1. overt (2:25)
2. primo frammento (2:24)
3. epicicli I (2:24)
4. secondo frammento (2:09)
5. arioso (2:01)
6. terzo frammento (2:12)
7. un coeur mécanique (2:14)
8. resti (quarto frammento) (1:58)
9. epicicli II (2:22)
10. toccata (2:29)
11. hélas avril (2:15)
12. danzante (quinto frammento) (2:05)
13. clos (2:41)
Upon a Ground (15:29):
14. part I (5:22)
15. part II (6:01)
16. part III (4:00)
Michele Epifani – Hammond organ (1-13), e-piano, synthesizer (14-16)
Stefano Colombi – e-guitar (1-16)
Luca Falsetti- drums, percussion (1-16)
Valerio Cipollone – clarinet, bass clarinet (1-13)
Maurizio Fasoli – grand piano (1-13)
Antonio Marrone – e-bass (1-13)
Pierluigi Mencattini – violin (1-13)
Cristiano Pomante – vibraphone, marimba (1-13)
Carmine Ianieri – tenor sax (14-16)
Massimo Magri – cello (14-16)
Simone Pacelli – e-bass (14-16)
Manuel Trabucco – tenor sax (14-16)
Subtilior (Latin for “more refined”) is the name adopted by Michele Epifani, keyboardist and main driving force of Italian “retro-prog” band Areknamés, for his first solo outing. With its rather obscure reference to a musical style of the late Middle Ages, called ars subtilior, the project hints at a highly complex, sophisticated offer, and indeed – very much in keeping with AltrOck Productions’ consistently high level of quality – this is what Absence Upon a Ground delivers.
Though Epifani is credited as composer on all the 16 short pieces featured on the album, Absence Upon a Ground is anything but one of those ubiquitous (and often tiresome) “solo pilot” projects that clutter the oversaturated progressive market. It is instead very much an ensemble effort, to which each of the 12 musicians involved contributes his unique expertise. In some ways, this album is a perfect complement to Altrock Chamber Quartet’s Sonata Islands Goes Rio, as both represent a fusion of traditional chamber music and progressive rock that demands a lot from the listener, but will offer rich rewards to those who will have the patience to give it their full attention.
Due to Absence Upon a Ground’s peculiar structure, a track-by-track analysis would be hard to conduct, if not actually counterproductive. The album features two main multi-part suites – the almost 30-minute “Absence”, and the 15-minute “Upon a Ground”. Epifani, drummer Luca Falsetti and guitarist Stefano Colombi perform on all the tracks, while the other artists appear on either one or the other composition. Valerio Cipollone and Maurizio Fasoli of Yugen are among the performers on “Absence” (Epifani guested on both Le Uova Fatali and Iridule, the second and third release of the Milan-based outfit). In true chamber-rock tradition, the instrumentation blends rock staples such as drums, guitar and bass with reeds (clarinet and saxophone), strings and the haunting chimes of marimba and vibraphone, which combine seamlessly with the warm, fluid sound of the grand piano. Epifani’s signature Hammond organ, though credited in the liner notes, is barely perceptible, while the reeds, strings and percussion form the most readily noticeable layer of the sound’s fabric.
“Absence” (which, as the title suggests, is meant to be a reflection in musical terms on the topic of absence) comprises 13 short movements – all around the 2-minute mark – that are meant to be taken in as a whole. The chamber feel is very strong in the stately pace and often sparse texture of the music, or in the occasionally lively, conversation-like interaction between different instruments. Dissonance is used sparingly, and hints of melody – though handled in rather unconventional fashion – surface to bind the parts of the suite together. Sudden flares of intensity leave room to rarefied, ambient-like moods with a meditative, almost autumnal feel. The overall effect is one of understated elegance, though with an underlying density that makes repeated listens essential.
The 15-minute “Upon a Ground” features three longer, relatively self-contained sections, characterized by a more cinematic feel that leans more towards the RIO/Avant-Prog side of things. Mainstays of the genre such as sax and cello, as well as eerily intriguing electronic effects, replace the lyrical sounds of clarinet and violin, and the texture often feels looser, almost improvisational – in that deceptive fashion typical of Avant-Prog that effectively disguises a high degree of compositional discipline. All the three movements alternate atonal, knotty passages, with bursts of tenor sax and underpinned by the steady, mournful drone of the cello, and more subdued moments sprinkled by the gentle, tinkling sound of the mallet percussion.
If I had to level some criticism at Absence Upon a Ground, I might say that the album may come across as slightly cold and detached – a not uncommon problem with a lot of Avant/chamber rock. On the other hand, the sheer quality of the performances and the superior compositional skills involved are undeniable, and will delight those who privilege this particular manifestation of progressive music. Highly recommended to lovers of RIO/Avant prog and chamber music – as well as any open-minded listeners – the album is, however, unlikely to appeal to those who like a more “mainstream” approach to progressive rock. As usual for AltrOck releases, the visual aspect of the packaging (with Paolo Ske Botta in charge of the artwork) is top-notch, adding to the album’s interest value.