass, symphonic scope and operatic vocals, all executed with consummate skill. I was so impressed I began looking for Maschera di Cera albums on every subsequent trip to Italy but for some reason I couldn’t locate any and finally plumped for a download of their second album Il Grande Labirinto (2003) from Amazon in 2010, describing it in an Amazon review as a Fragile to the Close to the Edge of LuxAde (some of the details turned out to be not quite right!):
“...Il Grande Labirinto is their second album, and with no Italian trip scheduled for a while, I had to indulge in the mp3 download. (When I'm next in Italy I'm going to seek out and buy the CD for myself and two prog-minded brothers.) This release is slightly less musically mature than Lux Ade - kind of like the relationship between Fragile and Close to the Edge - almost perfect but not quite.
The musical territory is classic 70s Italian prog. PFM are an obvious comparison, though La Maschera di Cera are less jazz-influenced. Some of the keyboard trills sound like early Genesis, and there's a Wakeman-sounding synth line or two. My favourite passage is the final section of the 22 minute 37 second long Il Viaggio Nell'oceano Capovolto Parte 2 (Voyager to the Inverted Ocean) that builds up from a haunting gentle woodwind melody that reminds me of Islands-era King Crimson.
Did anyone think prog was dead? Think again, and invest in this great album.”
As soon as I’d heard the band were going to do a companion piece to Felona e Sorona (1973) by Le Orme, entitled Le Porte del Domani (2013) released in both Italian and English versions (The Gates of Tomorrow), I had to buy both mixes; the Italian version was my album of the year.
I hadn’t really formed an opinion about the music of Finisterre other than I liked it and it seemed not quite fully formed. Tracks seemed to be truncated mid-flow which left me feeling slightly dissatisfied. I bought In Limine (1996) when I went to the Riviera Prog Festival in 2014 where Zuffanti, in his home city of Genoa, was wandering around chatting to friends and fans on the first day. The title track of that album was one of the pieces played by the Z band in Soignies. I bought In ogni luogo (1998) and La Meccanica Naturale (2005), both in cardboard gatefold sleeves from Galleria del Disco in Florence later in 2014 and have now come to the conclusion that Finisterre was a band for trying out ideas. Back in Soignies I bought both La Quarta Vittima and Höstsonaten’s live version of The Rime of the Ancient Mariner (2013) from Zuffanti’s merchandise stand and then also from the same shop in Florence, Höstsonaten’s Winterthrough (2005.) It’s true that Höstsonaten are symphonic; the music is layered and melodic and Ancient Mariner, performed with dancers, was a modern opera.
There was no full concert recording of the Z band so late in 2014 Zuffanti and his collaborators recorded the material they’d been playing during their live set, live in the studio, releasing Il Mondo Che Era Mio at the end of the year. My copy was bought early in 2015 and it is a faithful reproduction of the Z band live experience, a mixture of dynamics, strong melodies and classic-sounding instrumentation.
Last year I spent a family long weekend in Milan and came across the excellent Rossetti Records, and amongst my haul I bought Il giorno sottile (2001), by the rather obscure Zuffanti project Quadraphonic. This represents Zuffanti at his most experimental, producing an interesting and challenging album of industrial music and electronica, heavily reliant on loops, which at times is bleak though it does retain the memory of melody.
Zuffanti seems to be at the centre of the vast Genoa prog scene. When Francesca Francesca Zanetta, guitarist with Unreal City, was interviewed after their performance at the Riviera Prog Festival, she thanked Zuffanti for helping the band (he produced their debut album La Crudeltà Di Aprile, 2013) and another band he seems to have helped, who also appeared at the same festival, were Il Tempio delle Clessidre and most recently he’s collaborated with keyboard player Stefano Agnini from La Coscienza di Zeno, a band who played at both Soignies and at the Riviera Prog Festival in 2014. This project, under the title of La Curva di Lesmo, features a cast of the new wave of Italian prog and the music ranges from out and out symphonic prog to some traditional-sounding Italain music, taking in folk and electronica on the way. I bought a heavyweight white vinyl copy to play on my new Rega RP3 and the cover, by legendary artist Guido Crepax, harks back to Nuda (1972) by Garybaldi, in a similar manner to Maschera di Cera using artwork by Lanfranco for Le Porte del Domani, after Le Orme’s cover for Felona e Sorona, an album also released in English with lyrics by Peter Hammill.
Zuffanti shares with Wilson an appreciation for the origins of the genre (including a love of Mellotron) but they also choose to work with a range of other musicians which informs their style, seeking out different avenues for their talents. Wilson is now a global star; I’m just waiting for Zuffanti to get the full recognition he deserves.