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By ProgBlog, May 31 2019 08:50PM

Popping into a local supermarket for essentials on our return from a recent trip to Milan, the sales assistant enquired where we’d been and when informed, asked us if we’d visited ‘the designer shops’. After my first visit to the city for Expo 2015, I was unsure if I liked it, but the time spent there was primarily devoted to the Expo and a day trip out to Bergamo, which I enjoyed (and discovered the delights of the Elav brewery where, amongst their range of music-related beers, was the Progressive Barley Wine – unavailable at the time of our trip.) This time, like then, we avoided designer shops.


Elav Brewery's Progressive Barley Wine
Elav Brewery's Progressive Barley Wine

It was fortunate that we managed to walk around the roof of the magnificent duomo on that first visit, because it has been undergoing restoration work ever since. On each subsequent trip I’ve begun to feel quite at home and got to like the city more and more. The first stop after the airport is Bar Centrale in Milano Centrale station for an espresso, an institution that has attracted poor reviews on Google for the alleged expense and the rudeness of the staff. Don’t these people know that the idea is to grab a quick coffee before you go about your daily business and the baristas are simply serving the hordes of commuters as efficiently as possible? You can’t go wrong if you follow the locals: pay for your drinks (and brioche if you want a bite for breakfast) at the till before standing at the bar; if you choose to sit down the service will be less efficient and more expensive. This is not the best espresso that the city has to offer, though it came close last year when they used Lavazza beans. Unfortunately they’ve changed supplier again and I’m not such a fan of the current roast.

Second stop is La Feltrinelli, which extends over three floors within the station and provides the opportunity to browse some vinyl and to buy the latest edition of Prog Italia. There’s even a dedicated Progressive Italiana CD section, unique to this particular branch of the chain. Only after this ritual can we check in at the hotel.


La Feltrinelli, Milano Centrale
La Feltrinelli, Milano Centrale

We’ve stayed in three different hotels for our visits, all perfectly pleasant although only one is well situated, the NH Machiavelli close to Repubblica Metro station and only 10 minutes walk from Milano Centrale. The UNAHotels Scandinavia was a lastminute.com bargain but the closest Metro stop is Gerusalemme on the M5 line (not fully completed at the time) so an interchange was necessary for each journey. The first prog-related visit was for the 2017 Z-Fest, held at Milan’s Legend Club, a 10 minute walk from Affori Centro, close to the northernmost terminus of the M3 line while our hotel on that occasion was one stop from the northern terminus of the M1 line. I took a taxi to the venue and left before the end of the performance, catching the metro to Duomo at around 1am as the station was closing and I couldn’t get a connection. Fortunately there were taxis around the Duomo piazza to get me back to the hotel. The third trip was just passing through on a journey from Paris to Como by rail. With a few hours between arriving at Centrale and getting a train out to Como, we dropped off our bags at left luggage and killed time by walking to the duomo, by chance (we had no map so I was navigating from memory) passing the NH Machiavelli, which was to become our base for the subsequent two visits for the 2018 Z-Fest and the 2018 FIM Prog Fest; the former easily accessed by metro (and metro replacement bus on the return journey), and the latter within walking distance at the Piazza Città di Lombardia.


It turned out that the NH Machiavelli has another advantage: it’s round the corner from a branch of Libraccio, a chain of shops selling stationery, books and music. The Viale Vittorio Veneto branch is especially good for stocking AMS releases which I normally have to order over the internet from btf.it as AMS, who have a Milan contact address, don’t appear to have a physical shop. Excluding the Vittorio Veneto Libraccio, the Feltrinelli in Centrale and its large sister branch in the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II, the only dedicated Milan record shop I had ever managed to trawl through up to this latest visit was Rossetti Records and Books (via Cesare da Sesto, 24) a specialist in second-hand music founded in 1981. On the first trip I bought three CDs: Il Giorno Sottile (2001) by the experimental Fabio Zuffanti project Quadraphonic, a bleak, interesting and challenging album of industrial music, loops and electronica that just about retains the memory of melody; the self-titled release by Dedalus (1973) which strays into jazz-rock territory; and symphonic prog Il Bianco Regno Di Dooah (2003) by Consorzio Acqua Potabile (CAP); this time I came away with an original copy of Uomo di Pezza by Le Orme (1972).


