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Archive for November, 2010

TRACKLISTING:
1. Epilogo  (2:41)
2. Giù nella Forra  (1:47)
3. Casa di Blu  (0:58)
4. La Guida  (1:28)
5. Cosa Dice Quella Porta Chiusa  (0:53)
6. Dimmi Chi Sei  (2:30)
7. Cosa Dice Quella Porta Schiusa  (0:53)
8. Fame Che Ride  (1:18)
9. Ladri e Stranieri  (4:49)
10. Soldati  (2:01)
11. Un Lupo  (3:29)
12. Canto Antico  (2:38)
13. Casa Non Mai Vista  (2:23)
14. Cristo Guarito  (3:10)
15. La Lettera  (1:52)
16. Gli Scantinati  (3:56)
17. Requiem  (2:29)
18. Nessuno Muore Mai  (1:37)
19. Non Sono Morto  (2:21)

LINEUP:
Leonardo Bonetti – vocals, bass, acoustic guitar, keyboards
Paola Feraiorni – vocals
Fabio Brait – acoustic guitar
Aldo Orazi – drums

Racconto d’Inverno (A Winter Tale), the third album by Rome-based outfit Arpia,  was released in early 2009 together with band mastermind Leonardo Bonetti’s critically acclaimed novel of the same title.  Like Arpia’s previous two albums, Liberazione (1995) and Terramare (2006), Racconto d’Inverno is a concept album,  a musical rendition of a book that in turn is based on two other works, Andrei Tarkovsky’s film Stalker and Italian writer Tommaso Landolfi’s short story Racconto d’Autunno (An Autumn Story). It is also one of those albums that are extremely difficult to define. It is progressive rock, but not as we commonly know it –  indeed, if taken superficially, it can even come across as remarkably accessible in a ‘sophisticated pop-rock’  kind of way.  Moreover, it  is almost completely acoustic, with keyboards used as a complement rather than as a main ingredient.

Though they have been active for over 25 years with the same core line-up, Arpia are anything but a prolific band. Racconto d’Inverno, however, is the effort that really raises the bar in terms of the development and maturation of their individual style, and not just any old, tired variation on the ‘rock opera’ theme. The concise, yet supremely elegant lyrics, perfectly suited to the dual vocal approach adopted by the band, emphasize the aura of mingled fear and fascination pervading the whole disc. In a way, though musically quite different, it could be compared to another similarly structured album released in the first months of 2009, The Decemberists’ The Hazards of Love.

The story (which follows a circular narrative pattern) is told from the point of view of its protagonist, a drifter roaming in the mountains near the border during World War Two. While trying to escape from the war zone, he meets a mysterious young man who guides him to an equally mysterious, derelict house deep in a forested gorge, haunted by the presence of a woman. Though those familiar with Italian literature will immediately notice the link with the rich tradition of fiction set against the background of those terrible years, Racconto d’Inverno is not a realistic account of the horrors of war, but rather a hauntingly Gothic tale that may also be read metaphorically.

From a musical perspective, Racconto d’Inverno does not suggest ‘traditional’ Italian prog, but rather bands that merge folk and world music influences with darkly rarefied atmospheres, such  as Australian outfit Dead Can Dance –  to which I would add seminal British prog-folk band The Pentangle (especially as regards the use of dual male and female lead vocals). There is indeed a clear folk undercurrent in Arpia’s music, emphasized by the use of the acoustic guitar as the main instrument, and further reinforced by the expressive singing style of Leonardo Bonetti and Paola Feraiorni (already featured as a guest on Terramare, and now a full member of the band). Indeed, Paola’s voice is one of the main draws of the album – crystal-clear in tone, yet forceful, in the tradition of the great folk-rock female singers of the Seventies such as Maddy Prior or Sandy Denny. Her pristine, controlled delivery, far removed from the modern penchant for either saccharine sweetness or operatic grandiosity in female vocals, is the ideal vehicle for the often unsettling subject matter, dominated by the presence of death.

Arpia are also to be commended for having kept the album  at a very restrained 42 minutes, aware of the pitfalls of excessive length, especially on a project of this nature. The music, which favours the repetition of themes in selected episodes (as demonstrated, for instance, by the mirror-like melody of “Epilogo” and “Non Sono Morto”), may initially come across as somewhat monotonous, a bit like the shades of grey of the album cover and booklet –  though further listens will easily dispel this impression. Given the importance of the storyline, familiarity with the Italian language is definitely a bonus, though not indispensable in order to enjoy the album. Even without understanding the actual words, Leonardo and Paola’s stunning vocals  help the listener to connect with the story.

