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Archive for December, 2011

Interlude: Holidays… Again!

It is that time of the year again, when, after a very intense year of writing, yours truly heads off to her native country to enjoy a well-deserved break, as well as lots of excellent food and drink. The year that is about to end has brought a lot of success to Fire of Unknown Origin, though it has also meant a lot of hard work and the inevitable signs of burnout (such as taking an inordinate amount of time to complete a review).

Indeed, I have been feeling uncommonly tired in this final part of 2011, and this has affected my output as a  writer. Therefore, I feel the need to apologize to all the people who have sent me promos, and are still waiting for a review. Unfortunately, as hard as I try to keep to a disciplined schedule, in the second half of the year things have gone out of whack because of the accumulation of new releases that have often needed to be fast-tracked.

Even though the frequency of my postings has noticeably lessened in the past five months or so (mainly due to my parallel reviewing duties for DPRP), this seems not to have affected the number of views that my blog has attracted. On the contrary, as to now, the total number of visits for 2011 has reached a rather staggering figure, and the feedback received in terms of comments, subscriptions and links on other sites has been more than flattering.

However, to be perfectly honest, in the past few  weeks have often thought of going into hiatus, or even of putting an end to this endeavour altogether. Disillusionment has crept steadily in, both as regards the future of the music and the nature of the people who support it. My three essays concerning the cancellation of NEARfest 2011 and subsequent announcement of NEARFest 2012 in many ways reflect my state of mind – hovering between enthusiasm and weariness, sometimes wondering if it is really worth it. Struggling with some people’s bad manners (manifested in the lack of acknowledgment of reviews that took days to write), as well as the contentious and cliquish nature of the “prog community”, especially here in the US Northeast, can often be disheartening, especially when accompanied by other “real-life” struggles.

In spite of these misgivings, I have decided to purchase my own domain for the next 12 months, and will try to keep Fire of Unknown Origin alive for as long as possible. I hope that, when I come back from my trip, I will feel refreshed and ready to face another year of  almost uninterrupted writing. On the other hand, I might decide that it is time for me to devote my time to something else, and limit myself to posting the occasional article when the inspiration strikes.

In either case, I would like to thank all those who have been visiting and supporting this blog for over a year, and have encouraged and motivated me to keep writing. I wish all of you a very happy holiday season, and all the very best for the coming year. May it be as full of great music as 2011 has been so far, and maybe a little less stressful as regards the global situation!

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My regular readers may have noticed my frequent references to the lively progressive rock scene in the northwestern Italian region of Liguria, particularly as regards the great seaport of Genoa – supported by the activity of well-known independent labels based in the area (such as Mellow Records and Black Widow) in promoting a genre that has put firm and enduring roots in the Italian music scene since the early Seventies. Sadly, as some of my readers may know, at the end of October the whole region was affected by major flooding, which caused very serious damage and loss of life, especially in the beautiful area known as the Cinque Terre.

As a number of circumstances (such as the Japan earthquake) have proved, prog artists – in spite of the airy-fairy stereotype perpetuated by the media – do have a keen social conscience. In order to raise funds to help the local population to cope with the aftermath of the floods, a one-day festival called ProG Liguria will be hosted by the port city of La Spezia, the administrative centre of the area affected by the natural disaster, on January 21, 2012. The event, organized by Genoa-based architect and longtime prog fan Angelo De Negri and independent labels Black Widow, Ma.Ra.Cash and Distilleria Music Factory, will also involve the collaboration of the thriving, internationally renowned tourist and food industry of the La Spezia province.

ProG Liguria will last from noon to midnight, and feature a number of high-profile Italian prog bands and artists, many of whom have been featured on this blog: legendary Seventies acts such as Osanna (with special guest Gianni Leone), Delirium (with special guests Sophya Baccini and Franco Taulino), Arti e Mestieri (with special guest Gigi Venegoni), Nuova Idea (with special guests Joe Vescovi, Giorgio Piazza and Marco Zoccheddu), Locanda delle Fate and Maxophone; rising stars such as Il Tempio delle Clessidre (with special guest Max Manfredi), The Watch, La Maschera di Cera, La Torre dell’Alchimista, Moongarden and Altare Thotemico; Claudio Simonetti’s project Daemonia (familiar to those who attended ROSfest 2011); supergroup CCLR (Cavalli Cocchi, Lanzetti, Roversi, with special guest Aldo Tagliapietra), and New Trolls offshoot UT – Uno Tempore (featuring drummer Gianni Belleno).

Anyone who is planning to be in Italy in the month of January should not miss this once-in-a-lifetime event. Hopefully more details (such as ticket prices) will be forthcoming in the next few weeks.

Where: Spezia Expo ‘ – Via del Canaletto, La Spezia (Italy)
When: Saturday, January 2, 2012 – from noon to midnight
Information: (+39) 346 619 1593/ 010 246 1708

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TRACKLISTING:
1. 354 (6:00)
2. Icosahedron (3:13)
3. Island (12:26)
4. Gliese 581g (6:16)
5. Waves (2:45)
6. Geosignal (2:09)
7. Soterargatan 1 (12:45)

LINEUP:
Einar Baldursson –  guitars
David Lundberg-  Fender Rhodes, Mellotron, synthesizers
Alexander Skepp – drums, percussion
Gabriel Hermansson-  bass guitar, Moog Taurus

With:
Mattias Olsson –  additional hidden & lost sounds
Fredrik Carlzon – French horn, trumpet
Cecilia Linné – cello
Leo Svensson – musical saw
Ulf Åkerstedt – bass tuba, bass trumpet, contrabass trumpet, bass harmonica

