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Archive for February, 2011

TRACKLISTING:
1. Verso l’Alba (2:52)
2. Insolita Parte di Me  (7:20)
3. Boccadasse  (5:20)
4. Le Due Metà della Notte  (5:18)
5. La Stanza Nascosta  (5:10)
6. Danza Esoterica di Datura  (6.07)
7. Faldistorum  (6:06)
8. L’Attesa  (4:36)
9. Il Centro Sottile  (9:39)
10. Antidoto Mentale  (3:30)

LINEUP:
Stefano “Lupo” Galifi  – vocals
Elisa Montaldo – piano, keyboards, organ, concertina, vocals, sound effects
Fabio Gremo – bass
Giulio Canepa – guitars
Paolo Tixi – drums

With:
Max Manfredi – voice (7)
Antonio Fantinuoli – cello (5)

Known outside Italy as the hometown of Christopher Columbus, the bustling seaport of Genoa has had a long tradition as a hotbed of musical creativity – starting as far back as the late 18th century with legendary violinist Niccolò Paganini. Then, in the early 1960s came the ‘Genoese school of singer-songwriters’, whose foremost representative, Fabrizio De André, is known to prog fans for his collaboration with PFM. About ten years later, a number of influential progressive rock bands were formed,  such as Delirium and New Trolls – two outfits that are still producing great music in the early 21st century. In particular, Delirium’s comeback album of 2009, Il Nome del Vento (reviewed elsewhere on this blog) stood out among the plethora of prog releases for successfully marrying the glorious heritage of Italian prog with a thoroughly modern sound quality. The same accomplished nature is shared by this stunning debut by Delirium’s label mates (and fellow Genoese) Il Tempio delle Clessidre.

Named after the final section of the titular suite of Museo Rosenbach’s one-off Zarathustra – one of the most iconic albums of the Italian Seventies – Il Tempio delle Clessidre (“The Temple of Hourglasses”) have been around since the summer of 2006, when keyboardist Elisa Montaldo and bassist Gabriele Guidi Colombi met former Museo Rosenbach vocalist Stefano “Lupo” Galifi. The idea that brought the band together was to perform the whole of the Zarathustra album live on stage with Museo Rosenbach’s original singer, using vintage instruments, and subsequently start penning original compositions inspired by the spirit of the golden years of Italian prog. After some line-up changes, Il Tempio delle Clessidre’s self-titled debut album was released in September 2010 by Genoa-based label Black Widow Records.

For all its cult status, Italian prog can be seen as very much of an acquired taste – mainly on account of its operatic, occasionally overblown nature, especially as regards the vocal department. In this respect, Galifi’s warm, bluesy vocals (also heard on one track of Delirium’s 2009 album), which add an emotional yet somehow informal note to the lush textures of the band’s music, are definitely Il Tempio delle Clessidre’s not-so-secret weapon. The tightly organized compositions, never gratuitously meandering, strike the right balance between melody and complexity, without a second wasted in pointless noodling, and with enough changes of pace to make the most demanding prog fan happy. Although the singing is strongly emphasized,  there is also a lot of room for the instrumentalists to display their considerable chops. Indeed, the pristine sound quality allows each of the musicians’ performances to shine, and captures every nuance of Galifi’s seasoned vocal delivery, honed in years of fronting blues-rock bands; while the pronounced melodic bent tempers the intensity of the lyrics and the dense esoteric symbolism of the cover art and booklet.

Interestingly, with the sole exception of the almost 10-minute “Il Centro Sottile”, the tracks on the album are all relatively short, with an average running time of 5 minutes. The album itself, at about 55 minutes, is markedly shorter than the majority of current prog releases, some of which skirt the 80-minute mark. Those who appreciate the instrumental aspect of progressive rock rather than the vocal one will be glad to learn that Il Tempio delle Clessidre manages to balance both sides quite admirably. Opener “Verso l’Alba”, the only completely instrumental track on the album, sets the scene with the deep, Gothic sound of the organ and wind-like effects, developing into a keyboard- and guitar-driven piece reminiscent of a heavier Genesis. “Insolita Parte di Me”, at 7 minutes the second longest track, alternating quieter passages with more dramatic ones, dominated by Elisa Montaldo’s magnificent keyboards, is a perfect example of how the band manage to achieve the structural complexity typical of prog without sacrificing the unique Italian attention to melody. Montaldo, who is the main composer together with bassist Fabio Gremo, handles her array of instruments with impressive skill and flair. “Le Due Metà della Notte”, interpreted with warmth and feeling by Galifi, is a splendid keyboard showcase that combines melody and intensity; while in the sedate “La Stanza Nascosta” the piano and Galifi’s stunning vocals conjure a melancholy, meditative atmosphere. On the other hand, the mid-paced “Boccadasse” (dedicated to a picturesque mariner’s neighbourhood of Genoa) is a more conventionally structured song, with a very catchy chorus and a beautiful, melodic guitar solo.

