By ProgBlog, Apr 20 2014 08:28PM

In mid-May I was in Dublin to see Steve Hackett and while I was there I indulged in some retail therapy. Tower Records in Wicklow Street had a really good prog section, actually labelled ‘Psychedelia’, which covered Italian prog and other continental acts in addition to the usual UK fare plus some rarities. The mainstream acts such as Yes and Pink Floyd were in the main rock section, but there was an additional section devoted to Esoteric Records releases, and a reduced price rack that included almost the full catalogue of acts like Curved Air and Renaissance. This involved some serious browsing – and two trips – and I came away with Malesch by Agitation Free in a nice cardboard sleeve; Song to Comus, a double album by Comus; Song of the Marching Children by Earth and Fire; The Last of the Jubblies by England; a compilation by masters of Italian prog horror soundtracks The Fantastic Voyage of Goblin; Ashes are Burning by Renaissance; The White Ladies by Trace. I also visited Spindizzy Records in Market Arcade in my quest for The Tain by Horslips, an Irish prog/psyche/folk album I fondly remember from my youth in the mid 70s. This was something of a haven for second-hand vinyl but they didn’t have a copy and I eventually managed to find a remastered and nicely packaged CD version in Freebird Records, part of The Secret Book & Record Store, up the road from Tower in Wicklow Street.

Tower really has to be commended for its coverage of the genre. If I had more money than sense I could have spent a great deal more. My copy of The Last of the Jubblies was released on the Relics label, a company who specialise in releasing lost classics – as a gift from Sydney’s Red Eye Records, my son bought me Zero Time by TONTO’s Expanding Head Band from 1971, also released on the Relics label. Sadly, the copy of The White Ladies has a mark on the surface which defies cleaning and skips. It’s quite a long way to go to Dublin to exchange it.

The first weekend in June was spent on a long weekend break in Tuscany. The Page family were based in Hotel San Ranieri, close to the airport in Pisa but only a 15 minute bus journey to the station and the city centre.

Siena is less than two hours away by train and one day was spent exploring the medieval city. This included a stop in Corsini Dischi, Piazza Matteotti, 5. This had a smallish RPI section but I somehow managed to pick up CDs by PFM + Pagani (Piazza del Campo); the eponymous first album by Banco del Mutuo Soccorso (I’d previously only had mp3 files of this album); Le Orme’s 1976 offering Verita Nacosta; and Franco Battiato’s Pollution. The huge Battiato section was adjacent to the RPI section, and there was also a large Lucio Battisti section. Though the output of these two artists is not generally prog, both embraced the prog zeitgeist. Their styles are quite different (Battiato was an electronic music enthusiast and Battisti more of a singer-song writer who got banned from radio because of his choice of contemporary topics and frank lyrics.) I try to stick to buying music by artists from the country I’m visiting, which by extension included asking my son to seek out some Cuban prog (Anima Mundi, Sintesis) while he was visiting the country for an architectural heritage conference earlier this year. To preferentially buy Le Orme CDs in their home town of Venice might be considered unnecessary, but where better to buy Piazza del Campo than in Siena?

Pisa itself had two good stores: Gap Record Store (Via San Martino, 18), predominantly a vinyl emporium for collectors where they were playing Anima Latina by Lucio Battisti when we visited; and the deceptively large La Galleria del Disco (Via San Francesco, 96) right in the middle of the city. Gap did have a small CD selection, including a subsection for RPI. The one drawback was that the shop operates a cash only policy, so I limited my purchases to the highly regarded Inferno by Metamorphosi; The eponymous only album by Cherry Five, considered as something of a rarity and much sought after due to no band really existing with that name – this was in fact the first Goblin album, recorded in 1974 but not released until 1976; and the 1975 release by minor RPI act Il Volo, Essere O non Essere. I had a chat with the store owner Alessandro Magnani who is evidently a real music-lover and promised I’d mention the store on this blog. La Galleria del Disco had a good-sized rack devoted to RPI, but this was hidden in a room off the back of the shop. There was also a section of straightforward Italian groups which included another PFM selection. This was where I first stopped and picked up Mauro Pagani’s first two solo albums on one CD, for the princely sum of €6.90! In the back room, faced with an outstanding array of CDs to choose from, I turned to the bookstand for a guide to Italian progressive music, picking up Progressive Italiano by Alessandro Gaboli and John Brass. Though in Italian, the output by both major and minor players was included and marked out of 5. A check of the marks for the bands I already owned provided me with enough confidence to make a wide selection of purchases: Mass Media Stars by Acqua Fragile; Nude by Garybaldi (both in nice cardboard sleeves); the self-titled album by Napoli Centrale; Abbiamo Tutti un Blues da Plangere by Perigeo; and the 1974 prog-folk offering by Adriano Monteduro and Reale Accademia di Musica. I also bought the book!

