The resurgence of prog in the 90s was in no small part down to two seminal Swedish bands, Änglagård and Anekdoten. Änglagård’s Hybris (1992) was on my wish list for a couple of years before I managed to get hold of a reissued CD in 2014 for a sensible price from a stall at the Prog Résiste festival in Soignies, when up until that point the CD was selling for in excess of £30 on Amazon, but I first bought Anekdoten’s Vemod (1993) as a download in 2010 having read somewhere that the album sounded like King Crimson would have done had they not ‘ceased to exist’ after Red, due to their use of Mellotron; the album title, which roughly translates to ‘melancholy’, is very fitting. Wheel would have fitted very nicely on Red, especially as it includes cornet played by guest musician Pär Ekström.
I managed to see Änglagård on their first ever UK performance at the Resonance Festival later in 2014, something of a coup for the organisers of the event, and was more than impressed, subsequently being given Epilog (1995) and 2014’s Prog på Svenska - Live in Japan as presents. My wife traditionally asks if there’s any music she can get me on her annual New York trip, so on the occasion a month after buying the download, I asked her to look out for a physical copy of Vemod. Unable to locate a copy in a record store-depleted Manhattan, she phoned me from the States to tell me the bad news but that she had seen Anekdoten‘s 2009 2CD compilation Chapters and asked would I like that instead? I said yes. I then added Nucleus (1995) to my wish list and that arrived as a Christmas present in 2011. I’m attracted to the density and darkness of the music, and fully agree with the imagined post-Red King Crimson theory, so when Massimo Gasperini, the owner of Black Widow Records in Genoa contacted me to say he’d signed up Anekdoten to headline his Prog On evening at the FIM Fiera della Musica in Milan, it proved difficult to resist.
My experience of the FIM Fiera was in 2014, one of three times it was held in Genoa, where the line-up of bands for the prog stage over three days was really stellar, indicating the importance of the city for Italian prog. In 2016 and 2017 the Fiera was held in Erba (near Como) due to redevelopment of Genoa’s exhibition site and landed in Milan, at the Piazza città di Lombardia (the largest covered square in Europe) this year, with Prog On and other more formal presentations held in the adjacent Auditorium Testori.
This being a family trip, I’d identified a couple of other nearby cities to visit, to tick off more medieval squares and interesting churches, but the day of our arrival was dedicated to Milan. We wandered off towards the FIM venue via the Porta Nuova development, just to see what was around, immediately coming across the Black Widow Records stand where Massimo pointed out the one drawback with the piazza – June sunlight streaming in through the glass canopy and no shade. He then gave me a preview of the Auditorium Testori where ex-PFM guitarist Franco Mussida was giving a lecture to local schoolchildren, Cos'è davvero la Musica? (What really is music?); education in all aspects of music was a major part of the theme this year and Mussida, born in Milan in 1947, founded the CPM Music Institute in 1984, an organisation that offers 400 different programmes in music from certified instrumental courses to journalism to studio techniques.
It’s impossible to visit Black Widow Records, wherever it pops up, and not buy anything. I couldn’t say no to an LP I’d been interested in since I’d seen it had been re-issued by BTF earlier this year: a vinyl copy of Concerto delle Mente, the only release by Pholas Dactylus from 1973. I also bought re-issued vinyl copies of Museo Rosenbach’s Zarathustra (1973) and the pre-Goblin Cherry Five (1975) by Cherry Five and picked up the just-released Broken Coriolanus by Hollowscene (formerly Banaau) who were on the Prog On bill.
The day of the gig was mostly spent in Pavia, a short train journey away from Milan though I popped into Libraccio, the book and record store next to our hotel to buy Maxophone’s La Fabbrica delle Nuvole from 2017 and a Record Store Day picture disc of Tormato by Yes. We had lunch in Pavia’s Piazza della Vittoria looking out at the Broletto, the 13th Century town hall, then wandered off in search of Matrix Music only to find it had recently moved, to within 50m of where we’d had lunch, right by the cathedral. They were still unpacking and stacking when we visited and, because it’s getting ever more difficult to find progressivo Italiano that I don’t already own, I only bought a copy of King Crimson’s Live in Vienna CD from earlier this year.
Back in Milan, I set out to the FIM Fiera after a bite to eat and headed for the Black Widow stall, correctly believing that I might be able to find a copy of Vemod on vinyl but also buying the recently-released Rings of Earthly... Live CD by Ancient Veil. I couldn’t find anywhere to buy the album on-line but the band is on the Black Widow label and Black Widow were promoters of the two gigs at Genoa’s La Claque where the performances were recorded; my applause features throughout this release because I was present at both of those concerts.