However, it is the two central numbers that prove to be the most distinctive, in keeping with Black Widow’s keen interest in the mystical and the esoteric. “Danza Esoterica di Datura”, as the title implies, opens with a brisk, dance-like pace, and culminates with an extract from Shakespeare’s Macbeth, chanted by Montaldo in tense, dramatic fashion; some of the keyboard inserts are appropriately reminiscent of Goblin’s Dario Argento soundtracks, such as the renowned Profondo Rosso. The cryptically-titled “Faldistorum” sees the Hammond organ take the lead in parallel with the drums, introducing a male voice reciting a short text in an emphatic, melodic yet slightly ominous manner, reinforced by the closing strains of a church organ. The following “L’Attesa”, a rich, energetic keyboard-fest, is very much in the vein of classic Italian heavy progressive acts such as Il Balletto di Bronzo and Biglietto per l’Inferno; while in the solemnly melodic “Il Centro Sottile” all the instruments strive to create a lush texture that can bring to mind Genesis or Banco del Mutuo Soccorso in their heyday. After a somewhat lengthy pause, the album is wrapped up by the poppy, rather undistinguished “Antidoto Mentale”, which in my view is the only track that smacks a bit of filler.

Blending the warmth and melodic flair of the Mediterranean musical tradition with the driving energy of rock and the artistic ambition of prog, Il Tempio delle Clessidre’s debut deserves to be hailed as one of the standout releases of 2010, and one of the most promising albums to have come out of Italy in a long while. While taking their cue from the music produced in the Seventies – and, thankfully, not pretending to reinvent the wheel – the band manage to sound fresh and up-to-date, and not a mere exercise in nostalgia. A flawlessly performed, lovingly presented effort, Il Tempio delle Clessidre will surely bring a lot of listening pleasure to the many fans of Italian progressive rock.

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

http://www.museo.it

http://www.blackwidow.it

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TRACKLISTING:
1. A Visit to Newport Hospital (8:25)
2. Contrasong (4:21)
3. Boilk (9:23)
4. Long Piece No. 3 –  Part One (5:06)
5. Long Piece No. 3 –  Part Two (7:39)
6. Long Piece No. 3 –  Part Three (8:01)
7. Long Piece No. 3 –  Part Four (2:51)

LINEUP:
Mont Campbell – bass, vocals, organ, piano, French horn
Dave Stewart – organ, piano, tone generator
Clive Brooks – drums

With:
Henry Lowther – trumpet (2)
Mike Davis – trumpet (2)
Bob Downes – tenor sax (2)
Tony Roberts – tenor sax (2)

Released in 1971, Egg’s sophomore effort is one of those albums that, in a way, can be said to be representative of a whole movement, though they rarely get the appreciation they deserve. Though “Canterbury scene” may sound rather vague as a definition, being more about a place than an actual musical style, it is nonetheless undeniable that most of the bands and artists associated with this most peculiar subgenre do share a number of features that go beyond their somewhat ‘incestuous’ sharing of personnel. Many see the output of the  “Canterbury scene” as a subsection of jazz-rock with poppy leanings and occasional excursions into more avant-garde territory; however, to these ears at least, the best Canterbury outfits offer a complete progressive package of humour, sophistication, diverse influences, and remarkable musical chops. Quintessentially English,  with a timeless feel that often eludes the more stereotyped instances of symphonic prog, the Canterbury sound commands fierce devotion, though its quirky nature can also leave listeners somewhat cold.

To all intents and purposes, Egg was a continuation of Uriel, the psychedelic progressive quartet that also included guitarist Steve Hillage (later with Khan and Gong), whose only album was released in 1969 under the name of Arzachel.  After Hillage left, the three remaining members took a different, more experimental route, pushing the keyboards at the forefront, and dabbling in those genre-defining contaminations between rock and classical music – as witnessed by “Fugue in D Minor” and “Symphony No.2”, both featured on their 1970 self-titled debut album.

In spite of its cult status among true-blue Canterbury fans, The Polite Force is generally not rated as highly as the likes of Third or In the Land of Grey and Pink. Some reviewers have even hinted at comparisons with the much-reviled ELP – owing to the similar configuration of both bands – which, unfortunately, does not do the album any favours. Now, though I consider ELP one of the most influential bands in the history of progressive rock, and rate their first five studio albums quite highly, I do not find the connection between their sound and Egg’s as evident as some maintain. While The Polite Force is very much a showcase for Dave Stewart’s distinctive style, and therefore a real delight for keyboard fans, it would also be unfair to state that the band is dominated by him. In fact,  bassist/vocalist Monty Campbell and drummer Clive Brooks (who joined blues-rock trio The Groundhogs after Egg’s demise) do not just function as supporting cast for Stewart’s keyboard antics, but drive the band’s sound along with their impressive, though understated, skills. Campbell is also a vocalist very much in the classic Canterbury mould, with a polite (pun unintended), pleasant voice that is the perfect complement to the band’s quirky, complex sound.

Though seven tracks are listed on the back cover, the album actually comprises four compositions, one of which, “Long Piece No.3” is divided into four parts. “A Visit to Newport Hospital” is one of the most impressive openers to be found on a Canterbury album – introduced by an almost Sabbath-like riff, heavy and plodding, which suddenly loosens up into a cheery, sprightly organ section. The gently ironical lyrics, relating some of the band’s experiences in their Uriel days, are an unobtrusive yet essential accompaniment to Stewart’s elegantly assertive organ; Brooks’ drumming underpins everything with a discreet touch.  The song then comes full circle, ending with the same gritty organ riff as it began.  In the following “Contrasong” a full-blown horns quartet punctuates Stewart’s dynamic piano forays and Campbell’s urgent vocals, with a basic 5/8 9/8 pattern reminiscent of Gentle Giant’s counterpoint arrangements; Stewart switches to organ later during the song, propelling it forward in parallel with Brook’s drumming, and the horns coming in bursts.  Next comes the somewhat controversial “Boilk”, a full-fledged avant-garde piece almost 10 minutes long, very much in the vein of King Crimson’s “Moonchild”. The composition, which had already appeared on Egg’s debut (though in shorter form), opens with the sound of running water, and includes improvisations on a Bach theme, tolling bells and a host of other effects.

