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Archive for the ‘Biography’ Category

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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Interlude: Changes… Again!

In the past year, since Fire of Unknown Origin came into existence, there have been quite a few changes in my situation as a music writer – changes which I have duly reported here for all my readers, both the core of my audience and those who stumble upon the  blog through a Google search or a link on some other site. Therefore, this is the right time to announce another change, which is bound to have some sort of impact on this blog (even if not necessarily in negative terms).

On Monday, July 18, my first review was published on the Dutch Progressive Rock Pages, known for short as DPRP -one of the longest-running, most comprehensive progressive rock websites currently available on the Internet. This marked the official start of a collaboration that I hope will last for as long as humanly possible, and that will expose my writings to an even wider audience. While it will not mean the end of this blog, which has been too successful a venture to just kill it off – or even let it languish almost untended, soon to be forgotten – there will be inevitable changes as regards the frequency of its updates. In fact, I will keep any reviews I write for DPRP exclusive to that site, so that there will not be any overlap between my two main commitments. If I have the time and inclination, I will start posting “vault” reviews again, and obviously review any other material that has already been covered (or will be covered) by other DPRP writers. And then, I hope to be able to post more opinion pieces like the ones I wrote about the NEARfest cancellation – I already have a couple of interesting topics in mind.

For those of you who are in touch with me via Facebook, I will continue to post links to any new articles on my FB page, as well as links to any of my reviews published on DPRP. In the meantime, I would like to thank everyone once again for sticking with me, and for helping to make this blog a success story.

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On June 25, 2010, the very first post on Fire of Unknown Origin was published. It was a very short statement of intent, no more than a couple of sentences, illustrating to my would-be readers what this blog was going to be like. At the time, I was still writing for another prog-based site, so the blog was meant to host reviews of older (and often rather obscure) material, mainly revamped versions of reviews I had already posted elsewhere in the early years of my ‘career’. With a growing backlog of to-be-reviewed CDs (which eventually reached the staggering number of 80), there was simply no time for me to do anything else – such as writing brand-new reviews of some of the lesser-known albums in my collection.

However, as my regular readers will already know, things changed quite fast in the following months, and, at the beginning of October 2010, the first reviews of recently-released albums started to appear. The floodgates were open, and the older stuff – now tagged, in not completely original fashion, as ‘from the vault’ – eventually took a backseat to the new. After a relatively brief adjustment phase, the monthly post count began to climb, and so did the views. The end-of-year stats for those mere 5 months of operation were extremely flattering for a venture started in such an unassuming way. But the best was yet to come…

In the following six months, Fire of Unknown Origin has received almost 9,000 views, with some articles garnering a level of success that I would not have foreseen when I decided to start my own blog. The two essays written as a consequence of the cancellation of NEARfest 2001 were viewed over 600 times altogether, and sparked a lively debate with over 60 comments. Moreover, though  there is obviously a core of loyal readers and subscribers, the number of people who have stumbled upon the blog, or been otherwise directed to it by well-placed links, seems to be steadily growing. This has encouraged me to strive for quality, and avoid giving in to the temptation of writing a higher amount of shorter, more superficial reviews. Each and every one of my posts has a lot of work behind it, and obviously the frequency of the postings depends on a number of factors – such as occasional bouts of writer’s block versus periods of high inspiration. Even if I am my own boss and have no deadlines to honour, I am as disciplined a writer as I can, and try not to keep the artists or labels that send me their material waiting too long.

In the past few months, Fire of Unknown Origin has expanded from a mere repository of reviews to something on a larger scale, in spite of the constraints inherent to any one-person operation. My very first interview was posted a few days ago, and reviews of live events have already become a regular feature. I also hope to include more press releases to inform my readers about events of interest, especially those happening in my native Italy. While progressive rock has been the blog’s main thrust since its inception, I will continue to publish reviews and articles covering other genres that can be seen as tangential to prog, from classic rock to jazz to world music, reflecting the constant expansion and growth of my own musical tastes.