Rossetti Records and Books, Milano
Rossetti Records and Books, Milano

The weather in northern Italy over our weekend stay was pretty awful and a threatened strike by Trenitalia staff meant we couldn’t plan any excursions to nearby towns. I have considered attempting an expedition to the Marconi bakery where PFM rehearsed and appropriated their moniker, and Chiari, between Milan and Brescia remains one of the few towns in the region that we’ve yet to explore. The omission of a day trip allowed us to take in more of the attractions within the city itself: the Torre Branca observation tower in Parco Sempione; a slow walk around the Navigli district where some canals still remain; the art deco Villa Necchi Campiglio (Piero Portaluppi, 1932-35) filled with innovative design features; and the Pirelli HangarBicocca, a huge contemporary art space converted from a former locomotive factory. Along with the stops for coffee there was also an attempt to photograph the brutalist Department of Accounting at Bocconi University, but my poor navigation and a degree award ceremony put an end to that adventure; what was more successful was ticking off more of the independent record stores.

King Crimson’s Live at the Marquee, August 10, 1971 was playing in Il Discomane (Alzaia Naviglio Grande, 38) when I went in. Primarily a second-hand vinyl store, there was an interesting rarities section but nothing which grabbed my attention; I may not have bought anything but I’d certainly go back for another browse. A couple of doors down was another branch of Libraccio, split into three separate units, but they didn’t have any vinyl that I could see. Serendeepity (Corso di Porta Ticinese, 100) selling new vinyl was also a very short walk away but the ‘Progressive’ section was tiny. Vinylbrokers (Via Privata Pericle, 4) is in the Precotto district, a 20 minute walk from the Pirelli HangarBicocca and it appeared to be closed when we visited, though it wasn’t closing time. However, just as we were turning to go the owner opened up the shop and let us in. To save time I asked for the progressivo Italiano section but he told me they only sold ‘Americana’ and suggested I visit Metropolis Dischi (Via Carlo Esterle, 29). I’d recommend Vinylbrokers for being helpful and friendly, but don’t go there if you’re only looking for prog.


The real purpose of the Milan trip was to attend the FIM Fiera prog fest, organised by Black Widow Records’ Massimo Gasperini in the role of artistic director. This year the event was billed as ‘Da Vinci’s Spirit’, designed to pay tribute to the Renaissance genius on the 500th anniversary of his death. FIM director Verdiano Vera suggested that progressive rock is a musical genre that more than any other embraces Leonardo’s spirit of experimentation due to its diverse influences, unusual time signatures, tempo changes and variations in amplitude and speed, all of which nurture talent, inspiration, inventiveness and ingenuity.



The four bands appearing, Silver Key, Macchina Pneumatica, Universal Totem Orchestra and FEM provided a broad range of examples of the genre from almost straightforward symphonic prog through to neo-prog, psyche-prog and avant-prog/jazz rock, though one constant was a set of Leonardo drawings projected behind the bands providing a constant visual reminder of the link between his futuristic thinking and prog, a musical form known to push at boundaries.

Silver Key began life as a Marillion cover-band in Milan in 1992 and has undergone a number of personnel changes. Over the past seven years they have produced three albums of original neo-prog, starting with In the Land of Dreams (2012), followed up with 2015’s The Screams Empire where keyboard player Davide Manara was left as the only founding member. Current guitarist Roberto Buchicchio and bassist Ivano Tognetti joined for The Screams Empire, and vocalist Dino Procopio was introduced for the latest album Third, released in April 2019; Procopio also provided the lyrics. The band don’t have a drummer – the album credits ‘Mr Drummer’ with percussive duties but when chatting to Massimo Gasperini after their performance, Manara owned up to programming the drums. Concentrating on material from Third, the music was nicely conceived and well played, incorporating convincing-sounding drum parts, expressive guitar, solid bass, nice ambient moments, and multiple false endings. It was evident that Procopio can sing (the vocals were in English) but unfortunately he was under-mixed during the full-ensemble blows.