The album closes with the ‘epic’ instrumental “Long Piece No.3”, about 20 minutes long if taken as a whole – though its four parts are listed separately. As the liner notes point out, the ‘outer’ parts (One and Four) are rhythmically based, while the ‘inner’ ones are harmonically based. Interestingly, the whole composition comes across as somewhat fragmented, with frequent pauses breaking up the flow of the music. Part One opens with Stewart’s briskly repetitive organ, assisted by Campbell on piano and organ, and driven along by Brooks’ skilful drumming. Part Two immediately introduces Stewart’s fluid organ, with the drums going back to a supporting role (though essential), and a palpably more melodic texture – though its central section contains a sort of improvisational organ piece that might bring “Boilk” to mind. Campbell’s bass introduces the textbook-Canterbury Part Three, with its almost military drum pattern, unbridled organ flights (sometimes reminiscent of Soft Machine’s Mike Ratledge), and tone generator adding wailing, guitar-like effects. Part Four wraps up the album in a short but intense climax, driven along by frantic drumming and harsh, fuzzed organ.

As Edward Macan intimates in his book Rocking the Classics, The Polite Force can be seen as bridging the gap between keyboard-based symphonic prog and the jazzier, quirkier sound typical of the Canterbury scene. Definitely one of the finest moments of  Stewart’s career, its eclectic nature – featuring as it does avant-garde experimentation, more or less ‘conventional’ songs, classical touches and plenty of instrumental brilliance –is likely to appeal to a wide range of fans of progressive music. While not a full-blown masterpiece like Third or The Rotters’ Club, it is doubtlessly one of the most interesting productions coming from the variegated Canterbury universe – and as such highly recommended.

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TRACKLISTING:
1. The Cave (23:35)
2. White Light, No Heat (11:28)
3. God’s Elastic Acre (18:16)
4. Sati & The Trainman (11:14)

LINEUP:
Gayle Ellett – analog and digital keyboards, electric guitar, effects
Chuck Oken, Jr. – analog, digital and modular keyboards, electronic percussion, effects, loop processing and reconstruction

With:
Richard Pinhas – guitar loops (1-3)

Ukab Maerd’s The Waiting Room, the second of Djam Karet’s side projects to be  released in 2010, is a very different affair from Mike Henderson’s song-oriented White Arrow Project. The brainchild of Djam Karet’s founding members Gayle Ellet and Chuck Oken, Jr., with legendary French musician Richard Pinhas guesting on three out of four tracks, Ukab Maerd (“Baku Dream” spelled backwards – a reference to DK’s 2003 album A Night for Baku) is a vehicle for the creation of hypnotic soundscapes inspired by the European electronic music of the Seventies. The two musicians describe the album’s content as mind music that draws its inspiration from dream language and Surrealist art – a definition that fits it to a T.

While neither an expert nor a dedicated listener of progressive electronic music, I recognize its importance both in historical and artistic terms, and The Waiting Room provides a fine example of the possibilities offered by technology. Even if its running time of about 64 minutes (divided into four tracks, none under 11 minutes) might turn it into an ordeal for people who are not used to listening to music produced almost exclusively with electronic instruments, the album undeniably possesses a mesmerizing quality, at least if taken in judicious doses. As can be expected, the main points of reference are German giants such as Tangerine Dream and Klaus Schulze, as well as their followers from other European countries (including Pinhas’ former band Heldon). Most of the album was recorded live at two different performances by Ellett and Oken, with Pinhas’ parts added subsequently.

Many people are put off by electronic music on account of its supposedly cold, overly cerebral nature, unlike warmer, more down-to-earth musical forms such as rock or blues. While this may in some respects not be entirely wrong, the music presented on The Waiting Room intrigues and captures in a sharply different fashion than guitar-driven rock, progressive or otherwise. As the pointed out in the press release, it is music that appeals to the mind rather than the body, conceived to be listened to with some degree of concentration, and therefore always at risk of fading in the background if used as a soundtrack for other activities. With a minimal amount of percussion, and guitars manipulated in such a way as to become unrecognizable, the music ebbs and flows with hypnotic regularity, while all kinds of electronic sound effects enhance the moods and atmospheres created by layers of synthesizers.

“The Cave” evokes the titular place with uncanny accuracy, eerie sounds suggesting machinery or sloshing underground waters, the keyboards surging in waves or subsiding with a movement that may come across as monotonous, but also subtly unsettling and quite fascinating. The following “White Light, No Heat” alternates between majestic keyboard surges that create a sense of keen tension and disturbing industrial noises, replaced in the second half by tinkling yet vaguely robotic keys; while “God’s Elastic Acre” unfolds in a cinematic sweep underpinned by clanging, echoing sounds, droning and bubbling noises, while the solemn tone of the keyboards takes on a more upbeat, Eastern-tinged note towards the end. Album closer “Sati and the Trainman”, the more accessible number by far, revolves around a pulsating synth line paralleled by a slower, more atmospheric tune that suggests a train running through a darkened, slightly sinister landscape.