Even though I am on the verge of starting a new collaboration with a rather high-profile website, I will not put Fire of Unknown Origin on the back burner, but keep it up and running as a parallel project to host reviews and articles on music-related issues. I am proud to say that this blog has probably been the greatest success story of my life, and the friendships and interesting contacts that were born out of it more than make up for the lack of that financial reward that these days seems to have sadly become the be-all and end-all of many people’s  lives.

Therefore, I wish to thank all of you who have been supporting this blog since its earliest days, as well as those who have come to it in more recent times – the artists and label owners who have encouraged me with their praise and given exposure to my writings, the friends who have become regular guests, and also  those who have chanced upon it through Google searches. I hope to keep delivering the goods for a long time yet!

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Though, as I stated in my very first post, the main aim of my blog is providing music reviews of a reasonably high standard of quality, every now and then it is nice to break from the ‘routine’ and post something different, even if still related to music. Even if to some this post may look like a vanity project of sorts,  I think – as my blog has received so much positive feedback since its inception in June 2010 – it might be a good idea to enlighten my faithful readers about the process through which those reviews are created.

Some wonder at those people who seem to be able to churn out reviews as if there was no tomorrow, and sometimes expect everyone to do the same. When I first started my ‘career’ as a reviewer, almost six years ago, it was much easier for me to review an album in half an hour, and sometimes to tackle even more than one review a day. At that time, my reviews were short and sweet, more like sketches based on impressions than methodical write-ups.  I was an active collaborator of a well-known progressive rock website, where everyone was allowed (and encouraged) to post their own reviews, which – except in case of blatant violations of the guidelines – were not edited, and published warts and all. Like most other members, I wrote about albums I was familiar with, generally part of my own collection. With the years, my reviews gradually became longer and more detailed, sometimes approaching 1,000 words. My reviewing pace, on the other hand, was always somewhat erratic: when I felt inspired, I could produce several reviews a week (or even a day), but there were also times when I went months before writing anything.

Then, a couple of years ago, I had the opportunity to join the reviewing team of another prog site, with a smaller but more select readership. In the fifteen months or so of my tenure, I learned a lot about the discipline of using a template for my reviews, as well as the ‘pleasures’ of working with rather strict deadlines. Reviews-based sites generally handle promotional copies sent by labels or the artists themselves – which means a reviewer gets the good, the bad and the ugly. Together with excellent additions to your collection, you get stuff that you would pay never to hear ever again, and everything in between. Going from the absolute freedom of reviewing your own collection to a more objective, detached approach was very educational, and led me to regard my previous reviews with a critical eye. Obviously, reviewing something that you dislike can be not just challenging, but also quite frustrating, especially when you hit a patch of writer’s block (something that happens to me relatively often). Even if you are not paid in coin, you do get free material, and have a commitment to those who sent it to you – even if stories (very probably true) abound about ‘reviewers’ selling unopened promo CDs on eBay.

One of the main issues with being an ‘official’ reviewer as opposed to an ‘occasional’ one is that it is very easy to end up with a large backlog, which often means reviews are not delivered in as timely a fashion as the artists might wish. This breeds frustration and a sense of being under constant pressure – feelings we all are familiar with at work, but that hardly any of us can really afford in our free time. For this reason, I felt liberated when I was finally able to do my own thing, at my own pace, picking and choosing which albums to review instead of having to deal with an increasing number of CDs – a good deal of them of questionable quality. I was finally free to write 4 reviews a month (or even less than that) instead of 8, 10 or even a staggering 12, and concentrate on getting the best possible results.

Compared to other reviewers, I am undoubtedly slow. When I only reviewed items in my collection, in most cases I was so familiar with the music that I did not even need to actually listen to an album before I started writing. Now, first of all I need to get acquainted with the album, and that itself can take up some time. Listening to music when we are doing other things is not always conducive to appreciating it, though in today’s hectic world we do not always have a choice. In order to get the proper feel of any given album, at least three listens are needed; however, I have found that the best way for me to lay the groundwork is to sit down and take track-by-track notes (as detailed as possible) while listening to the album. The content of those notes, together with factual information on the band or artist and their other releases (whenever applicable), will be fleshed out – first rather informally, almost like a brainstorming session, then gradually honed until I am satisfied with the final product. When working on the final version of a review, I often put the album on in order to have the music fresh in my mind. As you might expect, the whole process takes time – no less than two days, often even three.

