ProgBlog

By ProgBlog, Feb 12 2017 10:27PM

The acceptance of and concordant renewed interest in progressive rock has allowed the development of a support industry that uses the reach of the internet for marketing. Prog was niche at the beginning of the 90s, subsumed by a massive music industry singularly interested in shareholder return, leaving the artist a small cog in a very big machine. Prog survived by utilising the available technology, aided by fans with a working knowledge of the internet and who were often an integral part of this technological revolution, who helped to set up some of the earliest band websites and fan forums.

I was fortunate to have an academic email account before the roll-out of commercial hosts and dutifully signed up to the amazing Elephant Talk and a somewhat more earnest Gentle Giant forum. The first mention of Notes from the Edge, the Yes-related internet newsletter run by Mike Tiano and Jeff Hunnicutt and YesWorld, the online Yes resource, was in the booklet for Keys to Ascension (1996) but one major development was the beginning of a dedicated progressive rock / art-rock mail order business. Not only had I begun to pick up Voiceprint newsletters at John Wetton gigs, Discpline Global Mobile (DGM) was reinventing the role of the record label with an innovative, ethical business strategy. Utilising the online presence of these sites, I was able to access some fantastic music, both recorded and as exclusive pre-release playbacks in the presence of the artists themselves.


The Epitaph playback
The Epitaph playback

If we leap forward to the present, I have become much less reliant on Amazon and way more enamoured with Burning Shed and Italy’s BTF and I’ve also started to use Bandcamp, the latter having the advantage of providing a download in addition to the physical medium. I know that Amazon provides this service but with Bandcamp you are able, should you wish, communicate directly with the musicians but whether you do or not, there’s a feeling of better connecting with the artists and consequently, as you’re not simply getting a product, a sense of reward. You're also avoiding tax avoiders


Post-Christmas has been a relatively busy period for acquisition of music for me. A trip into Croydon HMV saw me return home with sale-price vinyl copies of Wish You Were Here and Animals (just in time for its 40th anniversary) though if I’d ever imagined a return of the LP, I’d have never traded-in my original copies.



HMV shopping trip
HMV shopping trip

Browsing the progressive rock suggestions on Bandcamp I came across Awake & Dreaming the 2006 release by The Gift and, having seen them perform at the Resonance Festival in 2014 and been suitably impressed by both the music and the message, I thought that was a worthy addition to my collection. A couple of weeks after that I engaged in a Twitter conversation with Lorenzo Gervasi (Lorenzo Vas) who was the keyboards player with Milan-based Lethe. Their only album release, Nymphae (1994) is available as a download from Mellow Records via Bandcamp and proved to be another Italian prog gem. I subscribe to the BTF newsletter and I frequently get seduced into buying some of the old classics I’ve not been able to pick up on my travels around Italy. The most recent of these purchases was Vietato ai minori di 18 anni? The 1973 release from Jumbo which had been on my radar since seeing vocalist/guitarist Alvaro Fella on stage with CAP in Genova in 2014. This album leaves behind the blues influences that remained on DNA (1972) and is a more mature effort including some avant garde styling.


Awake & Dreaming by The Gift
Awake & Dreaming by The Gift

An awful week at work in January made me think about dropping everything and going on a weekend jaunt to Italy but I fought off the initial impulse and decided to plan something more sensible. There are lots of progressive rock-themed events around Italy throughout the year but a Facebook link took me to Fabio Zuffanti’s Z-Fest, which this year is going to be held at the very end of March so I decided to organise the mini-break to include some live progressivo Italiano. Held in Milan, this year’s line-up is Finisterre, Cellar Noise and Christadoro. I’m already well versed in the works of the former and I’d read about the latter, named after drummer Mox Christadoro, a man with over 30 years experience in the Italian music scene (though not all of it in Italian prog!) so I pre-ordered a copy of the album from Zuffanti’s Bandcamp page. Meanwhile, the Burning Shed newsletter proclaimed the availability of a limited–edition 2015 re-master of the first Kaipa album (Kaipa, 1975) on 180g blue vinyl, including a CD of the album with two bonus tracks. Another album I’d been following with interest, I had to order it.


