1. Almost I (6:37)
2. Almost II (3:12)
3. Not a Good Sign (7:54)
4. Making Stills (6:43)
5. Witchcraft by a Picture (7:37)
6. Coming Back Home (5:52)
7. Flow On (6:07)
8. The Deafening Sound of the Moon (4:33)
9. Afraid to Ask (3:08)
Paolo ”Ske” Botta – keyboards, glockenspiel
Alessio Calandriello – vocals
Gabriele Guidi Colombi – electric bass
Martino Malacrida – drums
Francesco Zago – electric and acoustic guitars
Maurizio Fasoli – piano (3, 5, 9)
Bianca Fervidi – cello (5, 7, 9)
Sharron Fortnam – vocals (5)
In spite of its rather alarming handle, Not A Good Sign – AltrOck Productions’ own “in-house” band (as guitarist/composer Francesco Zago was one of the label’s founders in 2005) – is set to make waves on the overcrowded progressive rock scene. Although the presence of members of two major modern Italian prog bands (Zago and Paolo “Ske” Botta of Yugen, Gabriele Guidi Colombi and Alessio Calandriello of La Coscienza di Zeno) have led some to use the “supergroup” tag, this band is fortunately quite a different animal, bringing together Altrock’s two complementary sides – its signature cutting-edge bent and a fresh, modern twist to classic prog modes. The result is one of the most impressive albums released in 2013 so far.
Not a Good Sign developed from an idea by Botta, Zago and AltrOck mainman Marcello Marinone. Calandriello and Guidi Colombi were asked to join in 2012, and drummer Martino Malacrida put the finishing touch to the lineup. The band’s live debut took place in June at the AltrOck/Fading Festival in Milan, a few days before their self-titled album’s official release, Writing credits are shared by Botta and Zago, with assistance from Guidi Colombi on one track. The band’s name reflects the current economic and political climate of Europe and its impact on people. This not exactly optimistic outlook is also reflected in the lyrics, penned by Zago, whose tense, brooding mood and use of strong imagery hints at Van Der Graaf Generator.
As other reviewers have pointed out, the most immediate comparisons that come to mind when first listening to Not A Good Sign are Swedish prog giants Änglagård and Anekdoten, and the band certainly approach classic prog with a similar attitude, avoiding the overt imitation that mars the opus of other modern bands. As in the case of both those bands, the influence of King Crimson looms large over Not A Good Sign’s sound (something that Botta and Zago have readily admitted to), though their Italian heritage smooths out some of the sharper edges. Indeed, though the album was entirely recorded in English, it also possesses a uniquely melodic touch that tempers the angularity of the heavier sections, embodied by Alessio Calandriello’s clear, versatile voice. In spite of his obvious Italian accent, he does a great job in interpreting Zago’s moody lyrics, his voice blending perfectly with the instrumentation. Drummer Martino Malacrida (the only unknown quantity of the band) proves himself an accomplished rhythm machine, tackling complex patterns with aplomb and remarkable synergy with Gabriele Guidi Colombi’s powerful yet elegant bass lines. Zago’s guitar – in full-blown rock mood, displaying a different side of his artistic personality – and Botta’s impressive array of vintage keyboards reveal the ease born of a long partnership, sometimes embarking in exciting, Deep Purple-style duels.
Not A Good Sign admirably balances the vocal and the instrumental component, the latter often capitalizing on the main composing duo’s experience in the Avant-Prog field. Opener “Almost I” pummels the listener into submission with its explosive Crimsonian intro, its heavy, doomy riffing bolstered by keyboards, and an overarching Gothic feel. “Almost II”, led by Calandriello’s melodic, well-modulated voice assisted by discreet guitar and piano, temporarily releases the tension built up by the previous number; while the almost 8-minute title-track (the longest song on the album) introduces an element of jagged dissonance, intensified by Calandriello’s high-pitched tone and dramatic organ with hints of Goblin – an intricate, deeply cinematic piece that sums up the band’s musical vision. The instrumental “Making Stills” lulls the listener at first with its subdued, sparse texture, then suddenly turns brisk and urgent, culminating in a crescendo in which all the instruments strive for attention.
Accompanied by acoustic guitar and glockenspiel, the ethereal voice of North Sea Radio Orchestra’s Sharron Fortnam weaves her magic in a riveting rendition of John Donne’s poem “Witchcraft by a Picture”, sandwiched between two intense, riff-laden sections that would not be out of place on a Black Sabbath album. The following two tracks, “Coming Back Home” and “Flow On”, are strongly vocal-oriented – the former almost catchy in spite of the rather depressing lyrics, the latter providing a showcase for Malacrida’s assertive drumming and Botta’s Genesis-inspired Moog sweeps. With the sinister “The Deafening Sound of the Moon”, the band pack a lot into barely over 4 minutes – King Crimson-like angularity followed by imperious organ slashes and sharp riffs intersecting with the vocals, then mellowing out with a melodic guitar solo reminiscent of Steve Hackett’s style. Then, in the short, atmospheric finale of instrumental “Afraid to Ask” Maurizio Fasoli’s piano ebbs and flows, with sudden flares of guitar-driven intensity on the steady backdrop of Bianca Fervidi’s somber cello.
Unlike most traditional supergroups, who are often much less than the sum of their parts, Not A Good Sign deliver in spades, combining outstanding technical skills with above-average songwriting. Clocking in at a mere 51 minutes, the album (mastered by Udi Koomran with his usual skill) is very cohesive, and avoids the pitfalls lurking behind overambitious, epic-length pieces. With their debut, Not A Good Sign prove that paying homage to vintage prog does not mean descending into the near-plagiarism of many albums released in the past few years. No review of an album featuring Paolo Botta would be complete without a mention for his artwork, and here he has truly outdone himself – the gorgeously minimalistic shots of vintage glassware emerging from a pitch-black background the polar opposite of the overblown, fantasy-themed art often associated with prog. Highly recommended to everyone, no matter what their prog “affiliation”.