Having had experience of academic writing, and also a few of my writings published (though none concerning music), I am familiar with the ‘nuts and bolts’ of the writing process. Each of my reviews, therefore, is conceived like a mini-essay – no matter how pretentious this may sound. Knowing the rules of good writing and applying them in most circumstances makes any text (even an informal email message) much easier to read, as well as more informative. Having a proper introduction and conclusion and using paragraph breaks are just some of the aspects that make a good review. I also avoid those track-by-track breakdowns that some people seem to enjoy so much, since I find them overly clinical and of interest only to those obsessed with minute detail. Conversely, I believe in the importance of putting the album in context by referring to the band or artist’s previous or following releases, and finding comparisons with other acts.

As most of my readers know, I am not a native speaker of English, though I have acquired a reasonably high level of competence through my extensive education and in-depth study of the language. I have always been good at writing in my own native language, and being a keen reader of material on a wide range of subjects has obviously helped me to acquire a ‘feel’ for how a good written text should be like. Fortunately, English and Italian share enough features for me to feel confident when writing about relatively serious subjects in my second language – and, in my opinion, a good review is serious business, even if I do it as a hobby of sorts. We should not forget that there is a lot of work and dedication (as well as an investment of financial resources) behind most of the albums I review. Many of the artists who send me their CDs have day jobs in addition to their musical careers, and are aware that, in this day and age, this is the only way for them to be able to play the music they love. Therefore, they deserve a fair-minded, detailed review, even if on a personal level I may not particularly care for their musical offer.

This is why, though I do not shy away from expressing my personal impressions, you will never see me use derogatory or outright insulting terms about either an artist or their listeners, unlike what some of my former ‘colleagues’ seemed to enjoy doing – often ending their write-ups with sentences such as ‘avoid at all costs’.  It is possible to write a negative review without offending anyone (although I am not so naïve as to think that negative reviews do not upset their recipients at all), and criticism can and should be as constructive as possible. One of the reasons why I have completely dispensed with ratings (another liberation!) is that a one-star rating feels like a sentence without appeal, while a reasonably thorough review allows the reader to find some saving grace even in the worst of albums.

By way of a conclusion, I would like to ask the artists who send me their material to be patient if my review comes somewhat later than others. While I may be slow, the care and effort I put in each of my reviews should be enough to make them worth the wait. I also wish to thank all the people who have been following my blog over the past nine months for giving me the incentive to keep on writing, even when I was not feeling my best. Although I do not make any money out of it, I consider this blog one of my greatest successes, and hope to keep it going for a long time.

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Interlude: Changes # 3

Though I am very happy with the way my blog has been received so far, in the past few days I have been presented with the very interesting opportunity of collaborating with a relatively new prog website (called ProgSphere)  in order to help it grow and establish itself on the thriving Internet scene.

As I will be free to contribute at my own pace, avoiding the overload that forced me to interrupt my previous collaboration, I will also have time to dedicate myself to this blog by posting more ‘vault’ reviews – which  I have noticed my readers appreciate as much as those of new material.  However, at least for the time being, my ‘new’ reviews will be posted both here and on ProgSphere.  Though it is indeed rewarding to do one’s own thing, it is also nice to be able to help a new website to develop and gain a loyal following.

Therefore, I invite all of you to check ProgSphere – not just for my own reviews, but especially for those written by its other collaborators, who deserve as much appreciation for their work as I have got from you over the past few months. Thanks for sticking around!

Link:
http://www.prog-sphere.com

 

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Interlude – Holidays

I have to apologize to all the faithful readers of this blog for having more or less dropped off the face of the earth in the past few weeks. Unfortunately, as everyone knows, there are times in which our creative vein seems to have dried off, when coming up with something interesting (or even coherent) becomes an ordeal rather than a pleasure. For a number of reasons, in the past month or so I have hit such a patch, and that has inevitably affected my output as a reviewer, as well as my overall motivation.