Z Fest 2017
Z Fest 2017

The two albums arrived with a couple of days of each other. First was Christadoro, a project which brought together a bunch of highly proficient musicians from varied backgrounds, united by their love of progressive rock. Joining Christadoro (drums and percussion) and bassist Fabio Zuffanti, who was at least partly responsible for the idea are Pier Panzeri from Biglietto per l’Inferno (guitars), Paul ‘Ske’ Botta who I’d seen with Not a Good Sign on the first day of the Riviera Prog festival in Genova in 2014 (keyboards) and vocalist Andrea ‘Mitzi’ Dal Santo. The core band is augmented with some renowned guests including PFM’s Franco Mussida.

The concept, hinted at in a quotation from Richie Havens printed on the inner sleeve

I really sing songs that move me

I’m not in show business

I’m in the communications business

is a presentation of seven popular Italian songs written by some of the biggest names in Italy during the 70s, given a progressive rock makeover in the same way that Yes performed Simon and Garfunkel’s America. Another track Ricercare nel mare dell’Inequitudine della paura (Searching the sea of anxiety and fear) is a Franco Mussida solo acoustic guitar prelude to L’ombra della luce (The shadow of the light) by Franco Battiato and uses some unexpected musical intervals. This pair of tracks (I couldn’t detect the transition between the two) are my favourites from the album, though I’m impressed with each of the interpretations and how neatly they have been turned prog. There may not be the complexity associated with progressivo Italiano but there’s some great playing; when the needle hit the groove on the first playing I was struck by the excellent-sounding organ of L’operaio Gerolamo and the driving guitar riff. The great organ work continues on Il sosia (The Lookalike) but not until we’ve had a traditional Zuffanti motif, the reading from some text, in this instance the recital of lines from a 1971 TV series Il Segno del Comando followed by a brief jazz-rock workout before getting a little heavy-psyche. The slide guitar and laid-back tempo on L’ultimo spettacolo calls to mind Pink Floyd’s Fat Old Sun and despite an interesting instrumental break in the middle of the song and a more rocking ending, I feel this is the weakest track on the album.

Figli di... is guitar-driven heavy rock but the vocals are clear and good. There’s more dynamic range and a healthy dose of drama in the side 2 opener Lo stambecco ferito which verges on Van der Graaf Generator territory. Solo begins with a cello section provided by Zeno Gabaglio, electric piano features heavily but there’s also some good Mellotron work. Overall it’s a rewarding buy, though not straightforward prog; the band are playing songs that move them...


Christadoro - insive sleeve
Christadoro - insive sleeve

The old purchase is actually a current re-release of old material, Kaipa’s eponymous debut. In my worldwide search for forgotten masterpieces I’d come across the group but finding examples of the early material was somewhat difficult. My initial investigations were before I understood the role of Roine Stolt and before I’d seen The Flower Kings play live – a slightly disappointing performance because the music wasn’t dominated by keyboards, which I’d come to expect; this re-issue of the early Kaipa albums is a masterstroke.

Kaipa might be keyboard-driven but there’s a nice balance with the guitar, think of Camel between their debut and Moonmadness and the result is first-class symphonic progressive rock. I love the Swedish vocals in the same way Italian prog is best sung in Italian; the lead vocals, provided by keyboard player Hans Lundin, are confident and come across as poetic and naturally flowing.

It would be too simplistic to simply class the music as being like Camel or Focus, just because these are bands who play melodic symphonic prog. The major difference between Kaipa and those two bands is the bass of Tomas Eriksson, who uses a Rickenbacker to achieve a punchy, trebly tone. Camel tend not to conform to a style that incorporates church music, whereas Focus and Kaipa include medieval-sounding compositions, a feeling enhanced by the use of harpsichord. It would have been hard for them not to have been influenced by their fellow countryman Bo Hansson, the first Swedish rock star to gain acclaim outside his native land (thanks to Charisma Records) and there are passages which use heavy reverb organ and guitar producing the distant feel that pervades Hansson’s Music Inspired by The Lord of the Rings. The one sound I don’t particularly like is the string synthesizer, though it’s not overused.