Racconto d’Inverno should be seen as a suite in 19 short movements (only the imperious, Middle Eastern-tinged “Ladri e Stranieri” approaches the 5-minute mark) rather than a standard collection of songs. As to be expected on an album of this nature, the music is very much at the service of the story, rather than the other way around. Though the acoustic guitars play by far the biggest role (together, obviously, with the vocals), the keyboards lurk in the background, introduced first in “Un Lupo”, and finally taking the lead in the climactic ending of the tale, the dual punch of  “Gli Scantinati” and “Requiem”. Here, combined with the mournful sound of strings and the almost unbearably intense vocals, the keyboards create a dirge-like melody that suggest some decidedly sinister goings-on in the vein of Edgar Allan Poe and its ilk.

By releasing an album of such peculiar nature, Arpia have made an extremely bold move, putting artistic integrity before any concerns of commercial success. Intensely original in its combination of mesmerizing music, intriguing storytelling and splendid vocal performances, minimalistic yet deeply moving, Racconto d’Inverno is a masterpiece of atmosphere and restraint,  an album that will appeal to all lovers of music relying on simplicity and purity rather than technical flash. Those who have a good knowledge of Italian might also want to check out the novel, and possibly its source, Tommaso Landolfi’s Racconto d’Autunno – as well as Bonetti’s latest literary effort,  Racconto di Primavera (A Spring Tale), released in October 2010.

Links:
http://www.arpia.info
http://www.leonardobonetti.it

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TRACKLISTING:
1. Intro/Dio del Silenzio (1:23)
2. Il Nome del Vento (6:01)
3. Verso il Naufragio (6:35)
4. L’Acquario delle Stelle (6:15)
5. Luci Lontane (4:14)
6. Profeta Senza Profezie (4:20)
7. Ogni Storia (5:02)
8. Note di Tempesta (4:29)
9. Dopo il Vento (9:40)
10. Cuore Sacro (8:49)
11. L’Aurora Boreale (4:26) (bonus track)

Bonus Video:
L’Acquario delle Stelle

LINEUP:
Ettore Vigo – keyboards
Martin Grice – sax, flute, keyboards
Pino Di Santo – drums, vocals
Roberto Solinas – guitars, vocals
Fabio Chighini – bass
Mimmo Di Martino – vocals (2)

String quartet:
Chiara Giacobbe Chiarilla – violin
Diana Tizzani – violin
Simona Merlano – viola
Daniela Caschetto Helmy – cello

With:
Stefano “Lupo” Galifi – vocals (6)
Sophya Baccini – backing vocals (2, 4, 7, 9), piano (9)

After having spent the past few months concentrating on albums from the English-speaking world, now it is time for me to to spotlight some  Italian bands and artists. Though many great albums (in some cases essential for a true prog fan) have come out of my native country from the Seventies onwards, only a part of this vast, exciting output has received the attention it deserves.  Here in the US most of the attention tends to be directed at the likes of  Le Orme, PFM and Banco (also owing to their relatively frequent visits to the New World), to the detriment of other acts who seem to be familiar only to a selected few.

Genoa-based band Delirium hold a special place in my heart, since their debut album, Dolce Acqua, was the first progressive rock album that I bought – at the ripe old age of 11. Among the founders of the original Italian progressive rock scene, in 1972 they experienced mainstream success with  the anthemic single “Jesahel”, which introduced the Italian public to the gritty, bluesy vocal talents of Ivano Fossati.  Soon afterwards Fossati  left the band  to embark on a successful career as  a singer-songwriter, to be replaced by British-born Martin Frederick Grice.  After the release of their third album, released in 1974, Delirium split up, but thankfully got back together in 2001 with most of the original members on board.

When listening to Il Nome del Vento, one might almost be tempted to feel that the 30-year hiatus between  Delirium III and this album has in some way been beneficial to the band – a lengthy yet necessary ‘recharging of the batteries’, so to speak. This is indeed a mature, finely-crafted album, very much in the way of  PFM’s  Stati di Immaginazione – a sumptuous, accomplished effort from seasoned prog veterans that had been forgotten or written off far too soon.

Although Il Nome Del Vento is a concept album of sorts (the wind symbolizing the energies that sweep negativity away and usher positive change), it does not feel as contrived as many similar efforts can be. Shunning the clichés than often plague concept albums, Mauro La Luce’s lyrics opt instead for simplicity and emotion, a perfect complement to the outstanding performances of all the vocalists involved. The latter are nicely balanced by the brilliance of the instrumental sections, where the background of each musician, their individual tastes and preferences, is put to effective use. While Martin Grice’s love of jazz and vintage English prog shines through his flute and sax  work, guitarist/vocalist Roberto Solinas (a true revelation) injects a welcome dose of classic rock energy in what is largely an acoustic effort. The presence of an all-female string quartet contributes an authentically symphonic feel to many of the compositions, infused by that uniquely Italian flair for melody and lyricism.