While hanging around Black Widow I was introduced to another Genovese band, Fungus Family, whose music sits somewhere between the prog and psyche camps and relies on improvisation then, just as we were chatting en route to the beer tent, I bumped into Mauro Serpe and Giorgio Boleto, respectively the vocalist/flautist and bassist from Panther & C. Deep in conversation with Fungus Family about their forthcoming album and an unannounced change in running order meant that I missed some of Hollowscene’s set but what I heard was impressive – some nice Tony Banks-like synth runs and some moments of complexity akin to National Health. Prowlers, hailing from nearby Bergamo, have had a stop-start career and have been releasing music since 1994. Their Prog On performance featured songs from last year’s Navigli Riflessi but, apart from their last song which had sections in 7/4, they didn’t really conform to prog and the performance lacked dynamism. This was disappointing when you consider that in the past they recorded versions of Camel’s First Light and ELP’s The Sage for tribute albums. The contrast with La Fabbrica dell’Assoluto, on next, couldn’t have been greater. Plying their brand of heavy, high energy prog tinged with psychedelia and utilising a vast array of keyboard patches, the passion associated with RPI was forcefully clear; apart from drummer Michele Ricciardi they even dressed up in boiler suits to perform, a humorous reference to the band name. Witnessing them play live made me think of Museo Rosenbach, something I’d not really detected while listening to the record 1984: L’Ultimo uomo d’Europa. I spoke to the band at the end of the evening to congratulate them on an excellent set and, like all the other members of Italy’s prog community I’ve met, they were really easy-going and a pleasure to chat to.
Anekdoten have recently expanded to a five piece with the addition of British guitarist Marty Willson-Piper, best known for his work with Australian band The Church, but who was a guest on Anekdoten’s 2015 album Until All the Ghosts are Gone, and his playing adds even more depth to the sound. Communicating largely in English, the audience was reminded that 2018 was the 25th anniversary of Vemod so we were treated to not just a good proportion of the album, but Anna Sofi Dahlberg also played cello, something they’d not used live for some time. Though there’s a progression from foreboding, brooding dark prog to almost Radiohead-like post-rock through the albums, with each subsequent release involving a subtle change, I still prefer Vemod to the others when many commentators see Nucleus as their definitive release as it includes more mature writing than its predecessor, so I was very happy with the set list. The Rickenbacker bass, seemingly something of a staple in Scandinavian bands, provided by Jan Erik Liljeström along with the drumming of Peter Nordins are equally as important as Nicklas Barker’s angular guitar lines played over Dahlberg’s Mellotron (which was under-mixed for the first couple of songs) in defining the band’s sound. I personally prefer Liljeström’s singing to Barker’s because it complements the plaintive lyrics, much like John Wetton on Fallen Angel. Willson-Piper’s guitar provided extra density (if that’s possible) but he also helped out on percussion duties when his guitar was not required, and generally served as a source of energy propelling the ensemble onwards. My favourite moments were The Old Man and the Sea and Karelia but it was an all-round excellent performance; a major triumph for Massimo Gasperini (who was thanked by the band) and well worth the trip to Milan.
I was also very pleasantly surprised to see prog-fixer Marina Montobbio who had made the trip across from Genoa. Slipping easily between Italian, French and English she was involved in highlighting Plongée au coeur du rock progressif italien by Louis de Ny, a French book about Italian prog, and trying to persuade me to attend the 2 Days of Prog + 1 Festival in Veruno in September.
Fortunately it was only a short walk back to the hotel so I managed to get a decent night’s sleep despite an early start the next day: a trip to Bologna. This was mainly for the architecture because the record stores were all closed, and to see if it was worth a longer visit (it is.) Our flight home on Monday was late in the evening, the last flight out of Malpensa which meant we had time to explore some more. Monza was about the right distance away so we spent a full afternoon there. Though quite pleasant, I wouldn’t have recommended anyone making a special trip there if we hadn’t visited Carillon Dischi. A fifteen minute walk away from the centre under humid June skies, Carillon is another of the brilliant record shops that you find in small Italian cities; walls lined with classic rock and prog posters, plenty of vinyl and CDs including some rarities, a good range of memorabilia, plus a friendly, helpful and knowledgeable owner, Massimo. Browsing was restricted by train times, otherwise I’d have listened to some first US tour live King Crimson, I bought Un Biglietto del Tram by Storm Six (1975), something I’ve been after for a few months and an In the Court of the Crimson King T-shirt. I’d return to Milan any time and Monza really isn't out of the way...