Kaipa by Kaipa
Kaipa by Kaipa

One intriguing comparison can be made with Australians Sebastian Hardie, another band fitting that Camel/Focus/Yes symphonic style. There’s a section where a Kaipa melody line (forgive me for not being over-familiar with the tracks on Kaipa) reminds me of Rosanna from Four Moments by Sebastian Hardie; what is interesting is that the Prog Archive reviews for the Australians are overwhelming negative, suggesting their music is too derivative and labelling them ‘cheesy’. Four Moments was released in 1976, a year after Kaipa. One reviewer has also called Kaipa ‘cheesy’ though the majority find the album pleasant but not over-complex, but still worthwhile. I’d go a little further. This is good symphonic progressive rock where the language and the local folk influences make it stand apart from so-called derivative acts which I think tend to be mostly American. It’s another gem, one that surely played a part in the Sweden-centred progressive revival of the 90s.




Two new purchases, two different eras, two enjoyable pieces of music.

By ProgBlog, Jan 15 2017 10:47PM

Right from the start of my interest in progressive rock, I understood there was a strong link between what I was listening to and classical music. The Nice were one of the first bands I discovered and one of the earliest albums to enter the household was Five Bridges by The Nice, an album of predominantly orchestrated pieces. Studying the sleeve notes for Five Bridges revealed that the group credited Sibelius, Tchaikovsky and Bach but the primary composition, the suite taking up the entire first side (from which the album got its title), was a mixture of classical and jazz with only a bit of rock music thrown in and was credited to Keith Emerson and Lee Jackson, the latter presumably just for the lyrics. I’d probably already worked out that a piano trio was my preferred form of jazz (in a house where I was exposed to a lot of jazz, from trad and big band to Miles but even after the full-blown symphonic approach of Yes, the pared-down Nice still managed to tick all the right boxes for me and I think at least part of that was the way they worked jazz into their repertoire, the other reason being the incredible organ work. This was most likely the first time I’d heard orchestration presented in this way but it was certainly the first time I’d paid any attention to a modern classical piece, marvelling at the way the five movements represented the bridges that crossed the Tyne and straining to work out Jackson’s words during Chorale (3rd Bridge). The Nice weren’t the first band to apply rock treatment to classical music, which was probably Nut Rocker, the Kim Fowley interpretation of Tchaikovsky’s March of the Toy Soldiers from his ballet The Nutcracker Suite, by Jack B. Nimble and the Quicks. This was released on the Del Rio label in early 1962 but was hastily re-recorded for Rendezvous Records and released under the group name of B. Bumble and the Stingers. At the time, the BBC had set itself up as a cultural gatekeeper and viewed itself as the nation’s arbiter of taste. Through the auspices of the Dance Music Policy Committee, it worked a policy of refusing to give air time to songs "which are slushy in sentiment" or pop versions of classical pieces including The Cougars' Saturday Nite at the Duckpond, a 1963 version of Swan Lake. Nut Rocker was discussed by the committee but was not banned because of its evident ephemeral nature which would not ‘offend reasonable people.’



Bach - Brandenburg Concertos 4, 5 and 6
Bach - Brandenburg Concertos 4, 5 and 6

Emerson did have an uncanny knack in identifying themes and phrases which fitted in with both original compositions and cover versions of other people’s tunes and this was one of the major avenues through which I, and many others, first began to appreciate classical music, so that one of the first classical albums I bought was the Camden Classics LP of Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos 4, 5 and 6. Though I heard it later than Country Pie from Five Bridges, this being the song that incorporated a portion of Brandenburg Concerto no. 6, the title track from Ars Longa Vita Brevis released two years earlier includes a snippet from Brandenburg Concerto no. 3. Additionally, the album features a band-only recording of the Intermezzo from the Karelia Suite which would resurface, with orchestra, on Five Bridges. One other piece of Bach appears on the first Nice album The Thoughts of Emerlist Davjack, which was, paradoxically the last of their records I heard, a fragment of Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D minor inserted into Rondo, which I recognised as being very closely based on Dave Brubeck’s Blue Rondo à la Turk, though Brubeck went un-credited.



Rollerball poster from 1975. The 'not too distant future' is 2018!
Rollerball poster from 1975. The 'not too distant future' is 2018!