Needless to say, devotees of this particular genre will be able to show The Waiting Room the appreciation it deserves; while those listeners who can only process small quantities of almost completely electronic music might find it a bit too demanding to sit through the whole 64 minutes, and decide instead to break the album into separate segments. On any account, The Waiting Room is a fine example of vintage progressive electronics, and –  even for those who, like me, have never been keen followers of electronic music – it is very much worth a listen.

Links:
http://www.myspace.com/ukabmaerd
http://www.djamkaret.com

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TRACKLISTING:
1 Never Be The Same (3:18)
2. Rage (4:37)
3. Lasso (5:17)
4. Stone Wall (4:19)
5. Emergence (4:40)
6. Starting Over (4:44)
7. Can’t Wait Anymore (4:18)
8. Equinox (5:34)
9. Goddess (4:32)
10. Continuum (6:28)
11. Read My Mind (5:02)
12. Summertime (4:37)

LINEUP:
Mike Henderson –  acoustic and electric guitars, bass, synthesizers, hand and electronic percussion, mandolin, effects
Caroline Dourley – vocals
Jack Housen – vocals, bouzouki, guitar (11)
Chuck Oken, Jr – drums
Dion Sorrell – electric cello, bass (5)

The year 2010 saw the release of two albums by side projects of members of historic US prog outfit Djam Karet, along with the band’s live-in-the-studio album The Heavy Soul Sessions. While Chuck Oken, Jr and Gayle Ellett explore electronic progressive music with Ukab Maerd,  guitarist Mike Henderson is responsible for this largely acoustic, song-oriented White Arrow Project. According to the accompanying press release, the album took many years to complete, and, though all its participants live in the same Southern Californian town, this is the first time they have actually worked together on the same project. While this lends the album a warm, endearingly ‘homemade’ feel, light years removed from the contrived nature of so many mainstream productions, White Arrow Project sounds definitely more streamlined than most of Djam Karet’s output. Not that it should come as a surprise to long-time fans of the band, who are by now quite used to its members’ need for branching out and expanding their sonic horizons – as also witnessed by the two albums released in the past couple of years by Gayle Ellett’s acoustic side project Fernwood.

Though the album is solely credited to Henderson, who lends his distinctive guitar style to the compositions (as well as playing most of the other instruments), the musicians involved (including Chuck Oken, Jr. on drums) form a very tight unit, whose contribution is essential to the fabric of the sound. Employing both male and female vocals, White Arrow Project is a quintessentially melodic offering,  with quite a few catchy, almost poppy moments (such as closing track “Summertime”) and a distinct lack of hard edges. The album lacks any numbers longer than 6 minutes, most of them featuring vocals and keeping a steady, relaxed mid-pace. The press release mentions influences such as Kate Bush, Dead Can Dance and Brian Eno, and the moody, atmospheric nature of the  instrumental tracks may indeed bring the latter musician to mind. The similarity between some of the songs and Kate Bush’s output is also quite remarkable, particularly as regards the presence of the bouzouki’s distinctive metallic twang. On the other hand,  I have found the Dead Can Dance comparisons somewhat more tenuous – since neither of the vocalists (while perfectly adequate) reaches the stellar level of Lisa Gerrard and Brendan Perry, nor does the music possess the same deeply haunting quality.

Out of the 12 tracks featured on the album, most involve singing of some sort, which, in my view, often detracts from the musical aspect instead of enhancing it as it should. Caroline Dourley, with her well-trained, well-modulated voice, only sings on a handful of tracks, the majority being performed by Jack Housen – whose contribution on the bouzouki is an essential component of the album’s overall sound. However, I found his vocals rather disappointing, at times reminiscent of Gordon Haskell on King Crimson’s Lizard, though not as grating. The presence of a truly commanding male voice such as the aforementioned Brendan Perry would have lifted the level of the album from merely pleasant to actually memorable.

Not surprisingly, then, the true highlights of this album are provided by the three instrumentals, showing that the group of musicians are indeed a finely-tuned unit. The Eastern-flavoured “Emergence” (where the Dead Can Dance comparisons surface most strongly), “Equinox”, with its acoustic/electric interplay, and the hauntingly percussive “Continuum” meld gentle, folksy strains and New-Age-tinged electronics, creating soothing textures and intriguing soundscapes. As to the vocal tracks, I found those performed by Caroline Dourley more impressive than the ones featuring Jack Housen (with the exception of the muted, hypnotic “Stone Wall”). On “Lasso”, Dourley’s subdued vocals forms a backdrop for the instruments rather than the other way round; while the Celtic undertones of “Can’t Wait Anymore” may bring to mind Clannad’s more recent output.

A lovingly crafted album by a group of gifted musicians, White Arrow Project is likely to appeal to those who like folk- and ambient-tinged music with a nice balance between vocal and instrumental parts – as well as those who are looking for some respite from the demands of the weightier instances of prog. With a very manageable running time of 57 minutes, it is a very listener-friendly disc without being overtly commercial, performed with passion and skill. On the other hand, its pleasant but not quite memorable nature might cause it to be overlooked among the glut of progressive or quasi-progressive albums that are flooding the market.