My biggest apology goes to all those musicians who have sent me their material to review, and to whom I promised to produce something in short order. I hope that they, as creative artists, will understand my plight, and be  willing to wait a little longer for me to produce a decent write-up on their material. As things stand now, I would probably turn out  something definitely sub-par, and disappoint their expectations.

It is therefore a lucky coincidence that an almost three-week trip to Italy is coming up in a few days, which will allow me to unplug and recharge my batteries, so to speak – staying away from computers, spending time with family and friends, or just walking through the streets of Rome (which I have been missing so badly) and enjoying the festive atmosphere. I believe I burned myself out when churning out 12 reviews per month, and now need to regain afresh my enthusiasm for this very rewarding activity.

On the other hand, this is the perfect opportunity for me to wish the very best to all of you who have supported my blog in the past few months, and made sure it gets a fair number of visits every week, even when new posts are few and far between as they have been this month of December. I hope you will all spend a great holiday season with your family and friends, and then be ready to face a new year full of exciting musical challenges. Thank you for your friendship and support, and see you in 2011!

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One of the biggest advantages of living in an otherwise crowded, ‘pressure-cooker’ area such as the US Northeast is the staggering variety of music on offer. With an impressive choice of venues of every size and description, as well as a thriving underground scene, the region has become one of the most important hubs for progressive rock, as illustrated by the documentary film Romantic Warriors (reviewed elsewhere on this blog). While gigs are organized more or less throughout the year, things are definitely quieter in the colder months (mainly because of the unavailability of the outdoor venues) – while the summer months offer such a wide range of gigs that fans are obliged to pick and choose, unless they have a unlimited supply of time and cash.

2009 was my first full year in the USA, so Michael, my husband, and I were finally able to start sampling the musical delights offered by our area. Our season included our first participation to NEARfest, four visits to the quaintly bucolic Merriweather Post Pavilion (the last one particularly poignant in retrospect, being the last time that we saw the great Ronnie James Dio on stage before his untimely passing), as well as what has now gone down in the annals of concert history as ‘the monsoon on the Potomac’ – the ill-fated Asia/Yes gig at the National Harbor. At the time, I had just started my reviewing tenure with ProgressoR, and as such was very much a ‘newbie’ of the whole scene. This year, though, was quite a different story…

With my review count growing and my reputation as a reviewer spreading around the prog fandom (helped by the reactivation of my Facebook account), I made friends among musicians, built an increasing network of contacts, slowly but steadily became part of the scene. For a basically shy person as I am, this made me feel much less self-conscious when attending gigs and festivals, and boosted my enjoyment of those functions. While I am very human and enjoy the attention generated by my reviews, I also feel I am helping those who need it the most – the artists – by covering their work and encouraging their efforts.

This year, our season of music was fittingly inaugurated at the very end of May, on Memorial Day weekend (which here in the US marks the beginning of the summer season), with the annual concert organized by the DC Society of Art Rock at the Jammin’ Java. We were already familiar with the venue, as we had seen Eddie Jobson and his band play there last year. A small, friendly coffeehouse, notorious for the ear-shattering volume of its gigs, this year it hosted two local bands, Brave and Ephemeral Sun, plus one of our favourite new acts – New Jersey’s very own 3rd Degree. Though all three bands put up excellent performances, 3rd Degree were our personal highlight of the evening – an extremely tight outfit very much in the vein of vintage Steely Dan, fronted by the amazing talents of vocalist/keyboardist George Dobbs and bassist Robert James Pashman.

A couple of weeks later, it was the turn of two legendary bands such as Jethro Tull and Procol Harum, in the beautiful setting of the Wolf Trap Foundation – a striking wooden pavilion surrounded by deep woods, and the only National Park in the USA dedicated to the performing arts. While Ian Anderson may have lost most of his vocal power, he and his crew are still mightily entertaining to watch, and their back catalogue has very few equals in the rock word. However, the real surprise of the evening were Procol Harum. Unlike Anderson’s, Gary Brooker’s inimitable voice is still in pristine shape, and they wowed the audience with a mix of older and newer material, including the goosebump-inducing “A Salty Dog” and the much-awaited “A Whiter Shade of Pale”.