The continuity between the new and the old incarnation of Delirium is highlighted right from the start, as “Intro/Dio del Silenzio (Reprise)” references one of the songs featured on Delirium III. This brief, intense introduction (complete with sounds of rain and thunder at the beginning) sets the scene for what is to come. The title-track is a magnificent slice of complex yet melodic prog, soulfully interpreted by the band’s former guitarist Mimmo Di Martino, whose deep, bluesy tones find a perfect foil in Sophya Baccini’s ethereal soprano. The following track, “Verso il Naufragio” (one of two instrumentals featured on the album), is an exhilarating rollercoaster ride of slow, majestic keyboard washes and electrifying guitar riffs; it also incorporates a passage from George Martin’s “Theme One” (also covered by Van Der Graaf Generator, Cozy Powell and Osanna). The jaw-dropping duel between sax and organ in the second half of the track displays the band’s jazzier side, a constant of their sound since their debut album, Dolce Acqua.

More jazzy influences surface in the uptempo “Profeta Senza Profezie”, further enriched by a  commanding vocal performance by Stefano ‘Lupo’ Galifi (of Museo Rosenbach fame), somewhat reminiscent of the late Demetrio Stratos’ acrobatics; while the romantic “L’Acquario delle Stelle” (dedicated by Martin Grice to his first grandson) is a gorgeous slice of classic Italian prog, in which flute and keyboards emote over a lush background of strings. However, it is the double whammy of “Dopo il Vento” and “Cuore Sacro” that forms the album’s climactic point. The former alternates jazzy passages with calmer, more melodic ones, the string quartet holding the fabric of the song together; while the latter is markedly darker and rockier, enhanced by rippling piano, dynamic drumming, and assertive flute work that recalls early Jethro Tull.

A truly classy offering, and undoubtedly one of the top releases of 2009, Il Nome Del Vento is the ideal showcase for the unique talents of a band that seem to be finally about to get the recognition they highly deserve. It is also a textbook example of how classic progressive rock can sound modern without jettisoning its glorious past. Hopefully this stunning comeback disc will lead the way for more releases of the same high quality from a band that still has a lot to offer to the discerning prog fan.

Links:
http://www.idelirium.it
http://www.blackwidow.it

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TRACKLISTING:
1. The Encounter ( 5:03 )
2. The Push ( 3:36 )
3. Out Of The Mist ( 8:25 )
4. Sequence Of Events ( 3:25 )
5. DIP ( 6:56 )
6. The Departure ( 4:40 )
7. Gray Matter ( 6:16 )
8. Orb ( 7:47 )
9. 11th Heaven Blues ( 4:00 )
10. Still (Unsettled ) ( 2:10 )

LINEUP:
Dean Watson – all instruments

While so-called ‘solo-pilot’ instrumental albums seem to be rather ubiquitous these days (with results not always up to scratch), it is far from an everyday occurrence to come across an album as impressive as Unsettled, Dean Watson’s debut release – even more so if we consider that we are dealing with a wholly independent production. An amazingly accomplished disc, structured in a remarkably balanced way, it presents music that is eclectic without being directionless, and complex without being unnecessarily convoluted.

For such a proficient composer and multi-instrumentalist, Toronto-based Dean Watson is a very unassuming character, in spite of his decades-long experience in the music world. Dispensing with the bells and whistles to which so many new acts seem to be addicted, he has embarked on the promotion of his music completely on his own, offering his album for review on progressive rock discussion boards, and eliciting almost unanimously positive feedback. Indeed, though it falls somewhat short of perfection,  Unsettled as a whole is an impressively cohesive effort: inspired by the painting of the same name by Ron Eady (a visual artist also based in Toronto), it is conceived as a sonic rendition of the painting itself, realized with a successful blend of emotion and technical skill that often eludes all-instrumental productions.

Other reviewers have labelled Unsettled as progressive fusion, and, in some ways at least, the description fits the album quite well – especially if we take into account the many diverse sources of inspiration (listed by Watson on his MySpace page) that make up its sound.  the actual jazz-rock component in Unsettled is rather restrained, sharing the stage with spacey touches, progressive metal overtones, and even subtle classic rock influences. Although comparisons have been made with the likes of Planet X and Liquid Tension Experiment – at least as regards those moments on the album where things take a more metallic turn – I feel they limit the scope of Watson’s creative impulse. In fact, while some tracks on the album may bring to mind the aforementioned, hyper-technical instrumental combos, others reveal a vintage jazz-rock feel akin to Jeff Beck’s two seminal mid-Seventies albums, Blow by Blow and Wired, eschewing the feeling of chilly perfection that often plagues the output of metal-fusion acts.

Unsettled’s main flaw lies in the use of programmed drums, though they are nowhere as annoying than on other similar projects. True, their artificial nature occasionally surfaces, marring (albeit slightly) the otherwise warm and engaging sound of the compositions, and making one wonder how the album would sound if Watson had instead gone for the real thing. A couple of tracks also come across as somewhat less cohesive than the others, with abrupt changes in mood and pace that may leave the listener a tad baffled. However, the level of both composition and execution is so consistently high that it amply compensates for these shortcomings.