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

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As the name of this blog should make it quite clear, I have been a major Blue Öyster Cult fan for the past 30 years or so. They are one of the very few acts whose complete discography I own, and their albums are a constant presence in my CD player. On the other hand, my love for them is something that I would be hard put to explain. How can a long-time follower of progressive rock be so keen on a band whose output is generally recognized as tangential to prog at best, and be instead rather indifferent to the widely-worshipped likes of Genesis?

Called anything from ‘the American Black Sabbath’ (even though they actually sound nothing like Iommi’s crew) to ‘the thinking man’s heavy metal band’ (as if metal was the sole prerogative of Neanderthals) throughout the almost 40 years of their career, BÖC managed to achieve a measure of stardom through their mega-hit “Don’t Fear the Reaper” and another couple of very successful songs. For a number of years, between the late Seventies and the early Eighties, they played to sold-out arenas before they entered a stage of apparently unstoppable decline (at least as regards commercial success) – which led them to lose their deal with Sanctuary Records, so that their latest studio album, Curse of the Hidden Mirror, was released almost ten years ago.

Blue Öyster Cult are one of those rare bands who appeal to both mind and body, capable of dishing out powerful rockers and catchy radio anthems, as well as complex, thought-provoking compositions with more than a nod to progressive rock – often in the space of a single album. Even if, over the years, they have lost three of their original members (the Bouchard brothers and keyboardist Allen Lanier, who retired from the music scene a few years ago), they have soldiered on, impervious to the setbacks, and delivering the goods whenever on stage. In spite of their lack of a recording deal (and consequently any new material), they have never stopped touring, even if the only two founding members left, Eric Bloom and Donald “Buck Dharma” Roeser, are in their mid-sixties, and are still a major draw for American and European audiences – as proved yesterday evening by the crowd that greeted them at Baltimore’s Bourbon Street.

Though it can hardly be denied that the quaintly-named venue in downtown Baltimore is quite unlike the arenas that BÖC used to fill back in their heyday, the reception that the band got yesterday evening was as warm and enthusiastic as it was in those years, and probably even more so. A friendly, welcoming space on the ground floor of a Victorian red brick building, with plenty of room for standing (as well as a few stools and tables for those needing to rest their legs) and well-stocked bars lining the walls, the Ballroom at Bourbon Street possesses all the character lacking in those more comfortable, yet soulless arenas without being disreputable – with a raised stage that allows most people (even short ones like me) to see what is going on, excellent sound quality (loud enough without being deafening – no ear plugs needed!), and a respectable capacity. My only quibble would concern those people seemingly unable to stay put for more than five minutes, who kept walking from the stage to the exit and back to the stage area, bumping into me or forcing me to move aside while I was trying to enjoy the show.

I had seen Blue Öyster Cult play live only once before, 25 years ago. about this time of the year 1986, and the gig was in doubt almost to the last minute due to severe weather conditions – since the venue was basically a large circus-like tent, and the snow that, very uncharacteristically for Rome, had fallen quite heavily threatened to collapse the roof. The band was touring in support of what is widely considered as their weakest album – Club Ninja – and minus Allen Lanier. In spite of that, they delivered a blinder of a performance, whose highlight for me was the 8-minute version of “Veteran of the Psychic Wars”, one of my top 10 songs of all time. After a lengthy hiatus from music due to a series of changes in my personal circumstances,  in the past few years I managed to miss the band some four or five times, which left me understandably frustrated. So, when yesterday they took to the stage at around 9.30 p.m. (after a short opening set by young Canadian blues-rocker Luke Mulholland and his band), you can imagine my disappointment when I realized that they were one member short – and the missing person was none other than charismatic frontman Eric Bloom.

However, my disappointment lasted only through the first song  (“Before the Kiss, A Redcap”, from their 1972 self-titled debut). Buck Dharma fulfilled the role of frontman suddenly thrust onto him by Bloom’s illness with enviable aplomb, a seasoned professional with an endearingly humorous approach, whose smooth, well-mannered voice has held up amazingly well. Obviously, the setlist was heavily biased towards Buck’s own compositions, which of course ruled out such behemoths as the aforementioned “Veteran…”, “Black Blade” or “Seven Screamin’ Dizbusters”, where Bloom’s gruff, supercharged bellow would be an essential ingredient. In any case, even in the absence of those weightier numbers, the band played a well-rounded 90-minute set (which nowadays is the average length of a live performance), presenting the audience with a nice selection of some of the most iconic songs of their career. For those who are curious, here is the complete setlist:

  1. Before the Kiss, A Redcap
  2. Burnin’ for You
  3. Shooting Shark
  4. Buck’s Boogie
  5. The Vigil
  6. The Red and the Black
  7. Last Days of May
  8. Godzilla
  9. Don’t Fear the Reaper
  10. Hot Rails to Hell (encore)