Our second time at NEARfest, which took place on the third weekend of June, is documented in the lengthy account I wrote for ProgressoR when I was still on board. Since all my articles for said website are covered by copyright, I will post a link to it at the end of this piece. Two days after our return from Pennsylvania, we were back at Wolf Trap for the Yes/Peter Frampton double bill – another great concert from two historic acts, though this time marred by the stiflingly humid heat. After last year’s monsoon, which had literally driven Yes off stage, we had bought tickets for their February concert at the Warner Theatre in DC. It was not, however, meant to be, since the event was first rescheduled because of the heavy snowfall; then – on the evening it was finally going to happen – Michael came home from work with a touch of the flu, so we kissed goodbye to our tickets, and patiently waited for the next opportunity to see the band. In spite of all you can say about the Jon Anderson-less Yes, they did not disappoint, and I was particularly excited by their performance of “Close to the Edge”, which I had never previously seen them play live.

After almost a month’s gap, on July 20 we headed to a venue we were not yet familiar with – the Jiffy Lube arena (formerly Nissan Pavilion) – to see another formidable double bill, firm favourites Iron Maiden with Dream Theater as openers. Unlike either Wolf Trap or the Merriweather Post Pavilion, Jiffy Lube is a largely unprepossessing space, located somewhat in the middle of nowhere and totally devoid of atmosphere. Though we were seated in the covered area, we managed to get relatively wet when a thunderstorm broke out (quite appropriately, seen the title of their latest release) just as Dream Theater took to the stage, and the wind drove the rain beneath the roof of the pavilion. While I found the New York band tolerable at best (their set was mercifully short!), Iron Maiden delivered in spades as usual. With three decades of activity under their belt, they are still one of the most energetic, entertaining live bands in the business, and I was thrilled with their choice to perform some of their more recent material alongside their undisputed classics.

Fast forward to the first weekend of September, and my first time at ProgDay – as described in detail in the review linked below. Barely two weeks of rest, so to speak, and the 2010 edition of the Sonic Circuits festival was upon us – with the organizers having pulled out all the stops by securing the participation of three major draws such as Magma, Univers Zéro and Miriodor, as well as veterans The Muffins and electronic pioneers Richard Pinhas and Merzbow. Though we had bought passes for the whole week, we were only able to attend the opening and closing shows, both held in the gorgeous premises of the Maison Française, the cultural centre of the French Embassy in DC. The marathon-like opening event culminated with a simply incredible performance by Zeuhl legends Magma, a band every self-respecting progressive rock fan should experience at least once. A week later, the festival was closed in style by the utterly stunning musicianship and compositional mastery of Miriodor and Univers Zéro – a once-in-a-lifetime double bill.

Our season of music came to a close last Saturday, with our first-ever visit to the Orion Studios in Baltimore to see Italian band The Watch (who were performing Genesis’ iconic Foxtrot album in its entirety) supported by Shadow Circus – one of the Northeast’s finest new bands, and very good friends of ours. The Orion is indeed one of those places that seem to have come out of a bygone era – a warehouse in a suburban area of Baltimore converted into a temple of progressive music, somewhat small and cramped, but brimming with character and a ‘family’ atmosphere of sorts, with people bringing their own chairs, drinks and food. Unfortunately, tiredness prevented us from attending the whole of The Watch’s performance, though we managed to enjoy all of Shadow Circus’ set. Those guys are going from strength to strength, and will hopefully soon reap the rewards of all their hard work.

In the coming months there will probably be other concerts for us to attend in the area, though not with the same frequency. At any rate, we already have some gigs lined up for next spring, and will also try to attend all three of the big festivals organized on the East Coast. Until then, I will continue to support up-and-coming bands with my reviews and feedback. Watch this space!

Links:

NEARfest 2010 review (http://www.progressor.net/nearfest2010.html)
ProgDay 2010 review (http://www.progressor.net/progday2010.html)

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