Running at around 52 minutes, Unsettled is a compact album that strikes the right balance between longer, more complex compositions and shorter numbers with a more direct impact. Watson’s approach definitely helps the listener to concentrate on each number, and appreciate the diversity on offer. Watson always keeps melody at the forefront, opting for power rather than harshness when introducing heavy riffing into the fabric of his songs, so that even the heaviest moments are amazingly tuneful. Opener “The Encounter” is a good example of how Watson merges progressive metal vibes with more sedate moods;  the use of keyboard-based riffs reminded me of Relocator’s self-titled debut (another excellent instrumental album released in 2010), with various electronic effects adding a spacey note, and some remarkable Hammond organ and guitar work. “Sequence of Events”, one of the shortest items on the album at barely over 3 minutes, offers an intense, almost concentrated atmosphere made of brisk keyboard flights and hard-edged riffing reminiscent of classic instrumental metal-fusion; while the brisk, high-energy “Orb” would have been more effective without the overpowering drums and whistling synth sounds.

On the other hand, Watson’s talent emerges most clearly in those tracks where the prog-metal component is kept to a minimum – such as the jazzy, almost funky “The Push”, relying on some fine organ-guitar interplay with a warm, rugged Seventies sound, or the exhilarating “Gray Matter”, propelled by energetic bass and drums and showcasing Watson’s outstanding skills as a guitarist. His soloing here, as well as in the splendid first half of “The Departure”, possesses a clean, melodic feel that evokes  the aforementioned Jeff Beck, as well as another guitar great, Irish legend Gary Moore. While the latter number is somewhat marred by an abrupt change in pace and style towards the end, its slow-burning, wistful first half brought to my mind some of Moore’s more meditative pieces, such as “Sunset”, “The Loner” or “Gary’s Lament”. With “Out of the Mist”, the longest piece on the album (and possibly its highlight), we are presented with a musical version of Ron Eady’s intriguing cover painting, with its romantic, melancholy beginning, backed by strings that add depth to the beautiful strumming of the acoustic and electric guitars, and a second half full of tension and menace, driven by intense riffing and crashing drums.

Though the problem with an album such as Unsettled might lie in its evident metal subtext – which may put off the more conservative jazz-fusion fans – lovers of eclectic instrumental rock will definitely find a lot to enjoy in this finely-crafted effort, an excellent debut from an outstanding musician. In any case, it would be interesting to see Watson branch out and enlist the help of some other musicians, in order to bring his compositions before a live audience.

Links:
http://www.myspace.com/deanwatson2
http://www.roneady.com

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TRACKLISTING:
1. Clear Air Turbulence  (7:35)
2. Five Moons  (7:30)
3. Money Lender  (5:38)
4. Over the Hill (7:14)
5. Goodhand Liza  (5:24)
7. Angel Manchenio  (5:17)

LINEUP:
Ian Gillan – lead vocals
Colin Towns – keyboards, flutes
John Gustafson – bass, vocals
Ray Fenwick – guitars, vocals
Mark Nauseef – drums, percussion
Martin Firth – baritone saxophone
John Huckridge – trumpets
Derek Healey – trumpets
Malcolm Griffiths – trombone
Phil Kersie – tenor saxophone (2)

It would not be too much of an exaggeration to call  Clear Air Turbulence, the second album released by the sadly short-lived Ian Gillan Band, one of the forgotten masterpieces of Seventies progressive rock. For those who think of Ian Gillan as little more than a hirsute hard rock screamer,  even a casual listen to this record may definitely bring somewhat of a shock – and not just because of the vocals.

Following his return to the world of music after a series of unsuccessful business ventures, Ian surrounded himself with a bunch of seasoned musicians (including bassist John Gustafson, of Quatermass and Roxy Music fame), and proceeded to surprise his fans by slowly but inexorably detaching himself from his Deep Purple past. Unfortunately, though, rock fans are not always as open-minded as we would wish them to be, and the project folded after releasing a total of three studio albums, plus a posthumous live one.

When listening to Clear Air Turbulence,  we cannot but regret the demise of such an exciting outfit, offering an incredibly high level of musicianship as well as  creativity. The six tracks on the album, which all exceed the five-minute mark, feature complex, multi-layered structures, enhanced by the discreet presence of a horn section, and distinguished by an overall sense of  sophistication, a lightness of touch seldom associated with Gillan’s mother band. Even Ian’s vocals, while easily recognizable, never really sound like the original ‘air raid siren’ unleashed on the likes of  Machine Head and  Made in Japan.

However, the ace in the hole on Clear Air Turbulence is undoubtedly keyboardist Colin Towns.  Another of the many unsung heroes of the rock world, now a composer of jazz and soundtrack music, Towns joined the band for the recording of this album (replacing original member Mike Moran), and immediately stamped his mark on their music, as well as on the band’s later incarnation – simply called Gillan, and much more akin to Deep Purple in sound, with excursions into outright heavy metal.