By ProgBlog, Apr 10 2014 07:03PM

There is an increasing amount of printed information about Rock Progressivo Italiano (RPI.) From the odd line or two in the original prog-as-serious-music sociological and musicological approaches of Bill Martin, Paul Stump and Edward McCann, writing on this sub-genre has spread to a chapter in Will Romano’s Mountains Come out of the Sky and 380 pages of personal impressions in Andrea Parentin’s Rock Progressivo Italiano: An introduction to Italian Progressive Rock.

What’s missing from the print media is a decent update on what is still an active field. Prog magazine unearths every facet of prog-metal (yawn) but barely touches on RPI.

That Prog magazine has not taken up the banner of RPI is something of a mystery to me. I wrote to them at the end of March 2013 and the letter was published in May, highlighting this deficiency and using what I consider to be the best album of 2013 so far to illustrate my point.

Le Porte Del Domani by La Maschera di Cera is truly cinematic in scope, like the soundtrack to an epic science fiction film (I am reminded of Ursula Le Guin’s brilliant novel The Dispossessed with its twin planets of Annares and Urras.) The impact of this piece of music, like all great Italian prog, is almost operatic; grand themes explored using classic prog instrumentation.

Prog didn’t use the full letter, so I’ve included a photo of the article as it appeared and the full text:

The early editions of Prog were a genuine revelation, and my favourite regular feature was the ‘Once around the World’ spread that introduced me (amongst other things) to the Zappa-esque Supersister. What is missing from the magazine is a column on Rock Progressivo Italiano. You dedicate column inch after column inch to Steven Wilson but somehow you’ve neglected to mention the best release of 2013 - Le Porte Del Domani (and the English co-release The Gates of Tomorrow) by La Maschera di Cera. Not even an album review, even though this was released in mid-January following a long build-up on the band’s website.

I first came across LMdC while trawling through the prog section of Beanos, Croydon’s late lamented best second-hand music shop in the world, and picked up their 2006 release Lux Ade, an album of classic 70s style RPI brought up-to-date with crisp production supplied courtesy of Franz di Cioccio, the PFM drummer. That album is stunning because all the essential ingredients are present: dominant fuzz bass; the whole gamut of analogue keyboards (and a theramin!); operatic vocals; great flute; expansive drumming; tasteful guitar and long, well crafted songs.

Le Porte Del Domani is a particularly bold concept because it takes up the story of interplanetary romance from Le Orme’s 1973 classic Felona e Sorona, an album regarded as a highlight of RPI with its overtures to European art music; LMdC even went back to Lanfranco for their artwork, the man responsible for the cover of Felona e Sorona. In true RPI style, two versions of the album have been released; the Italian version and an English version, with subtly different mixes. Think back to PFM with English language versions of L’Isola di Niente and songs from Storia di un Minuto; Banco’s foray into English language releases and the Peter Hammill penned lyrics of a collectors item Felona e Sorona. There’s even a deluxe limited edition box set of Le Porte Del Domani selling for €400!

Both Italian and English versions work very well, despite the obvious dangers of comparisons to a 70s classic. The musicianship is excellent, the melodies and riffs beautiful and stunning, influenced by styles as varied as Jethro Tull and Van der Graaf Generator, the sonic palette conforms to what you’d hope from an RPI band – check out the list of keyboards used by Agostino Macor – and it’s never over the top like Il Balletto di Bronzo’s raw Ys, it’s an excellent production from the first bass notes to the final crescendo. Come on, Prog, how did you miss this?