Hailing from the Swedish town of Vällingby, on the outskirts of Stockholm, and named after one of the masterpieces of their home country’s literature – a Gothic romance about a defrocked priest written in 1891 by Nobel Prize winner Selma Lagerlöf – Gösta Berlings Saga are quite different from the stereotypical retro/symphonic-oriented Scandinavian prog band. Their debut album, Tid Är Ljud, was released in 2006, two years after the band’s formation; however, it took their sophomore effort, 2009’s Detta Här Hänt, to put them on the map of the international prog community, garnering very positive critical attention. Glue Works, the band’s first album for Cuneiform Records , came out a couple of months after the cancellation of the 2011 edition of NEARfest, which would have been Gösta Berlings Saga’s first appearance outside Europe – an appointment that has only been delayed, as the band’s inclusion in the lineup of NEARfest’s final edition (scheduled for June 2012) was announced at the end of October.

Produced by Änglagård/White Willow drummer Mattias Olsson, Glue Works (the first Gösta Berlings Saga album to bear an English title) stands out even in a year characterized by a glut of impressive prog releases. Like the band’s previous releases, it is a completely instrumental effort, comprising 7 tracks running between 2 and 12 minutes, and, at a mere 46 minutes, shorter than either of its predecessors. Even a cursory listen to the album will make it clear that Gösta Berlings Saga do not need to fill a CD to capacity to convey their musical message, which hinges on cohesion, intensity and mood-building rather than copious amounts of padding. Though their sound displays an unmistakable Northern European imprint – blending mellowness and angularity with subtle brushstrokes –  and the presence of Mattias Olsson anchors the album to the Scandinavian prog “renaissance” of the early Nineties,  some distinctly modern features lurk beneath those Mellotron washes.

On a scene where, in spite of the “progressive” name, true originality is very often at a premium, Gösta Berlings Saga’s approach, while not forsaking the complexity that is synonymous with progressive rock, also relies on other factors to make an impact. Rather than hitting the listeners over the head with mind-boggling time signature changes and flashy solo spots, they balance the sheer emotional intensity of their compositions with a remarkably disciplined texture, where each instrument contributes to the whole instead of striving for the spotlight. With a classic configuration of guitar, bass, drums and keyboards augmented by cello, horns and some not so usual presences such as the musical saw and other assorted effects, the band produce an impressive volume of sound while keeping a tight rein on any temptation to overreach themselves.

Opener “354” develops from a main theme repeated in a tense, almost obsessive fashion, intensified by the piercing tone of Einar Baldursson’s guitar and David Lundberg’s sparse electric piano, building up to a climax whose hauntingly cinematic quality is emphasized by the eerie sound of the musical saw. Alexander Skepp’s forceful drumming, coupled with Gabriel Hermansson’s growling bass lines, propels the composition forward with a mesmerizing precision reminiscent of Univers Zéro’s Daniel Denis. This imperious, faintly menacing mood is reprised by the much shorter, but equally hard-hitting “Icosahedron”, whose wistful, autumnal-sounding piano bookends are offset by a jagged, slightly dissonant guitar solo.

It is with “Island”, however, that Glue Works really comes into its own. This towering, 12-minute wild ride – epic in the true sense of the word – packs a punch that is both emotional and intellectual, its relentless, wave-like surge reminiscent of post-rock/post-metal bands like Pelican or Ulver. The track opens with the steady, mournful drone of Cecilia Linné’s cello, bringing to mind Anekdoten and  creating that subdued, intimate mood so typical of “chamber rock”. Then lilting piano and keen-edged guitar add their voices to the heady instrumental stew, driven along by the commanding pace of the drums; the final section blends abrasive sounds with warmer, organic ones in an exhilarating climax. After such unadulterated intensity, the sparse, atmospheric texture of “Gliese 581g” (the name of a small planet in the constellation of the Libra) almost feels like a welcome respite; however, the track’s second half develops in a completely different direction, strongly rhythmic with razor-sharp guitar slashes.

Two short tracks, the atmospheric, synth-driven “Waves” with its solemn, almost tribal beat, and the tense, ominous “Geosignal” introduce the album’s final and longest number, “Sorterargatan 1” (named after a street in the band’s home town of Vällingby, and reprising a track featured on Detta Här Hänt). Though not as viscerally intense as “Island”, it is a dramatic slice of Crimsonian angularity interspersed with the imposing, martial stride of Magma, the powerful surge of the drums and bass bolstering the lead guitar’s unbridled exertions – until, all of a sudden, everything subsides, leaving the stage to sparse piano and gently chiming glockenspiel, later fleshed out by the addition of cello and horns in a poignant, melancholy-drenched coda.

With its minimalistic packaging and boldly eclectic approach, Glue Works manages to sound thoroughly modern without rejecting the influence of the “founding fathers” of prog. Indeed, it successfully marries the no-holds-barred intensity of King Crimson, Van Der Graaf Generator and Univers Zéro with the entrancing, layered textures of post-rock, achieving a nearly perfect mix of melody, atmospherics and aggression. Challenging without being inaccessible, impeccably executed yet devoid of self-indulgence, Glue Works is a must-listen for lovers of instrumental prog, and highly recommended to everyone else. Gösta Berlings Saga have established themselves as one of the bands to watch in this second decade of the 21st century, and their performance at NEARfest 2012 promises to be memorable.

Links:
http://www.gostaberlingssaga.se/

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