Weird, spaced-out keyboard sounds introduce the title-track, surging into a crescendo that soon gives way to a manic, bass- and drum-driven riff, and a wildly exhilarating, 7-minute-plus ride, powered by Towns’ sweeping synthesizers. In the middle section of the song, guitarist Ray Fenwick (a veteran of the British rock scene, formerly with the Spencer Davis Group) demonstrates his skills with a slow-burning, emotional solo. Towns is  also responsible for the delicate flutes on the dreamy, soulful ballad “Five Moons”; while on the funky “Money Lender” horns take pride of place, with Gillan’s  commanding, even aggressive vocal performance somewhat reminiscent of his hard-rockin’ past.

“Over the Hill” (my personal favourite, together with the title-track) showcases drummer Mark Nauseef’s impressive skills, as well as brilliant piano and synth in the bridge, and more understated yet distinctive guitar work. The atmospheric “Good Hand Liza” follows, punctuated by Latin-style percussion and spacey synths, and driven along by John Gustafson’s meaty, dynamic bass lines. The album ends in style with another intricate, highly structured number, the romantic “Angel Manchenio”, dedicated to a Gypsy who became Gillan’s blood brother (an intriguing tale, as told by both the lyrics and the liner notes). The song, which alternates slower, almost Latin-flavoured moments with full-fledged jazzy flights of instrumental and vocal prowess, is probably the furthest Gillan ever strayed away from his hard rock roots, and a perfect closer for such a distinctive album.

At the time of its release, Clear Air Turbulence was not considered rock enough by Deep Purple fans, and probably not jazzy enough by fusion devotees; moreover,  the competition of the fledgling punk scene did it no favours. Over thirty years later, however, it is high time it was recognized as an adventurous, stimulating effort, at times bordering on masterpiece status. It is a sad fact of the music world that, all too often, musicians are much more ready to try new avenues than their fans…  I would encourage my readers not to make the same mistake:  if you love sophisticated, complex jazz-rock/fusion, do not be put off by the name, and get hold of this album.

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TRACKLISTING:
1. Save The Yuppie Breeding Grounds (4:12)
2. Ephebus Amoebus (4:55)
3. Nacho Sunset (4:29)
4. $9 Pay-Per-View Lifetime TV Movie (5:51)
5. Manifest Density (3:55)
6. Uncle Tang’s Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (4:01)
7. Disillusioned Avatar (5:15)
8. Kuru (5:02)
9. Revenge Grandmother (5:11)
10. Staggerin’ (4:41)
11. Middlebräu (6:46)

LINEUP:
Dennis Rea – electric guitar
Ruth Davidson – cello
Alicia Allen – violin
Kevin Millard – bass guitar, baliset
Jay Jaskot – drums

The city of Seattle has long been known as a hotbed for innovative music, from Jimi Hendrix to the grunge movement through progressive metal pioneers Queensryche. For several decades, it has also been the home of globe-trotting guitarist and composer Dennis Rea, originally from upstate New York, but now a full-fledged member of the Pacific Northwest artistic community. While Rea, in  his many years of tireless activity in the realms of creative music-making, has gathered an impressive discography (especially in terms of quality), he has never become a household name as he would have amply deserved. Luckily, the release of Moraine’s debut album in 2009, as well as his first solo album proper, View from Chicheng Precipice, and Iron Kim Style’s debut in 2010, have contributed to putting Rea’s name on the sprawling map of the progressive music scene.

Indeed, Moraine were selected for the 2010 edition of NEARfest, where they elicited quite a lot of interest – in spite of having been described as ‘avant-garde’ on the festival’s press material, a definition which (coupled with their placement in the opening Sunday slot, also known as the ‘rude awakening’, and generally reserved for rather idiosyncratic bands) kept the more conservative members of the audience away from their set. The members of the band, and Rea in particular, were somewhat amused at having been lumped together with much more ‘mainstream’ bands under the all-encompassing prog banner. In these times of derivative acts being peddled as the best thing since sliced bread, Moraine were possibly the most genuinely progressive band on the bill – though, as purveyors of hard-to-pinpoint music, they left some of the more label-happy members of the audience a tad baffled.

Although instrumental albums are seemingly a dime a dozen these days, Manifest Density (a brilliant pun on one of the most obnoxious aspects of US history) is not your average cookie-cutter instance of amazing chops unencumbered by soul and emotion. With a total of 11 tracks averaging 5 minutes in length  (the longest running at under 7 minutes),  and all of the five band members but drummer Jay Jaskot contributing to the compositional process, it is very much an ensemble effort, a collection of contemporary chamber rock pieces that comes with a liberal helping of almost Canterbury-like dry wit – though more geared to 21st-century American society. The essential input of the violin may draw comparisons with bands such as King Crimson circa Larks’ Tongue in Aspic or Mahavishnu Orchestra, while the pervasive presence of the cello may bring to mind Swedish Gothic proggers Anekdoten. However, in Moraine’s sound the cello’s unmistakable drone does not create the same kind of claustrophobic atmosphere, but rather adds that kind of depth that is generally supplied by the keyboards in the output of more conventional prog bands.