I had another letter published last year that was ostensibly about prog and socialist values but it was taken from an article I’d written that also included my fears about buying politically inappropriate music; the polarisation of Italian politics in the 70s coincided with the rise of the genre and, not having a very good grasp of the Italian language, I wasn’t happy about acquiring something that was produced by any proponent of extremist right-wing views.

The beauty of Andrea Parentin‘s book is that he covers the social and political situation of 70s Italy in sufficient detail to allay any concerns I had. He also translates the lyrics of his favourite 100 RPI albums so that the reader can better understand the songs; two areas that provide context for full appreciation of the music. Most RPI bands were left or left-leaning with a handful of religion-inspired bands and fascist sympathising bands, plus some bands that (later) claimed they weren’t attempting to be political. I had already mostly figured this out, because I’d read about the pro-Palestinian stance of PFM and Area and any of the groups that cited Jimi Hendrix as an inspiration (Garybaldi, New Trolls) was unlikely to be right-wing. In fact, the whole social movement that was instrumental in creating conditions for progressive rock to develop was united by the attitude that music could change the world, a belief that the peace movement could bring about the end to global conflicts and end oppression, and an appreciation for ecological concerns. This counter-culture idealism included the concept of multiculturalism, that a ‘good society’ was the inevitable result of the equality produced by a global village and spawned politicised music forms from folk to psychedelic rock and not only were the politics outward looking, the influences for this music were also outward looking. In this context, it’s hard to believe that any true progressive musician could be anything but left-leaning, whatever part of the world they came from. So, in reality, I need not have worried too much. Yet there is one album that made me think long and hard, Zarathustra by Museo Rosenbach. An undisputed classic, this album concerns philosophy that has been subjugated by both sides of the political spectrum, but also has a cover montage that includes a bust of Mussolini. Nietzsche’s ideas were misinterpreted by fascist leaders; Nietzsche originally inspired German socialists (the conservatives thought his writings were subversive) and his philosophy was associated with the anarchist movement especially in the US and France. The anti-Semitic right in France even labelled supporters of the artillery officer Alfred Dreyfus, charged with treason but eventually exonerated, as Nietzscheans. However, by the First World War Nietzsche was cited as an inspiration for right-wing German militarism and Hitler, who probably didn’t even read Nietzsche, made selective use of the philosophy and hijacked terms for Mein Kampf. Museo Rosenbach may have been being ironic, as they include thanks for "Un busto di Mussolini cibi per cani e lacche per capelli" which translates to “A bust of Mussolini dog food and hair spray” that help to make up the cover image.

This is the moment to point out that I don’t like Rush. Any band that willingly adapts work by Ayn Rand, however skilful their musicianship, is not something I’m going to enjoy. Bill Martin comments that he thinks the music on Rush’s 2112 is mostly good though the ideas are mostly bad. Rand’s message is "the concept of man as a heroic being, with his own happiness as the moral purpose of his life". Rand's books have without doubt had great influence, especially in the US but increasingly among British Conservatives, probably because she took ideas already active in the US to their logical conclusion. It has been reported that Alan Greenspan, the former head of the US Federal Reserve was her ardent disciple, as was Ronald Reagan. Apparently a survey in 1991 declared her book Atlas Shrugged "the most influential book on American lives after the Bible" and according to the Guardian, since the beginning of the current recession her books have once again shot to the top of the best-selling list. Her heroes are "men of the mind" - tycoons and inventors - who have to prevent the state from ever interfering with them by regulation. She herself identifies with these people, suggesting that they should never to be expected to consider the rest of the general public, who are "parasites" and "mindless hordes". During my teenage years, my friend Bill Burford had a Rush album and though we’d have intense, shared listening sessions when any of us bought a new LP, this Rush album wasn’t something that we’d request to listen to. Bill was a drummer and he appreciated Neil Peart’s technique. As a socialist, I didn’t appreciate any view that espoused selfishness, laissez-faire capitalism and an opposition to socialism, altruism or the welfare state.

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