Silver Key
Silver Key

One of the main draws was Macchina Pneumatica who released their debut album Riflessi e Maschere on Black Widow Records (BWRDIST 680) earlier this year. It’s primarily riff-based and moderately heavy, so it comes across as being on the psyche end of the prog spectrum. I’m reminded of the dominant, driving bass and penchant for distortion of fellow countrymen MUFFX who inhabit much of the same sonic landscape and who I gave a glowing review last year for L’Ora di Tutti; the difference is MUFFX are instrumental and Macchina Pneumatica use vocals, sung by Raffaele Gigliotti with lyrics inspired by everyday life, moods and relationships. The live performance, like Silver Key before them, was dogged by an imperfect sound, with house sound engineers running on stage to adjust the bass volume. From where I was sitting, right of centre and close to the front, some distance from the mixing desk, Gigliotti’s guitar volume was a bit too low and though Carlo Giustiniani’s bass was fairly dominant, it also cuts through on the CD without adversely affecting the sound balance. I was close to keyboard player Carlo Fiore, so I could fully appreciate his synth, piano and organ work, with accurate analogue-sounding patches to recreate a 70’s vibe. Their songs sound deceptively simple but counting out Vincenzo Vitagliano’s rhythmic patterns they’re anything but straightforward and there’s sufficient variation, including melodic passages and lead synthesizer lines, to hold your attention. They’re a relatively new group, formed as a keyboard trio Atom Age Empire in Milan in 2013, renamed Nudo when guitarist/vocalist Raffaele Gigliotti joined, and finally changed to Macchina Pneumatica during the recording of Riflessi e Maschere. They are currently working on a new album.


Macchina Pneumatica
Macchina Pneumatica

I’m well acquainted with Mathematical Mother, the 2016 album by Universal Totem Orchestra; the music is dense and complex with the intensity and pace of Magma or the Mahavishnu Orchestra, especially the 1974-75 incarnation where Gayle Moran adds vocals. The operatic approach to the vocals, whether female or male chorus evokes the Wagnerian facet of Zeuhl but there’s also the exploratory jazz of Coltrane. They employ an eastern scale on the track Elogio del dubbio, all of which indicates a fearless approach to music making that epitomises prog.

I love the intricacy of the compositions and it can’t be denied that Ana Torres Fraile has a superb voice but in the live setting I felt the lead vocal impinged on the instrumental sections, especially scat vocal in the style of Cleo Laine, and Fraile too seemed to have problems with her amplification. Whereas the guitar of Daniele Valle, Yanik Lorenzo Andreatta’s bass and Fabrizio Mattuzzi’s keyboards were all spot on, the saxophone and drums, played by Fedeli Antonio and UTO G. Golin respectively, occasionally sounded a bit loose but that’s not so surprising when you’re pushing boundaries.


Universal Totem Orchestra
Universal Totem Orchestra

The FEM (Forza Elettromotrice) set seemed rather brief after UTO’s sonic bombardment, but this was the closest to symphonic prog all evening, and I felt it ended too soon. The band (Alessandro Graziano, vocals; Paolo Colombo, guitars; Alberto Citterio, keyboards; Pietro Bertoni, trombone and keyboards; Marco Buzzi, bass; and Emanuele Borsati, drums) were showcasing their 2018 album Mutazione and could have been hampered by an injury to Cittero who had his left arm in a sling, but his playing, along with the rest of the ensemble, was fluent. I felt Bertoni was a little under-used but he was furthest from me and I may not have been able to hear him clearly. What did come across was the way each song had been carefully put together; one of the numbers reminded me of Focus.


FEM
FEM

The one downside of a multi-stage or multi-disciplinary event like the FIM Fiera is that there are occasions when you want to see more than one thing at one particular time; Fabio Gremo, bassist with Il Tempio delle Clessidre, has just released a second solo album and was performing it outside in the piazza while Da Vinci’s Spirit was in full flow in the auditorium Testori. I’m a big fan of Fabio Gremo’s La Mia Voce (2013) which demonstrates his considerable classical guitar skills, but the recital of Don’t be Scared of Trying also included piano accompaniment from Sandro Amadei of Melting Clock, so I was disappointed I didn’t get to see them play. I did get to chat with Sandro and his brother Stefano when they came to take in some of the prog fest, but I didn’t get to speak to Fabio. A major plus is that Da Vinci’s Spirit, and last year’s Prog On, showcased not just incredible music, but the confirmation of a ‘prog family’ that is all-embracing in its approach and one that rejoices in differences. The concept of a prog rock festival as Da Vinci’s Spirit is perfectly apt. Thanks, Massimo Gasperini and Verdiano Vera. See you next year!


