By ProgBlog, Apr 9 2018 10:38PM
Z-Fest 2018, Legend Club, Milan 23 March
Next stop: Milan. I attended the 2017 Z-Fest and apart from choosing a hotel miles from the club so that the taxi driver was unhappy to let me out of his cab because he wasn’t convinced that there was actually an event being held there and then not being able to communicate with a taxi firm to get me back to the hotel after it had finished, it was a successful venture. 2017 had something of an ‘experimental’ vibe, with the jazzy Zaal (standing in for Christadoro, a Zuffanti co-venture who released an album in February that year) and headliners Finisterre, who of all the Zuffanti projects seem to me the group who best represent boundary-pushing. That show also featured the Zuffanti-produced Cellar Noise, playing through their excellent symphonic prog debut Alight (2017) and wowing the crowd with an excellent rendition of Genesis’ The Knife as an encore. The whole band was present for this year’s Z-Fest, getting ready to embark upon their first concert outside of Europe, in Canada, and they told me the material they were writing for their forthcoming album was going to be a bit heavier than on Alight but still recognisably Cellar Noise. Z-Fest 2018 was dubbed ‘the symphonic edition’ headlined by Höstsonaten, who are without doubt the most symphonic of Zuffanti’s many sidelines and compared by the man himself to The Enid, so it was quite appropriate that former Enid vocalist Joe Payne had been invited to open proceedings, with the other slots allotted to Isproject, a prog/post rock duo augmented by Zuffanti associates, taking their place in the proceedings by virtue of releasing a fine, symphonic concept album The Archinauts (2017) produced by Zuffanti, and to Heather Findlay, the vocalist for Mostly Autumn from 1996 until 2010.
I’d last seen Joe Payne performing with The Enid at HRH 4 in North Wales and before that at the Resonance Festival at the Bedford Arms in Balham. On both occasions it was clear that he had an excellent voice but in my opinion the theatrical presentation came across as West End musical rather than rock, and certainly not progressive rock. I got to the club as the man reinvented as 'That Joe Payne' was finishing his sound check, thanks to a combination of the efficiency of the Milan metro and the performer not realising that the doors had actually opened. Following a short interlude during which the sound engineers played a selection of classic prog, including Siberian Khatru, Easy Money and Free Hand, Payne took to the stage again and explained that he would only be conversing in English and that this was his first ever solo performance, though it wasn’t his first post-Enid show; earlier in March he’d performed at The Picturedome in Northampton with a select backing group.
His performance was relatively brief, consisting of two (long-form) songs he’d contributed to from The Enid’s Invicta (2012) One and the Many and Who Created Me? plus both sides of his new single I need a Change/Moonlit Love. Confiding in the audience that he was a bit rusty and Who Created Me? was the most challenging thing he’d had to play on piano, he also admitted, mid song, that he’d forgotten how the piece went, then courageously continued. I thought he excelled in this format, solo voice and piano and, without the full bombast of his former band to compete with for kitsch, it completely changed my opinion of his singing; that he’s got a great voice is beyond question – he proved that it works in a rock context.
Isproject were next up, Ivan Santovito (who had a slight problem with the keyboard patches on his Mac before they got going) and Ilenia Salvemini, who after a couple of tracks as a duo were joined on stage by core members of Höstsonaten: Paolo Tixi; Marcella Arganese; Daniele Sollo; and Martin Grice.
Their inclusion at this symphonic Z-Fest was fully warranted. The music alternates between a post-Waters Floydian sweeping cinematic sound, melodies and instrumentation that recall classic 70s Italian prog, and a few guitar-driven moments that hint of prog-metal. The proggiest moments were the lead synthesizer lines over full band backing where a relative lack of layers evoked the early 70s sound; there was also plenty of delicate piano which contributed to the symphonic feel. Apart from playing the keyboards, Santovito handled a good portion of the vocals, sung in English, while most of the time Salvemini was responsible for providing harmony vocals or singing as a duet. The performance wasn’t quite faultless, with Salvemini occasionally demonstrating an unfortunate lack of stagecraft, generating low-level feedback by exposing her mic, held by her side when she wasn’t singing, to her monitor. This slightly naive behaviour didn’t affect the way I thought about the music and I visited the merchandise stand following their slot and bought a copy of The Archinauts on CD; I’m pleased I did, because Zuffanti’s production is beautifully clear and the symphonic nature of the music shines through.