Toccata and Fugue in D minor is instantly recognisable and iconic and one of the reasons I went to see the film Rollerball when it was released in 1975. Set in ‘the not too distant future’ it has turned out to be a shade prescient, where all the functions of the world are run by global corporations. The real purpose of the sport, played between teams owned by the different companies from different world cities, is to subdue individualism so that when the main protagonist Jonathan E. (played by James Caan) becomes successful and a crowd favourite, the corporations first try to get him to retire and then to kill him off during a match. The corporations fail and Jonathan E. prevails; the closing sequence sees him skating around the arena with the crowd chanting his name, softly at first then building in amplitude to a freeze frame and the single-voice flourish of the Toccata signals the credits. Sometime during the 1980s the provenance of the piece was questioned by academics and it appears that the musical form could have been written for violin. What is known is that the earliest manuscript was written out by Johannes Ringk, on a date estimated to have been between 1740 and 1760.

Is there something about Bach’s music that makes it adaptable to progressive rock? Bach appears to have been fascinated by music, numbers and codes and his name spells out a series of notes which were frequently employed in his works, providing a sonic signature to his work. If the letters of the name ‘Bach’ each replaced with its number in the alphabet, we end up with 2+1+3+8=14 and some researchers have hypothesised that he had something of a fixation with the number 14; it has been suggested that when he was asked to join Mizler's society of Musical Sciences he delayed accepting to ensure that he was the 14th member to join. Mozart was another who applied mathematical games to his compositions and there were yet more baroque composers using a cabalistic code to change letters into numbers which could then be used in musical composition to hide words.


Il Mondo che era Mio - the live album by Fabio Zuffanti and the Z Band
Il Mondo che era Mio - the live album by Fabio Zuffanti and the Z Band

Proto-prog converts included Procol Harum whose debut release A Whiter Shade of Pale drips with Bach from the repeated descending steps of the ground bass which appear in Air on the G string and Sleepers, Wake!, to a melody line which could be a novel adaptation of the cantata I am Standing One with Foot in the Grave, and Jethro Tull, barely out of their blues period, with Bourée from Stand Up (1969), an adaptation of the lute piece Bourrée in E minor, played on flute in a jazz idiom (latterly incorporated into the live version of Finisterre’s In Liminae by Fabio Zuffanti’s Z Band, possibly as a tribute to the legacy of Jethro Tull on Italian progressive rock.) The Nice influenced many subsequent groups, themselves dissolving into Emerson, Lake and Palmer who not only quoted baroque compositions but moved on to pieces from the late 19th and 20th Centuries and were responsible for my appreciation of Mussorgsky, Prokofiev and Janáček.

I would find it hard to believe if Netherlands keyboard trio Trace weren’t influenced by The Nice where on their eponymous debut they covered Bach, Grieg and mixed in some traditional Polish dance and Swedish folk music. They first came to my attention on the Old Grey Whistle Test and, if anything, I was more impressed by keyboard player Rick van der Linden than I was by Keith Emerson. His interpretation of Bach’s Italian Concerto (presented as Gaillard) remains one of my favourite tracks of all time. It’s a really well structured multi-layered piece played unbelievably fast, demonstrating the virtuoso technical ability of van der Linden whilst simultaneously displaying a brilliant feel for the original composition. The second Trace album, Birds contains more Bach (Bourrée, from the English Suite) and Opus 1065, where they utilises the talents of Darryl Way on violin – a man equally at home playing classical variations including his own violin and synthesized orchestra album Concerto for Electric Violin.



Classic prog from the Netherlands by Trace
Classic prog from the Netherlands by Trace

We tend to think of Bach influencing prog initially through Wendy Carlos’ Switched on Bach, possibly the ultimate Moog album but that influence spreads via Mahler, Stravinsky, Dave Brubeck and it even affected the thinking of The Beach Boys and The Kinks. The nascent progressive scene embraced Bach where, because of the mathematical structure, the harmony and counterpoint and maybe the association with church music, his compositions seemed such a good fit.

By ProgBlog, Oct 30 2016 08:16PM

I’ve just spent an enjoyable couple of days in Genova and the surrounding area, escaping the early morning mist and fog covering the south east of England for the pleasantly warm, sunny skies of the north west of Italy, all in the name of prog.

The idea for an October trip to Genova dates back to a hint by Fabio Zuffanti, shortly after the release of Höstsonaten’s Cupid & Psyche earlier this year that the music would be performed live as a ballet. I made sure the proposed date was clear and began searching the theatre’s web site for tickets but was unable to find any link to the event. Fast forward a few months, not having found evidence for the Höstsonaten performance, I came across a post on twitter directing me to Event ’16, a tribute to the live performance by Area at Milan's Università Statale on October 27th 1976 and released three years later on LP as Event ’76. Being a fan of Area and also wanting a short break from work, I convinced myself that this was probably a gig to replace the Cupid & Psyche show and booked my ticket to Genova.




