1. Una Strana Commedia (10:24)
2. L’Occhio del Ciclone (6:39)
3. Corto Circuito (6:26)
4. Bianca Scia (9:25)
5. L’Orgoglio di Arlecchino (12:26)
Mario Cottarelli – vocals, all instruments
Hailing from the northern Italian city of Cremona, Mario Cottarelli is a self-taught musician and composer who has been active in the music world since the early Seventies. In spite of his lifelong love of progressive rock, when the music industry’s interest in the genre began to wane towards the end of the decade, Cottarelli had to take a more commercial path in his career as a professional musician. His debut album, Prodigiosa Macchina, released in November 2007, revisited some of the material he had written in 1975, with new lyrics and arrangements.
Even for fans of Italian progressive rock, Mario Cottarelli is anything but a household name, and Prodigiosa Macchina – though it got its fair share of reviews on specialized magazines and websites – seemed to attract more criticism than praise. However, for all its somewhat naïve, rough-around-the-edges nature, it was an interesting album, oozing a sense of sheer joy and enthusiasm that set it apart from so many prog-by-numbers releases. For Una Strana Commedia, conversely, Cottarelli adopted a more structured, balanced approach in his reworking of material composed in the years 1974-1981. Since those compositions were for the most part rather sketchy, Cottarelli did not only rearrange them, but also added some new parts.
While such operations are quite commonplace on today’s rock scene, the casual listener may often feel that the material has not aged too well. However, odd as it may sound, Una Strana Commedia sounds fresher than the average release by one of those “retro” bands that seem to reap so much praise in prog circles. Though, as was the case with Prodigiosa Macchina, there are unmistakable references to the greats of prog’s golden age, the album sounds original rather than blatantly derivative – and a lot of this originality lies in Cottarelli’s vocals, with its deep and soothing, yet wryly humorous tone – so unlike the often over-the-top style adopted by many prog singers, Italian and otherwise.
Una Strana Commedia features five compositions, none of them longer than 12 minutes – unlike its predecessor, which had a slightly shorter running time spread over just 3 tracks. Its title (meaning “A Strange Comedy”) refers to life itself, seen from the artist’s point of view as a baffling, somewhat absurdist play, not to be taken too seriously: indeed, the cover photo of a Persian cat (Cottarelli’s own cat Mitzy, who unfortunately passed away some time ago) is meant to contrast the overly complicated way in which humans approach life with the innocence and wisdom of animals. While the intelligent, thought-provoking lyrics are definitely above average, an understanding of Italian is not essential in order to appreciate the album – though it is certainly a bonus.
Entirely performed by Cottarelli, and recorded in his home studio taking full advantage of modern technology, Una Strana Commedia is heavily biased towards keyboards (though the artist started his musical career as a drummer), with guitar and a number of sampled instruments making occasional appearances. The title-track will strike the listener for the upbeat nature of its lilting, dance-like main theme, interspersed by more sedate passages, and spotlighting Cottarelli’s distinctive, almost recited vocals; the stately classical influences mingle with intriguing folk/medieval overtones reminiscent of Jethro Tull or Gentle Giant (especially when the sampled flute kicks in). In contrast, the shorter “L’Occhio del Ciclone” hinges on a dramatic, intense mood conveyed by a combination of synth slashes, atmospheric keyboard washes and orchestral samples that include strings and horns; in a similar vein, the measured mid-tempo of “Corto Circuito” again highlights Cottarelli’s deep, expressive vocals underpinned by layers of majestic keyboard flourishes. The eerie cinematic allure of the somewhat tense instrumental middle section of “Bianca Scia” brings to mind Goblin (as well as Genesis and ELP), which is not surprising, seen as Cottarelli collaborated with Claudio Simonetti in the Eighties. Album closer “L’Orgoglio di Arlecchino”, the only completely instrumental track, offers a complex, multilayered keyboard feast to which the presence of the guitar in the second half lends a more definite rock flavour.
Though Mario Cottarelli openly pays homage to classic prog modes, and does not claim to be reinventing the proverbial wheel, his second release has a higher originality quotient than the endless slew of albums that sound like outtakes from any of the big Seventies bands. Fans of Italian progressive rock (especially those who have some knowledge of the language) are quite likely to appreciate Una Strana Commedia, but the album is an interesting proposition for anyone who is into keyboard-based prog, and does not mind a healthy dose of quirkily expressive vocals with it.