Postscript

Even if you’re not into prog, forget Milan and fashion and seek out Milan and Leonardo da Vinci. There’s a waiting list for tickets to view The Last Supper which is in the former refectory of the convent attached to Milan’s Church of Santa Maria delle Grazie, but I managed to arrange tickets for the first of our 2017 trips. If you are planning on going to Milan I’d strongly recommend booking a guided tour; the refectory and Leonardo’s masterpiece form an integral part of the convent architecture which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. And the prog's not bad, either.


Leonardo's The Last Supper
Leonardo's The Last Supper











By ProgBlog, Apr 9 2017 09:47PM

It’s just after 8.30 pm on Friday 31st March and the taxi driver is suggesting that I’ve given him the wrong address. He’s driven me somewhere well outside the centre of Milan (a taxi was much quicker than public transport) and I have to assure him that there really is a gig at the night club he’s just pulled up outside, Milan’s Legend 54.



It’s a slightly strange looking venue from the kerbside, with an array of pop-up food stalls and not much else, though there was music blaring from one stall. The woman at the cash bar stand informed me that tickets for the Z-Fest could be bought ‘inside’ only I had no idea how to get inside. It was obvious I had arrived at the right place because the improvised musical equipment storage rooms, made of the sort of tents that fit onto motor vehicles, contained not just the odd drum kit but also the organiser and bassist with the headline act, Fabio Zuffanti. By the time I’d circumnavigated the building a queue had formed at the entrance: €8 for three bands and three hours of quality music.

Going back a couple of months following an awful day at work in Whitechapel, I arrived home to search the internet for a weekend break. Realistically, I couldn’t have gone away the next weekend, so I calmed down and checked to see if there was anything prog-related coming up in the next few weeks that I could include in a short city break with my wife. Milan, 31st March to 2nd April, coinciding with the Zuffanti-organised Z-Fest and, with cheap flights at good times and a four star hotel with cheap rooms, was something I couldn’t resist.



Jumping forward again to last weekend, we ate an early evening meal overlooking the duomo from the terrace of the Obicà Mozzarella restaurant at the top of the Rinascente before making our way to a guided tour of Leonardo’s The Last Supper (in the former refectory of the convent attached to the Church of Santa Maria delle Grazie) – an exceptionally pleasing attraction made all the better by our knowledgeable and irrepressible local guide. I escorted my wife back to our hotel before getting in the taxi...



When the gig was originally announced, the line-up included Cellar Noise, Christadoro, and Finisterre. The promo video for the 2017 Cellar Noise debut album Alight, an album produced by Zuffanti, was very promising and rather than import a copy, I had already decided to buy the CD (or LP, if available) at the show. The Christadoro album, another 2017 release, featured well-known Italian songs given a progressive rock makeover, not unlike the way Yes treated Simon and Garfunkel’s America. Fabio Zuffanti was involved with the concept and played bass with the band. I’d already bought the album on vinyl before reading the group were on the bill but later Facebook posts suggested they wouldn’t appear and that they had been replaced by experimental jazz-prog quintet Zaal. The Zaal connection with Zuffanti was via keyboard player Agostino Macor, an integral member of Maschera di Cera and other Zuffanti projects, though I’d never heard any music by them, unlike headliners Finisterre, as I own all their studio releases.

The evening conformed to what I’d come to expect from an Italian prog festival; it was running slightly late, there were interviews with luminaries including Stefano Agnini and Mox Christadoro during set changes, and the music was incredible. The club was pretty full and for almost all of the Cellar Noise performance I found myself standing next to drummer Paolo Tixi (Fabio Zuffanti’s Z-Band, Il Tempio delle Clessidre.) Cellar Noise were very, very good. Their live sound is heavier than on record but they played symphonic prog of the highest order, despite a couple of early technical hitches, taking us through their entire debut album and even appending a quotation from Höstsonaten’s Rainsuite to the track Monument, a nice gesture to Zuffanti, before delivering a magnificent encore of The Knife. It’s hardly surprising then, that Niccolò Gallani should come out with some Tony Banks-like synthesizer runs during their original material, or that Alessandro Palmisano should don a mask, and his between-song explanations could have been Peter Gabriel stories, especially as Alight is linked to the back cover story on Genesis Live via the London Underground. The Gabriel flute solo was covered by keyboard, with Palmisano sitting on the stage, miming the action of a flautist. Together with brothers Loris and Eric Bersan (bass and drums respectively) and guitarist Francesco Lovari, based on their excellent first album and the transfer to a live performance, there’s a bright future for this quintet.