I don’t own any Mostly Autumn or Heather Findlay music other than a live version of Evergreen that featured on the free CD that came with one of the early Prog magazines concentrating on prog-folk. Her time in Mostly Autumn has helped her amass a good following and since leaving them in 2010 she’s fronted her own band, collaborated with some of the biggest names in the prog world (including Ian Anderson and John Wetton) and, in 2016 formed Mantra Vega with Dave Kerzner, pulling in a number of Mostly Autumn alumni, creating what many branded a ‘supergroup’. However, this set was just Findlay accompanying herself singing with acoustic guitar, delving into a rich past of folk/symphonic tunes of which I recognised only one: Evergreen. Her voice on some of the recordings I’ve heard has a frail, ethereal quality, like a Yorkshire Stevie Nicks but live she had a good strong voice that reminded me of Sonja Kristina on some of the more song-based Curved Air material. She also communicated entirely in English and told the crowd that, like Joe Payne, this was her first ever solo gig.
I’d just missed out seeing Höstsonaten performing Symphony No.1 Cupid and Psyche in 2016 so I wasn’t going to miss the 2018 Z-Fest; this was the band I’d really come to see and they did not disappoint. I may have originally heard about them in 2007-8 when I first bought Jerry Lucky’s The Progressive Rock Files but my first exposure to their music was at the 2014 Prog Résiste festival where the Z Band performed an array of pieces from a variety of projects including the superb Rainsuite from Winterthrough, a sumptuous example of modern symphonic prog, prompting me to visit their merchandise stand following the performance to buy the CD/DVD of The Rime of the Ancient Mariner Alive in Theatre (2013). It was on a visit to Galleria del Disco, Firenze, in the subway passages underneath the main station later in 2014 that I got my hands on an AMS CD reissue of Winterthrough, and in 2016 I pre-ordered my copy of Symphony N.1 Cupid & Psyche (on pink vinyl) through Bandcamp.
The current Höstsonaten line-up of Zuffanti (bass, acoustic guitar and bass pedals), Luca Scherani (keyboards), Marcella Arganese (electric guitar), Daniele Sollo (bass) and Paolo Tixi (drums) was supplemented for the occasion by Martin Grice on sax and flute, Joanne Roan on flute, Alice Nappi on violin, and Gaetano Galli on oboe, providing a genuine symphonic dimension; Grice was part of the Z Band and Roan has appeared on a number of Höstsonaten records.
Zuffanti’s introduction was interrupted by remedial work on Scherani’s laptop (after Scherani had helped Ivan Santovito at the start of the Isproject set) but this was swiftly resolved and they began with a medley of Season Cycle tracks, Entering the Halls of Winter, The Edge of Summer and Toward the Sea. We were also treated to a large slice of 2016’s Symphony N.1, an album where Zuffanti had written the music but took a step back from much of the playing and allowed the partnership with Scherani, who arranged the piece for orchestra, to shine. I thought the evening couldn’t get any better but they next embarked upon Ancient Mariner in all its dramatic glory. I’d notice Joe Payne move a mic stand to the front of the stage between the Heather Findlay and Höstsonaten sets, so I had a pretty good idea that he’d be joining them for something, and he took on the role of the mariner really well. Sadly I had to leave to catch a bus back to my hotel during Part 3, but there’s a YouTube video https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=61N3h2qCPfk that goes some way to compensating for me missing out on Part 4 which features outstanding vocals from both Payne and Findlay.
Though the crowd was really supportive of all the acts, the club wasn’t full and with tickets at only €10, it’s something of a surprise that Zuffanti persists in hosting the event each year. However he does it, promoting his protégés, revisiting some exquisite music of his own and this year bringing UK artists to Milan, I’m glad he does. This was my second year and, like last year, it was really special. La Maschera di Cera next year?