1. Sequenze e frequenze (16:22)
2. Aries (5:26)
3. Aria di rivoluzione (5:01)
4. Da Oriente ad Occidente (6:32)
Franco Battiato – lead vocals, VCS 3, guitar, piano, calimba
Gianfranco D’Adda – percussion
Gianni Bedori – tenor sax (2)
Jane Robertson – violoncello (3)
Daniele Cavallanti – clarinet, soprano sax (3)
Gaetano Galli – oboe (4)
Rossella Conz – soprano (1)
Jutta Nienhaus – recitative vocals (3), soprano (1, 4)
After two reviews of English-language albums, I thought it was time for me to introduce one of the greatest artists on the Italian scene – a musician that, while still relatively obscure in English-speaking countries, has quite a strong following all over Europe.
Possibly the most eclectic, innovative artist on the Italian pop/rock scene, Sicilian-born Franco Battiato, like many of his contemporaries, started his long career in the early Seventies, when Italy was swept by a wave of musical creativity inspired by the British progressive rock movement, though only partly rooted in it. The ancient island of Sicily possesses a rich cultural tradition, where north and south, east and west comfortably meet and influence each other, and Battiato’s music is the living embodiment of this archetypal ‘melting pot’. Even his poppier Eighties songs are brimming with references to the heady exoticism of the Middle East and India, or the melancholy, decadent milieu of Central Europe before WWI. Similarly, he is not averse to using foreign languages in his lyrics, or even his native Sicilian dialect (which, like every other Italian dialect, was once a full-fledged language). His erudite, thought-provoking lyrics draw upon a vast body of knowledge, not solely limited to the western world. Philosophy, mythology, religion, literature, art, all is fair game for Battiato, the man who brought multiculturalism to Italy way before the current wave of immigration had even begun.
Released in 1973, at the height of the popularity of progressive rock in Italy and elsewhere, Sulle corde di Aries is in every way a quantum leap from Battiato’s first two albums, the still rather immature Fetus and the more accomplished Pollution. Even if for today’s standards it is a very short recording (a bit over 30 minutes in length), its four tracks pack an aural and emotional wallop that most of the much longer offerings released nowadays can only dream of achieving. The 16-minute-plus, electronic tour-de-force Sequenze e frequenze opens with haunting strains of synths and wind instruments, which only hint at what is to come. Then Battiato’s filtered voice kicks in, a voice miles away from the big, dramatic vocals often associated with Italian prog. Somewhat thin and reedy, with a heavy Sicilian accent, it is however perfectly, exquisitely modulated, and strongly redolent of the Middle East – almost reminiscent of a muezzin’s call. The short lyrics are incredibly evocative in a visual sense, so that when he sings “ogni tanto passava una nave” (every now and then a ship passed), in my mind’s eye I can almost see a ship slowly moving over the horizon in a hazy summer’s day. When the singing finally fades away, the track turns into an orgy of eerie, trippy sounds wrung out of a VC3 S, overlaid by the hypnotic, lilting beat of a kalimba – and almost nothing else. It is all very simple, even minimalistic, but at the same time extremely powerful, in a way that so much electronic music can rarely achieve.
Introducing what used to be the B-side of the album, Aries is a mostly instrumental track with a definite avant-garde vibe, featuring harsh saxophone and galloping percussion beats. An excellent piece of music indeed, but in my opinion not as successful as the remaining two tracks, where Battiato’s distinctive singing style is pushed to the fore. Aria di rivoluzione paints a picture of Europe in the years between the two world wars – the Italian lyrics reference the Abyssinian war, while the German ones (courtesy of Wolf Biermann, spoken by Analogy’s Jutta Nienhaus in a tone that hovers between martial and sensual) mention Hitler and Stalin. The juxtaposition of two such different languages, of the singing and the spoken word (a strategy that Battiato would further pursue in his career), adds depth and interest to what is the most melodic offering on the album. Finally, Da Oriente a Occidente seems to foreshadow the increasing influence of world music in more recent times, with Battiato’s chanting vocals skillfully backed by two sopranos, and a beautiful, mandolin-led coda.
I saw Battiato performing live in the early Eighties, when he was on his way to his major commercial breakthrough. I entered the theatre as a sceptic, and came out as a convert. This unique musician, who brought a genuine breath of fresh air to the staid Italian pop scene, showed that there was a whole musical world to be explored beyond the established traditions of the opera and the canzone. Years after, I introduced my all-American husband to Battiato’s music, and am happy to say that this album has become one of his desert island discs.
Sulle corde di Aries is undoubtedly one of the great masterpieces of Italian prog, and one of the still-undiscovered gems of progressive rock. Even if the album may not be easy to find for people outside Europe, I hope this review will encourage more people to delve into the music of this amazing artist – as well as dispel any preconceived notions about the supposedly sickly-sweet, mock-classical nature of Italian progressive rock.