I had heard great things about Rudy Sarzo, and his performance of yesterday night confirmed that – far from being a showy hair-metal reject – he is a very accomplished bassist, with a commanding stage presence, looking not a day older than he was in his tenure as a member of Quiet Riot and Whitesnake, in spite of having turned 60 at the end of last year. His solo spot in the middle of “Godzilla” was introduced by Buck Dharma in his typical deadpan style, and carried off in a remarkably original manner, including snippets of famous songs from his former bands: in particular, the opening riff to Dio’s “Holy Diver” was cheered enthusiastically by the crowd. Moreover, his masterful handling of the bass part of “Shooting Shark” (originally written for Randy “The Emperor” Jackson) was probably the highlight of his whole performance. The band’s two newest members, drummer Jules Radino and keyboardist/guitarist Richie Castellano (who, when wearing sunglasses, bore an uncanny resemblance to a younger Eric Bloom), acquitted themselves admirably, being both accomplished musicians in spite of their young age. Castellano took up Bloom’s role on both guitar and vocals when needed, while Radino provided a perfect complement to Sarzo’s stunning bass lines – not a mere skin-basher, but also capable of the subtlety required by some of the band’s songs.

However, the star of the whole evening was none other than Buck Dharma himself. He stole the show with his warm, affectionate banter, accomplished singing, and incredible guitar work. Though highly rated by experts and worshipped by fans,  he gets far too easily overlooked whenever accolades for best rock or metal guitarist are awarded – in favour of other, much flashier six-stringers who simply cannot match his sheer expressive power coupled with remarkable technical skill. At the end of a week that marked the untimely passing of another guitar icon like Gary Moore,  seeing Buck perform was nothing short of sheer delight. Diminutive and unassuming, all dressed in black and sporting his trademark moustache, he tore the place down without resorting to those cheap gimmicks that are so popular with the ‘shredder’ crowd. The absolutely jaw-dropping version of “Last Days of May” (one of the most beautiful BÖC songs bar none) was alone worth the price of admission, with its customary extended solo section blisteringly introduced by Castellano, then gradually picking up speed and unleashing a frenzied yet amazingly disciplined Buck solo that saw him drop on his knees, backed by Radino’s relentless drumming – to the audience’s ecstatic response. In comparison, his instrumental showcase “Buck’s Boogie”, though quite stunningly rendered, felt almost sedate. The obligatory “The Red and the Black”, “Don’t Fear the Reaper” and “Hot Rails to Hell”, delivered with energy and flair, did not disappoint either, while the subdued, yet subtly malevolent “The Vigil” provided a taste of the more intricate fare that BÖC have produced alongside their catchier, more straightforward tunes.

All in all, it was a great evening of music in a friendly, almost intimate setting. Even if some might think that playing a small venue like the Bourbon Street Ballroom is a sort of downgrading for rock legends like Blue Öyster Cult, the faceless arenas where most of today’s ‘big-league’ concerts take place cannot compete with the genuine warmth and community feeling of those smaller, unpretentious spaces. It is quite obvious that all of the band members love performing in front of an audience, since they do not come across for a second as a bunch of people going through the motions – and, even one man short, they could deliver the goods in a way that many of the above-mentioned ‘big-league’ outfits can only dream of. Needless to say, I will be eagerly waiting for the next time BÖC will play in our area. Indeed, yesterday’s gig was worth the 25-year wait.

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TRACKLISTING (2005  edition):
Disc 1:
1. Dark Side Of The Moog (6:17)
2. Down To You (9:05)
3. Gemini And Leo (4:48)
4. Secret Places (3:59)
5. On Second Thoughts (7:30)
6. Winds (10:23)
7. Castles Version 1. (previously unreleased demo – 1975)(11:09)
8. Gary’s Lament (previously unreleased demo – 1975) (7:00)
9. Walking The Park (previously unreleased demo – 1975) (7:05)

Disc 2:
1. Night Creeper (previously unreleased demo – 1976) (3:46)
2. The Awakening (previously unreleased demo – 1976) (11:43)
3. Siren Song (previously unreleased demo – 1976) (6:55)
4. Castles Version 2. (previously unreleased demo – 1976) (5:00)
5. The Scorch (previously unreleased demo – 1976) (4:39)
6. Rivers (previously unreleased demo – 1976) (4:27)
7. Interplanetary Slut (previously unreleased demo – 1976) (5:32)
8. Dark Side Of The Moog (BBC session, In Concert – June 1976) (9:00)
9. Siren Song (BBC session, In Concert- June 1976) (12:13)
10. The Awakening (BBC session, In Concert – June 1976) (15:46)

LINEUP:
Don Airey – keyboards, synthesizers
Jon Hiseman – drums, tympani, gongs
Gary Moore – guitars, vocals
Neil Murray – bass
Mike Starrs – lead vocals

Although I had been thinking for a while of posting a review of this album for my ‘vault’ series, the sad events of today have made it almost mandatory for me to do so.  And what better way to celebrate the life and work of Irish guitar legend Gary Moore – who passed away last night at the still young age of 58 – than posting a review of an album that sees some of his finest contributions to the history of rock music?

In spite of the name, the only connection between Colosseum II and the original Colosseum is the presence of monster skinsman Jon Hiseman (so conveniently forgotten in those boring “best drummer” polls, where everybody seems to think that Portnoy and his ilk are God’s gift to drumming).  The new band also showcased the considerable talents of keyboard maestro Don Airey (who went on to replace Jon Lord in Deep Purple) and bassist Neil Murray, nowadays better known for his stints in Whitesnake and Black Sabbath. Murray tends to be given less credit than other four-stringers – in spite of having previously played with such Canterbury legends as Gilgamesh and  National Health, where he took the place left vacant by Richard Sinclair after Hatfield and the North’s demise. The musical proficiency of somebody who can keep up with both Jon Hiseman and Pip Pyle cannot be so easily disregarded, and Murray’s playing on Strange New Flesh is immaculate.