Since the individual members of Moraine have parallel involvements in a number of very diverse projects, ranging from jazz to stoner rock, it will not come as a surprise that eclecticism is the name of the game on Manifest Density. However, those anticipating a hodge-podge of disparate ideas that ultimately do not coalesce would be making the wrong assumption: the album as a whole impresses for its cohesion, even allowing for the different compositional styles of each band member. While Dennis Rea’s compositions (such as “Kuru” or “Staggerin’”) tend to favour a jazzier, more experimental style, two of the three tracks penned by co-founder Ruth Davidson (“$9 Pay-Per-View Lifetime TV Movie” and “Revenge Grandmother”) possess a wistful, low-key quality, shared by Alicia Allen’s deeply lyrical “Disillusioned Avatar”. On the other hand, album opener “Save the Yuppie Breeding Grounds”, also written by Davidson, is an energetic yet haunting number with a strong Crimsonian vibe; while bassist Kevin Millard’s “Ephebus Amoebus” opens in a slow, atmospheric fashion, then develops into a frenzied workout, with guitar and violin sparring with each other.

The quirky track titles inject a welcome dose of humour into the proceedings – a recurring feature in the work of other modern instrumental bands, but which Moraine (and especially Dennis Rea) seem to have got down to a fine art. Actually, the titles fit the musical content astonishingly well: “Uncle Tang’s Cabinet of Dr Caligari” is suitably dissonant, at times chaotic, with subtle Gothic undertones; while the upbeat “Nacho Sunset”, embellished by stunningly clear, lilting guitar work and gentle violin, has a relaxed, almost Latin feel. Though the album’s sound is mostly driven by the flawlessly intricate interplay between Rea’s distinctive guitar and Allen’s versatile violin lyrical and assertive in turns, none of the other instruments is confined to a mere supporting role, and each of them contributes in keeping the sonic texture tight. An excellent example of this is album closer (and personal favourite) “Middlebräu”: after a funky first half, propelled by magnificent bass and drums (very much in classic jazz-rock vein),  a pause signals an abrupt change of pace, and the beginning of a simply magnificent, almost slo-mo coda featuring an intense, meditative guitar solo (the closest Rea comes to a traditional rock solo).

When Moraine performed at NEARfest, their lineup had changed, with obvious consequences for their sound. Ruth Davidson and Jay Jaskot had moved away from Seattle, and been replaced by  drummer Stephen T Cavit (also an award-winning composer of film and TV scores), and woodwind player Jim DeJoie ( now Alicia Allen’s husband). The switch from cello to woodwinds lent the music a brighter, but also slightly more angular quality, reminiscent of those bands, such as Henry Cow, on the more experimental end of the Canterbury scene. This bodes well for the band’s second album, which is already in the works at the time of writing. In the spring of 2011 Moraine will also embark on a tour of the US East Coast, with dates at the New Jersey Proghouse and the legendary Orion Studios in Baltimore already confirmed. Catch them if you can – they are a very entertaining live act, and Manifest Density qualifies as one of the most promising debut albums of the past decade in the progressive music field.

Links:
http://www.moraineband.com

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TRACKLISTING:
1. September Song (9.27)
2. Antarctica  (9.05)
3. The Byways  (4.17)
4. Orange Ice  (10.20)
5. Concrete, Glass, Steel  (4.37)
6. Four Faradays in a Cage  (16.25)

LINEUP:
John MacNeill – keyboards
Mike Marando – bass guitar
John Orsi – drumset, percussion
Don Sullivan – guitar, guitar-to-MIDI

Based in Providence, Rhode Island (USA), instrumental quartet Incandescent Sky are part of the roster of fine musicians signed to the label It’s Twilight Time – founded in 1994 by musicians/composers John Orsi and Michael Watson, and home to a number of highly interesting acts. I first came across the label in the late spring of 2009, when I was sent Knitting By Twilight’s album An Evening Out of Town to review – by a fortunate coincidence, that album was to be the very first review I wrote for the site I collaborated with until recently. Because of the almost complete lack of exposure that It’s Twilight Time’s output has received so far – even in terms of specialized press and websites – very few people have had the opportunity to know the beautiful music produced by Orsi and his cohorts, as well as the stunning artwork accompanying each of their releases. As the caption on the label’s website recites, its acts provide ‘works of whimsy, wonder and wistful thinking’ – which is as apt a description as they come.

Four Faradays in a Cage (a pun referring to an electrical device called Faraday cage) is the third CD release by Incandescent Sky, following Glorious Stereo (2003) and Paths and Angles (2005). Originally recorded in September 2007 during a live improvisation session, the album was only committed to CD in 2010. It is therefore alike in conception to a number of other albums I have recently reviewed, seemingly going against the grain of the modern tendency to spend ages in the studio in order to get things ‘right’. These ‘live in the studio’ efforts, while sounding anything but shoddy or haphazard, inject a welcome sense of freshness and spontaneity into today’s often contrived approach to music-making.

