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)
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.