It’s important to realise that Event ’76 wasn’t a straightforward Area gig, even though the band’s music is always challenging. Ares Tavolazzi and Giulio Capiozzo had temporarily left the band at the time of the concert (though they did return a few months later) so the gig was performed with notable improvising musicians Steve Lacy on saxophone and Paul Lytton on percussion, and represents a cross between a psychedelic event (think Pink Floyd circa 1969 0r 1970) and an extreme RIO performance. The original album contained only two tracks, Caos 2nd part, split between two sides of the original vinyl into a (roughly) 20 minute section and a (roughly) 10 minute section, and the title track, a variation of the track SCUM (Society for Cutting Up Men) from their 1976 concept album Maledetti. For Caos, each musician was given a single word on piece of paper, "sex", "irony", "violence" and had to interpret it for three minutes before changing the sheet of paper. The result varies between outright weirdness and melodic jazzy lines played over the top of weirdness but it’s fair to say that audience reaction in Milan was very favourable.

In an era where classic albums are being recreated by both original bands (not necessarily in the original configuration of the group at the time of the release), and by enthusiastic tribute acts with an appreciation of the cultural significance of the music, it was not unreasonable to recreate the Milan concert almost exactly 40 years after the event. Fabio Zuffanti pieced together a sympathetic ensemble comprised of Luca Giovanardi, sometime member of the band Julie's Haircut on guitar and Theremin effect; drum teacher and performer Beppe Mondini on percussion; multi-instrumentalist Nicola Manzan who has worked with many members of the Italian independent music scene on violin; and Michele Orvieti on piano and radio, the keyboard player for Incident on South Street and contributor to Sex Sleep Eat Drink Dream - The Letters - An Unconventional Italian Guide To King Crimson.

The show was at the Teatro Altrove, down a narrow alley that opened out into the tiny Piazzetta Cambiaso in Genova’s historic centre. Teatro Altrove is situated in the former Palazzo Fattinanti-Cambiasso, overseen by a consortium of seven different artistic associations, each with a longstanding cultural bond to the Maddalena district. Finding the venue in the daylight wasn’t too onerous but when I retraced my steps in the dark I somehow went wrong on more than one occasion and Google Maps wasn’t at all helpful. It wouldn’t have mattered too much if I’d been late because the musicians were somewhat laid back about the 21.30 hrs start time.



Though not a strict musical recreation of Event ’76, the performance was certainly true to the spirit of the Area event; less jazzy and more generally spacey, this recreation was closer to the improvised psychedelia of Pink Floyd, sometimes creating a nice groove with violin drones and aggressive percussion. Zuffanti, who at one stage wore a mask, directed the pieces, counting down the end to sections and rarely using his bass in a conventional manner, but hitting the strings with spoons, utilising a rubber chicken and a pair of small frying pans. The words were placed on Zuffanti’s music stand which came in for a bit of abuse from Manzan during his personal interpretation of ‘Violence’ where he stalked the stage, shouting at the other performers and smashing the frying pans into Mondini’s cymbals which looked very much worse for wear at the end of the performance. Mondini’s drum kit was enhanced with fan blades and beer bottles and Orvieti tuned into a radio that he had to hand. For Event ’16 (as I suppose the final track should be called) Giovanardi controlled his sounds with a hand-held remote device which acted like a D-beam or a Theremin on what was the most coherent track, coming across as improvised space rock.

The band evidently enjoyed themselves and the relatively sparse crowd, who all seemed to know each other from the Genova music scene, was suitably appreciative. This was an intimate event held in a really nice theatre and though undeniably challenging it was a thoroughly enjoyable evening, especially as it’s something that is unlikely to ever be repeated.