Tagged on their own website as ‘an inventive improvisational instrumental ensemble’ (yes, Orsi does like his alliterations!), Incandescent Sky prove true to their definition, as it immediately becomes obvious when listening to Four Faradays in a Cage. In spite of the improvisational nature of the six compositions presented on the album, there is nothing sloppy about them. While there are some similarities in pattern, each track has got its own individuality, which prevents the album as a whole from sounding repetitive. The end result is a disc chock full of music that is in turn hypnotic, invigorating and deeply atmospheric, mainly based on a traditional rock instrumentation though making judicious use of cutting-edge technology. Running at about 53 minutes, it never overstays its welcome, with the two shorter tracks nicely balancing the longer offerings. In spite of the obvious talent and experience of the musicians involved, Four Faradays in a Cage always steers clear of spotlighting any of the band members’ individual chops at the expense of the bigger picture – a fine example of how talent can be effectively put to the service of the music, and not the other way around.

All of the six compositions possess a rich texture, to which all the instruments contribute in a distinctive yet somewhat understated fashion. The music feels spacious, beautifully flowing, yet at times almost seething with intensity. Most importantly, though some occasional references to external sources can be picked out, it sounds original in a way that has become increasingly rare in these days of unashamedly derivative productions. It might be said that describing the individual numbers is simple and at the same time rather demanding. Unlike so many ‘mainstream’ prog recordings, where the complexity is shoved right in the listener’s face – often with the unwelcome result of obliterating any sense of genuine emotion – Four Faradays in a Cage comes across as an extremely emotional album. However, there is also a sense of energy emanating from the music, which is not at odds with the delicate, melancholy nature of some of its parts.

“September Song” sums up the album’s main features, as well as rendering its title quite perfectly in musical terms. Opening with sparse, spacey keyboards and guitar, it develops into an airy, slow-paced composition, with Don Sullivan’s clear, relaxed guitar occasionally bringing to mind Pink Floyd’s David Gilmour, or Pat Metheny when it adopts a lower register in the second half of the track. Propelled by Orsi’s impeccably creative percussion work, the tempo increases, slightly at first, then steadily, until the piece reaches a climax – a pattern that can be noticed in most of the tracks, although with variations. The following number, “Anctartica”, manages to conjure views of the icy, windswept wastes of the titular continent through the ebb and flow of the keyboards and the slow-burning interplay of drums and guitar which, especially towards the end, creates a mesmerizing ambient mood.

While “The Byways”, the shortest track on the album, acts as a laid-back, hypnotic interlude where the guitar seems to follow the pattern laid out by the drums, further enhanced by electronic effects, the intriguingly-titled “Orange Ice” brings the listener into Vangelis territory, with its steadily surging waves of electronic keyboards, and the guitar sounding almost suspended in time and space – though the second half sees the drums and bass take the lead, setting an almost military pace spiked by slashes of electronics. Not surprisingly, seen its title, “Concrete, Glass, Steel” brims with energy reminiscent of the third incarnation of King Crimson (albeit mellowed out by melodic keyboard work), and introduces the tour de force that is the 16-minute title-track – a stunning workout of really epic proportions where all the instruments strive together in order to create a densely textured, somewhat cinematic soundscape that at times feels like King Crimson on steroids. Synthetizers are pushed to the forefront, with keyboardist John MacNeill delivering passages that might comfortably sit in Keith Emerson’s oeuvre. As usual, Orsi’s outstanding drumming, bolstered by Mike Marando’s ever-reliable bass, is the driving force behind the composition, punctuating wild keyboard flights and unleashed guitar exertions, then slowing things down until all the instruments gradually subside.

The above description should make it clear that Four Faradays in a Cage is much more likely to appeal to lovers of instrumental music that combines technical skill with hefty doses of ambiance and emotion, rather than to worshippers of anything fast and flashy. It is, indeed, an album to be savoured slowly and carefully, in order to appreciate its moments of sheer beauty, as well as its moody intensity and the subtle yet flawless interaction between the instruments. Highly recommended to all fans of genuinely progressive music (as well as drum enthusiasts, who should check out John Orsi’s magnificent performance), it will hopefully encourage my readers to get acquainted with the remarkable talents gathered under the It’s Twilight Time banner.