Zaal played some challenging music and I suspect that since the original album La lama sottile, described on progarchives.com as a ‘delicately colourful type of progressive-oriented jazz-rock, highly melodic and yet mysterious’.they have become a little more hard-core, featuring some nice electric piano with a hefty dose of electronica. I have an enduring vision of Macor reaching over his Roland to a sequencer, the keyboard player forever moving, never staying still. I was reminded of circa Third Soft Machine with sax provided by Francesco Mascardi and trumpet by Mario Martini (El Trompeta), powered by the driving rhythms of Pietro Martinelli on bass and Andrea Orlando on drums (who would subsequently also play alongside Macor again for the Finisterre set); though at times they played some mesmerising jazzy space-rock grooves. I’ll be checking out their two albums on Mellow Records.



Finisterre have undergone many personnel changes over 25 years, behaving more like a musical collective than a band, although Zuffanti, Stefano Marelli (guitars) and Boris Valle (keyboards) remain core members. Tonight they were joined by Macor (who has a long history with the band) and Orlando, and the music was again heavier than on the albums. Tracks segued into each other so I found it a bit hard to follow but the musical trickery and alchemy between the members was remarkable. During an interview at Prog Résiste in 2014, Zuffanti dismissed his bass guitar skills, suggesting he was the least accomplished musician in his band (the Z-Band.) Up close, his work rate and dexterity reveal he was being too modest; his song-writing and his ability to pick amazing colleagues for his projects was never in any doubt.



The whole evening went very smoothly and it was amazing to witness such prodigious talent squeezed into 3 hours of performance, ranging from classic symphonic Italian prog to radical jazz-prog. I can’t wait to see next year’s line-up.


I got back to my hotel room in the early hours of the next morning, having failed to understand the message on a taxi firm answerphone and making my way across Milan by late-running public transport and a taxi from the Piazza del Duomo, but I didn’t get much sleep because we had to catch the 09:25 train to Como. The purpose of this day out was to assess the suitability of the lakes as a base for a longer family holiday, and Como. Only 47 minutes from Milano Central, seemed like a good place to start.

We were both suitably impressed by the architecture and the scenery but, I was once again amazed by the presence of really good record stores – every town we visit in Italy has somewhere that sells CDs and vinyl. First up was Frigerio Dischi on Via Garibaldi, before we’d seen anything of Como, where I spent some quality time going through the comprehensive Italiano section, picking out two CDs by Alphataurus (Attosecondo and Live in Bloom), a couple by Area (Maledetti and Event ’76, inspired by my attendance at Event ’16 in Genoa last October), Clowns by Nuovo Idea, La Via Della Seta by Le Orme, and PFM’s first album Storia di un Minuto on vinyl.


I could probably have bought more but travelling on Easyjet, with their cabin luggage restrictions, made me a bit wary. After an early lunch, sitting between the duomo and the rationalist Terragni Palace (the latter a modernist masterpiece, unfortunately once used as the Fascist Party headquarters but now the base for the Guardia di Finanza) we walked towards the waterfront and had to stop in Alta Fedità to browse through the vinyl, though Susan wasn’t at all impressed by the cover version of a Dead Kennedys song being played... The shop contained some rarities and some cheap, second-hand records, but there was nothing really which caught my eye, apart from a Support Your Local Record Store T-shirt.



We flew back on the Sunday, but not after a deviation for an architectural masterpiece (Torre Velasca) and a rummage through the extensive CD and vinyl in the branch of Feltrinelli in Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II; I emerged with a copy of Il Rovescio della Medaglia’s English language version of Contaminazione, (Contamination) on vinyl.


The break was successful. Getting away from work had been a high priority, but combined with the opportunity to see some amazing music made it especially worthwhile.

It’s becoming ever more evident to me that the north west of Italy, Genoa and Milan, is the crucible of much of modern progressivo Italiano. My love affair with Italian music, architecture and scenery continues. I’ll be back











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