No trip to Genova would be complete without a trip to Black Widow Records and I had dutifully set out with an idea of what progressive Italiano I wanted to buy. Unfortunately, I was greeted by closed shutters and was told by the proprietor of the record shop next door (specialising in metal) that Black Widow was to be closed for three weeks. Not to be defeated, I set about a fairly well worn trail to firstly Genova Dischi, which caters more for the classical music market though it did have some promising-looking CDs in the window, including Steven Wilson’s Transience and Marillion’s FEAR, on to Taxi Driver Records (more metal plus a bit of modern psychedelia) and then around the myriad second hand stalls, all without turning up anything I wanted. Back in my hotel I did a Google search for record stores and discovered that there was a large branch of the books and music store La Feltrinelli five minutes’ walk away. I’ve visited stores around Italy before and though their stock isn’t brilliant, there’s always the chance of finding something worth buying, and I knew that they had begun to stock vinyl. This branch was particularly good and I came away with five CDs, having seen an Italian Prog box set and searched for individual discs absent from my collection. I also picked up the new Metamorfosi album, a follow-up to Inferno from 1973, Purgatorio, which I had been hoping to find on vinyl in Black Widow.




I also like to explore the surrounding area and, having previously headed south along the Liguria coast to visit the northern portion of the Cinque Terre, I decided to head inland, to Alessandria in Piedmont, just less than an hour away by train. This sedate, elegant city boasted the fantastic W Dabliu record shop run by the knowledgeable and very helpful Roberto Mocca, which I came across quite by accident, a treasure trove of old and new vinyl in the University district which included some very interesting rarities. I was very tempted by an original copy of PFM’s Storia di un minuto but at €80 I thought I’d hold out for a reissue on 180g vinyl. Needless to say, I came away with a special box set of Area’s Caution Radiation Area containing vinyl and CD versions plus a series of postcards (for thematic continuity), the 2014 live performance of Per un Amico (titled Un Amico) on vinyl with a CD included, plus a copy of Gentle Giant’s eponymous 1970 album.










All in all and despite finding out that I'd missed out on Hostsonaten, it was a successful few days. Looking forward to my 2017 visit...





By ProgBlog, May 8 2016 06:52PM

The past ten years or so have been taken up to a worrying degree with expanding my collection of progressivo Italiano, such that family holidays to Italy always include time for seeking out record stores to scour for releases that remain on my ever decreasing list.

Aided to a large extent by Andrea Parentin’s excellent Rock Progressivo Italiano: A guide to Italian Progressive Rock (CreateSpace Independent Publishing, 2011) and the handy-sized Progressive Italiano by Alessandro Gaboli and Giovanni Ottone (Giunti, 2007), the former for the translation of the lyrics and a sense of social setting and the latter for the depiction of album sleeves and a rating system that broadly matches my opinion of the albums by the most recognised acts Premiata Forneria Marconi (PFM), Banco del Mutuo Soccorso and Le Orme, I've explored cities and towns for any signs of record stores. I can even make out some of what is written about the groups in Italian but it’s opportune that Parentin’s book is in English.


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My first full foray into Italian record shops was on a trip to the Veneto in 2005 when there were two stores in Venice and another a short train ride away in Treviso. In those days I was aided by Jerry Lucky’s Progressive Rock Files (Collector’s Guide Publishing, 2000) when I’d scour entries for remarks like “if you’re a fan of PFM then you’ll like this” and, following up a reference to Celeste that described them as “...influenced by early King Crimson but their sound is very original. You’ll hear elements of Genesis circa Trespass and even bits of PFM’s Per un Amico. A very beautiful, symphonic pastoral result. Lots of Mellotron. One of the genre’s highly rated bands” I began to seek out their 1976 release Principe di un giorno and looked for references to Celeste in the listings. One of these was Finisterre, described as “Symphonic progressive rock with long tracks containing restrained hints of bands like Celeste or Banco. They’ve chosen to create a moody and atmospheric sound that relies more on the classical style than neo-prog. Long passages of dissonant harmonies and jazzy chord voicings”. It wasn’t until I updated to Lucky’s The Progressive Rock Handbook (Collector’s Guide Publishing, 2008), that I heard of Höstsonaten and La Maschera di Cera and was able to fathom out the relationship between them. I began to collect Maschera di Cera CDs in 2009 and Finisterre CDs some time later but it wasn’t until 2014 that I bought my first Höstsonaten release, the CD and DVD of the live performance of The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. It was experiencing a live version of Rainsuite by the Z Band that really turned me on to Höstsonaten, revealing a very symphonic progressive rock style that Fabio Zuffanti himself equated with The Enid. Zuffanti’s projects are all essential listening for fans of the original progressivo Italiano movement and though I really enjoy Maschera di Cera’s albums for their modern take on the original genre, remaining true to the spirit of the work of bands like PFM and Banco, the instrumental work by Höstsonaten comes closest to symphonic rock and the Enid comparison is well founded

I pre-ordered a copy of Symphony N. 1 – Cupid & Psyche in early April and after negotiating a redelivery to my local post office, having been out at work when the postman attempted to deliver the item, I finally got hold of the LP on Friday and listened to it for the first time yesterday. I was not disappointed.