Links:
http://www.incandescentsky.com
http://www.itstwilightmusic.com

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TRACKLISTING:
1. U-5  (7:13)
2. BB-2  (5:07)
3. Q-1  (7:39)
4. W-1A  (3:21)
5. W-5  (7:28)
6. W-1B  (2:19)
7. T-6  (4:55)
8. AA-5  (5:41)
9. Q-2  (7:19)
10. AA-4  (5:04)

LINEUP:
Willie Oteri – guitars, live loops
Dave Laczko – trumpet, effects

With:
Dino J.A. Deane – lap steel dulcimer, beat jockey
Scott Amendola – drums, percussion

Born in California, though currently based in the university town of Austin (Texas),  guitarist and composer Willie Oteri is something that has become increasingly rare in this day and age – a professional musician. Although he may not be a household name for most readers of this blog, he has got as impressive a  résumé as they come, with numerous high-profile collaborations under his belt (he has worked with the likes of Tony Levin, Pat Mastelotto, Mike Keneally and Stu Hamm). His latest project, WD-41, was put together in 2009 by Oteri and trumpeter Dave Laczko, after Oteri came back from spending almost four years in the Italian town of Padova (home to one of the oldest universities in the Western world). Indeed, the album’s Italian-language title pays homage to Oteri’s own roots, as well as his love for the boot-shaped Mediterranean peninsula.

Unlike WD-41’s debut album, entirely performed by just Oteri and Laczko, Temi Per Cinema sees the participation of two guest musicians (as implied by the +2 added to the outfit’s name) – multi-instrumentalist Dino J.A. Deane (known for his collaborations with John Zorn and Jon Hassell) and drummer Scott Amendola. Their presence adds depth to compositions that are largely based on live loops, with Oteri and Laczko creating trippy, highly cinematic soundscapes, at times soothing, at others somewhat disquieting. Though the guitar, together with the trumpet, is the main driving force of the album, Temi Per Cinema can be said to be the polar opposite of those ‘guitar hero’ efforts who seem to be very popular nowadays, especially with the younger generations. Thankfully, there is no shredding involved here, nor any such vanity showcases: for Oteri, the guitar is a starting point for a variegated range of modes of expression, a means to an end rather than an end in itself.

Though not really alike sound-wise, I believe Temi Per Cinema might be successfully compared to two albums released earlier this year by another guitarist driven by a rather unconventional creative impulse – Seattle’s very own Dennis Rea. In particular, the album shares its wholly improvised (though far from haphazard) nature with Iron Kim Style’s self-titled debut – though the latter has a more ‘mainstream’ jazz-rock bent; while its meditative yet intense atmospheres bring to mind Rea’s View from Chicheng Precipice (reviewed elsewhere on this blog). Oteri and Rea are both artists whose passion for music shines throughout their work, both keen on exploring their instrument’s endless possibilities beyond a conventional rock approach.

Oddly enough, while undeniably anything but an easy, comfortable listen, Temi Per Cinema is not the kind of album that will fade in the background unless approached with the utmost concentration. On the contrary (probably on account of  its essentially ‘soundtrack-y’ nature), its demanding, frequently angular musical content possesses an undefinable quality that seems to capture the listener’s attention. Apparently unstructured, yet never gratuitously chaotic, it takes elements from ambient, free-jazz, avant-garde and psychedelic/space rock and fuses them in a compelling though challenging  mélange.

Running at a very sensible 52 minutes, Temi Per Cinema features ten numbers that, while sharing a similar mood and conception, are in no way carbon copies of each other – indeed, repeated listens will reveal peculiarities and otherwise hidden nuances. Interestingly, none of the tracks have been given conventional titles – a highly unusual choice, whose main aim is to encourage the listener’s own interpretation of the music by eliminating the images normally conjured by conventional titles. By rendering their compositions somehow impersonal, Oteri and Laczko try to promote a more active role on the part of the listener – in the words of Miles Davis, “Call it Anything”.

With track times ranging from 7 to 2 minutes, Temi Per Cinema lends itself equally well to being approached  piecemeal and as an organic whole. Opener “U-5” presents a subtle yet clearly perceivable Eastern spicing amidst the moody, ambient-like waves of electronic effects punctuated by Laczko’s floating trumpet – a dense, multilayered track, with all the instruments blending and sparring at the same time. The eerie, intensely atmospheric “Q-1”, led by the mournful sound of the trumpet, brought to my mind images of the vast expanse of the sea, reinforced by Oteri’s low-key guitar work; while in the entrancing “W-5” the guitar takes centre stage, albeit in a slow, measured way, creating the perfect soundtrack for a vintage Gothic movie. On the other hand, other tracks (such as “BB-2” and “W-1B”) come across as distinctly free-form, and quite devoid of melody (at least intended in a conventional sense) – therefore much harder to swallow for the more conservative set.

Temi Per Cinema is, indeed, the kind of album that not every fan of progressive rock is bound to appreciate. While the actual ‘rock’ component is rather thin on the ground, at least in conventional terms, the lead role played by the trumpet may put off those who generally shun jazz. However, fans of King Crimson, Robert Fripp’s solo output (with or without Brian Eno), and all those bands (like, for instance, US prog veterans The Muffins) whose line-up and compositional approach somewhat diverge from the mainstream rock tradition, are likely to warm to this impressive effort, brought to us by an extremely talented, dedicated duo of musicians who clearly deserve more exposure.

Links:
http://www.myspace.com/wd41music

http://www.myspace.com/willieoteri

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