However, Colosseum II’s ace in the hole was the fiery fretboard prowess of then 24-year-old Gary Moore, formerly with Dublin-based band Skid Row. Moore’s stunning guitar work gave  Colosseum II a definitely harder edge  than the band’s former incarnation – straddling the line between Colosseum’s blues-based, sax-laden jazz-rock and Deep Purple-style hard rock. Unlike other jazz-rock bands, Colosseum II did not start out as a purely instrumental outfit. For Strange New Flesh, their debut album, Hiseman and Moore enlisted the talents of  vocalist Mike Starrs  (later with German-based band Lucifer’s Friend). For some, the sometimes overpowering presence of Starrs’s otherwise excellent vocals – a powerful tenor that, at times, oddly reminds me of a richer, more restrained version of James LaBrie – detracts from the overall brilliance of the album. Personally, though I quite like Starrs’s singing (Moore’s backing vocals being quite abrasive most of the time, though he developed quite a respectable voice in later years), I must also admit to having a slight preference for the instrumental tracks.  As Starrs (together with Murray) was subsequently fired by the band’s record label, Colosseum II’s next two albums were almost completely instrumental.

Most of the songs on the album were penned by Moore, with the exception of the Joni Mitchell cover “Down to You” – apparently an odd choice, yet rather successful, mainly thanks to Starrs’ passionate vocal performance and Moore’s beautifully melodic guitar. The album, however, opens in a completely different vein, with the blistering keyboard and guitar tour de force of the aptly-titled “Dark Side of the Moog”. “Gemini and Leo” is a funkier, jazzier track, with Starrs sounding a bit like Glenn Hughes in his Trapeze years. The following songs, “Secret Place” and On Second Thoughts” continue in much the same vein, all featuring superb interplay between the four virtuoso musicians, as well as soaring, powerful vocals. Hiseman and Murray’s propulsive rhythm section is masterful throughout, but Moore and Airey are the ones who really steal the show, Airey’s majestic keyboard sweeps duelling with Moore’s fluid yet searing lead. Original album closer “Winds” , a 10-minute-plus epic, summarizes all that is great about this record, at the same time jazzy and edgy, with plenty of tempo changes and that magnificent guitar sound.

The 2005 edition contains some real treats for fans of the band, including a number of live tracks (such as a killer version of “Dark Side of the Moog”) and quite a few unreleased demos of songs, part of which would end up on the band’s following albums, Electric Savage and War Dance – notably the original versions of blistering, intricate “Intergalactic Strut” (here bearing the amusing title of “Interplanetary Slut”),  the self-explanatory “The Scorch”  and romantic ballad “Castles”.

The highlight of those bonus tracks, though, is  the utterly beautiful Moore showcase “Gary’s Lament”, a wistful slow burner that  sounds particularly poignant in the light of today’s news. Gary was the anti-shredder, a down-to-earth guy who could really make his instrument speak and sing with an almost human voice. This review is dedicated to him, one of the many great musicians who left us way too soon. On any account, Strange New Flesh is a superb album, highly recommended to all lovers of great musicianship combined with heart and soul.

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TRACKLISTING:
1. Baltasaurus (14:18)
2. Flying Trip (7:51)
3. Vietato Generalizzare (6:38)
4. Mosoq Runa (18:58)
5. The Mirror (10:16)
6. La Ballata de s’Isposa ‘e Mannorri (10:16)

LINEUP:
Alberto De Grandis – drums, percussion, vocals (5)
Alberto Bonomi – Hammond A-100 organ with Leslie 760, Fender Rhodes electric piano, Steinway acoustic piano, synthesizers, flute
Silvio Minella – electric guitars
Luca Baldassari – bass guitar

With:
Andhira (Elena Nulchis, Cristina Lanzi, Egidiana Carta) –  vocals (6)
Zoltan Szabo – cello (4, 6)
Maria Vicentini – violin, viola (4, 6)

Hailing from Shakespeare’s own ‘fair Verona’ (one of the most beautiful cities in Italy), where they formed in the mid-Nineties, D.F.A. (acronym of Duty Free Area) are living proof of the old Latin saying that a prophet has no honour in his own country. Hailed as one of the best progressive rock bands of the past decade, they took the NEARfest audience by storm in 2000, and offered a stunning repeat performance in 2009 – when I first saw them, and was floored right from the opening strains of  their set. However, as seems to happen all too frequently, they are barely known in their home country, where their extremely elegant yet punchy brand of Canterbury-tinged jazz-rock starkly contrasts with worship of all things Genesis that is still widespread in Italy. That historic first NEARfest performance was captured on the band’s 2001 live album, Work in Progress, which for over seven years remained the last testimony of the band’s activity.