The music was conceived by Zuffanti but he has stepped away from the limelight and is only responsible for bass pedals ‘treatments and devices’, leaving Luca Scherani from La Coscienza di Zeno and a collaborator on Zuffanti’s 2015 project La Curva di Lesmo, to handle the arrangements and orchestrations in addition to playing keyboards; guitar, bass and drums are provided by long-term Zuffanti collaborators Laura Marano, Daniele Sollo and Paolo Tixi respectively.


There are many precedents of full orchestration in progressive rock and progressivo Italiano has some very notable examples including the New Trolls’ Concerto Grosso (1971, 1976, 2007) and Contaminazione by Il Rovescio della Medaglia (1973) but enhancing the symphonic scope of Höstsonaten seems like a logical step, one that is true to the principles of progressive rock as it attempted to bridge the gap between high and popular culture. The melange of influences that inform their output, their RPI predecessors, jazz and Mediterranean folk are enhanced with inspiration from Stravinsky and Tchaikovsky. I’ve thought quite hard about other orchestrated prog albums and there aren’t many that genuinely seamlessly blend the rock and the orchestral moments; the pieces by Keith Emerson with the Nice were predominantly divided into distinct sections, band then orchestra then band. There are times when Yes’ Magnification (2001) works well but this mostly comes across as orchestra instead of keyboards and has hints of Tony Cox’s imperfect arrangements on Time and a Word (1970). There are long passages of orchestral music on Chris Squire’s Fish out of Water (1975) but the most satisfying orchestrated pieces of progressive rock are Camel’s Music Inspired by the Snow Goose (1975) and Mike Oldfield’s Hergest Ridge (1974). In terms of orchestration in progressivo Italiano, Passio Secondum Mattheum by Latte e Miele (1972) impresses, but I think that Höstsonaten have come up with one of the most balanced mixes of rock and orchestra that at times reminds me of Pink Floyd’s Atom Heart Mother (1970) and the eponymous 1972 release by Il Paese dei Balocchi, both of which, like Cupid & Psyche, are predominantly instrumental; Laura Marano provides some epic, melodic Gilmour-like guitar lines but it’s the inclusion of classic prog keyboards, Moog, Mellotron, organ and piano which fit in so neatly with the strings and brass that bestow a sense of harmonious union between the classical and the rock instrumentation. Not surprisingly, there are refrains that hint of Höstsonaten’s previous output and it goes without saying that the execution is highly consummate.

Another important link with the foundation of the genre is the appropriation of literary myth in a manner similar to Genesis writing The Fountain of Salmacis, with Zuffanti utilising the Apuleius story Metamorphoses. A translation by author, columnist and philosopher Pee Gee Daniel, providing a synopsis of the chapters that make up the ten tracks, is included in the gatefold sleeve.

Maschera di Cera produced one of my all time favourite albums Lux Ade (2006) based on the Orpheus story but that was an entirely rock affair. With Cupid & Psyche, Zuffanti has realised his dream of creating a symphonic suite with group and orchestra that is also able to serve as the soundtrack for a ballet, in the manner of Stravinsky or Tchaikovsky. Beginning with an array of musical ideas suitable for the project, enlisting Luca Scherani to create a score for string, wind and brass instruments, the album easily succeeds in presenting a coherent piece of symphonic progressive rock and the ballet based on the music of the album is expected to debut in theatres later this year under the direction of the Genoese choreographer Paola Grazz. October 22nd is already reserved in my diary.












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.



Steven Wilso ticket 27th January 2016
Steven Wilso ticket 27th January 2016

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.







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I was lucky enough to get to see two gigs in Italy last summer while the UK live music industry was halted and unsupported by the government, and the subsequent year-long gap between going to see bands play live has been frustrating - but necessary.

The first weekend in September marked the return of live prog in England, and ProgBlog was there...

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