D.F.A. are nothing but pure class. A quartet reproducing the configuration of bands such as Hatfield and the North and National Health – with both keyboards and guitar in a prominent role,  and the occasional contribution of other instruments – they are one of those rare outfits where each member’s contribution is essential to the band’s overall sound. Even if drummer Alberto De Grandis –  a drummer that, like Christian Vander or Daniel Denis, is much more than a simple timekeeper – gets most of the composing credits, all of the instruments get their chance to shine and create a tightly woven mesh of sound. Alberto Bonomi’s multilayered keyboards lay a lush tapestry for Silvio Minella’s brilliantly expressive guitar work; while Luca Baldassarri’s bass provides ever-reliable bottom end, adding fullness and texture to De Grandis’ propulsive drumming. D.F.A.’s music is effortlessly fluid, yet complex enough to please the most demanding jazz-rock fans – striking a perfect balance between technical skill and genuine emotion, breathless dynamics and captivating atmospheres.

Taking a leaf out of Soft Machine’s book, the album’s title is a simple numeral – not surprising, in the light of their affiliation with Leonardo Pavkovic’s far-sighted MoonJune label. Though it runs at almost 70 minutes, unlike the majority of albums running at over an hour it never outstays its welcome, and always manages to hold the listener’s attention. Most of the six tracks are instrumental, with one notable exception (on which more later). Interestingly, though D.F.A. do not sound as typically ‘Italian’ as those bands who opt for a more traditionally symphonic sound, they possess the inimitable flair for melody that seems to be ingrained in most Italian musicians. Their music is never harsh or needlessly convoluted, yet it also manages to eschew that somewhat overblown theatricality that can turn people off Italian progressive rock. It would be unfair to the band, however, to imply that they are mere Canterbury imitators. While D.F.A have a definitely international appeal (as proved by their choice of giving their composition titles both in Italian and in English), their Mediterranean inspiration – even if thankfully untainted by the overly sentimental excesses of Italian melodic pop – can be often keenly felt. This is one aspect that D.F.A. share with historic jazz-rock outfits such as Area, Il Baricentro and Napoli Centrale.

Chosen to accompany the opening images of the documentary film Romantic Warriors, “Baltasaurus” introduces the album in charmingly subdued mode, a feature shared by most of the tracks. Elegant guitar licks and flawless rhythm section lead the way for a splendid, mid-paced development, in which keyboards and guitar seamlessly interact, bolstered by De Grandis’ stunning drum work – never overwhelming, but very much a protagonist. Gently atmospheric sections alternate with more energetic ones, and the many tempo changes do not break up the smooth flow of the music. The following number, “Flying Trip”,  picks up the Canterbury references with a wistful mid-tempo spiced up by occasional jazzy, Latin-flavoured passages, and featuring some stunningly beautiful organ passages and delicate flute; while the barnstorming “Vietato Generalizzare” (It Is Forbidden to Generalize – the track with which D.F.A. opened their set at NEARfest 2009) barges in, propelled by a vertiginous synth riff and high-energy drumming. Very much guitar-driven, it allows Silvio Minella to display his considerable chops in an intense, expressive solo reminiscent of Gary Moore during his Colosseum II tenure. “The Mirror”, on the other hand, is a classic jazz-rock workout, with the instruments creating a keen, somewhat darker-hued sense of tension – though eased by snippets of muted singing at the beginning and in the middle of the track – and climaxing with an arresting, yet subtle drum ‘solo’.

That leaves the album’s epic, the almost 19-minute “Mosoq Runa” (Quechua for “new human being”), which, not surprisingly, displays a definitely more symphonic bent – thanks also to the presence of strings, as well as a recurring main theme. The amazing interplay between the instruments is nowhere more evident than here, and – in spite of its running time – the track never once feels overlong or overdone; as usual, both the guitar and the keyboards get their chance to shine, with Minella’s soloing at its most soulful. However, 4th’s most distinctive track is strategically placed at the close of the disc. Sung entirely in the ancient Sardinian language (the most archaic of Romance languages) by the heavenly voices of the folk trio Andhira, “La Ballata de s’Isposa ‘e Mannorri” (The Ballad of the Bride of Mannorri) is a tale of love, betrayal and vengeance that would be perfectly at home on a Pentangle album – in spite of the frequent comparisons between Andhira and Canterbury’s own trio of female vocalists, The Northettes. The three Sardinian vocalists, though, are less operatic and more emotional; the resonant contralto timbre of one of them lends even more depth to their performance. The minimalistic instrumental accompaniment does not divert the attention from the sheer beauty of the vocal interplay – though the bridge features a lovely, touching guitar solo that seems to echo the profound sadness of the story.

At the time of writing, D.F.A. are reported to be on indefinite hiatus, due to the all too familiar pressures of ‘real life’ (i.e. family and work) on any non-professional musician. It may even be that the band has reached the end of the road – which would obviously result in a great loss for the whole progressive rock scene. However, even if they indeed decide to call it a day, they will have left a lasting legacy in the history of progressive rock, both for the beauty and power of their music and their genuinely down-to-earth attitude – as captured in the aforementioned Romantic Warriors.. Needless to say, 4th is a must-listen for devotees of the Canterbury scene and classic jazz-rock, and very highly recommended to prog fans of every persuasion. This is one of the landmark albums of the first decade of the 21st century, and one of the very best productions to ever come out of the Italian progressive music scene.

Links:
http://www.myspace.com/dutyfreearea
http://www.moonjune.com/MJR021.htm
http://www.andhira.com

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