Archive for the ‘Contemporary Academic Music’ Category


1. Mattino (2:09)
2. Caduta massi (6:07)
3. Dal recinto (3:58)
4. Palude del diavolo (4:14)
5. Tema dei campi (5:01)
6. Ed io non c’ero (4:59)
7. Dite a mia moglie (5:05)
8. Il giardino disincantato (8:43)
9. Sopra tutto e tutti (9:01)
10. Per mano conduco Matilde (4:35)
11. Terre emerse (Bolero primo) (7:43)

Valeria Marzocchi – flute, piccolo, vocals
Nicola Bimbi – oboe, English horn
Lorenzo Del Pecchia – clarinet, bass clarinet
Maicol Pucci – trumpet, flugelhorn
Stefano Giannotti –  lead vocals, classical and electric guitars, banjo, componium, harmonica, synth, teponatzli, metallophone, plastic bottle
Emanuela Lari – piano, organ, vocals
Valentina Cinquini –  harp, vocals
Gabriele Michetti –  bass guitar, double bass, vocals
Matteo Cammisa –  drums, xylophone, tympani

Thomas Bloch – glass harmonica (1)

The name OTEME – an almost-acronym for Osservatorio delle Terre Emerse (Observatory of Dry Lands) – will in all likelihood not ring familiar to most progressive rock fans, even though the ensemble’s founder, Stefano Giannotti, has had a long and distinguished career in the field of contemporary music. Hailing from the beautiful medieval city of Lucca in Italy’s Tuscany, Giannotti has been writing and performing music for over 30 years, and his work – which encompasses songs, orchestral scores, chamber music, radio and video art, and  much more – has received numerous international awards, especially in Germany.  OTEME is one of his most recent projects, begun in 2010, though the compositions were developed over a period of about 21 years. The ensemble’s debut album, Il giardino disincantato (The Disenchanted Garden), was recorded in 2011, and finally released in 2013 by independent French label Edd Strapontins (internationally distributed by Ma.ra.cash Records).

Il giardino disincantato’s lavish, lovingly assembled packaging goes to show that fortunately not everyone subscribes to the theory of the visual aspect of music-making (embodied, in this case, by the “physical” CD) being on its way out. With his extensive artistic background (which includes videomaking), Giannotti obviously still believes in the partnership of music and visuals. The 27-page booklet features gorgeous photography that juxtaposes nature and everyday objects (such as the vintage saucepan that represents the “dry lands” in the ensemble’s name, in a modern take on the classic still life), as well as detailed notes and all the lyrics in both Italian and English. The understated elegance of the package, blending minimalism and an appealing “shabby chic” feel, will whet the listener’s appetite, hinting at the nature of the musical content while avoiding sensory overload.

Right from the very first notes of  Il giardino disincantato, Stefano Giannotti’s  mastery of a wide range of expressive modes becomes evident. Though he is credited as the sole writer, the album is very much a group effort. The richly variegated instrumentation merges traditional rock and classical/chamber music staples with rare instruments such as the componium (a programmable music box) and the teponatzli, an Aztec wooden drum. However, Giannotti’s understated yet well-modulated voice works much as an additional instrument, assisted by the ethereal backing vocals contributed by some (mostly female) band members. His interpretation of the beautiful lyrics – fusing literate references with an everyday, matter-of fact tone, and making full use of the many distinctive features of the Italian language – is riveting in its simplicity, far removed from the theatrics to which many prog and avant-garde singers are prone. While listening to the album, I was occasionally reminded of Franco Battiato’s effortless mix of the popular and the highbrow.

Though not a concept album, Il giardino disincantato should be heard as a whole rather than by picking and choosing songs in the manner of the iPod generation. In fact, even if the various tracks date back from different times, they work seamlessly rather than coming across as a disparate collection of items. The intriguing minimalism of opener “Mattino” – in which Giannotti’s voice is accompanied by renowned French musician Thomas Bloch’s eerie glass harmonica – immediately catches the attention and prepares the listener for what is to come. Out of the album’s four instrumentals, “Caduta massi” and the title-track decidedly veer into RIO/Avant territory – the former’s angular, expressive texture interspersed by gentler moments with an appealing Canterbury tinge, the latter taking an almost free-jazz direction with its buoyant, blaring horns – while the haunting “Tema dei campi” evokes reminiscences of Oriental music and the rarefied “Terre emerse (Bolero Primo)” evidences a clear modern classical matrix.

On the other hand, the songs draw upon Italy’s rich singer-songwriter tradition, painting charmingly surrealistic images through Giannotti’s cultivated vocal delivery and a discreet yet unmistakable instrumental presence: the delightfully lilting “Dal recinto”, the delicately wistful “Palude del diavolo” and the wry “Dite a mia moglie”, where the voice is punctuated by English horn. “Per mano conduco Matilde” is a mesmerizing, minimalistic sound sculpture in which the intersecting five voices are complemented by the componium’s eerie tinkling. The 9-minute “Sopra tutto e tutti”, however, is the album’s highlight, bringing all the main components together in an easily flowing, irresistibly melodic song that subtly introduces elements of prog’s trademark intricacy through the seamless interplay of  piano and woodwinds.

Even though Il giardino disincantato may have flown under the radar of most prog fans, especially those dwelling outside Europe, anyone who is keen to explore new challenging music should make an effort to get this album – in particular, those who in 2013 appreciated the likes of Five-Storey Ensemble’s Not That City and Francesco Zago’s project Empty Days. The excellent English translations in the booklet allow non-Italian speakers an insight into Giannotti’s thought-provoking lyrics, helping them to gain an even deeper appreciation for the essential synergy between words and music. A true gem (for the discovery of which I cannot thank my fellow writer Donato Zoppo enough) and one of the standout albums of 2013, Il giardino disincantato will be a treat for all discerning music lovers.




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5-storey ens

1. The Harbinger (5:51)
2. Bondman’s Wings (2:24)
3. The Incommunication (5:23)
4. To Ringfly (3:12)
5. A Disappearing Road (4:43)
6. The Unpainted (7:58)
7. Yesterday Dormant (5:41)
8. The Protector (3:23)
9. Fear-Dream (3:47)
10. Amid the Smoke and Different Questions (6:31)
11. Not That City (6:58)

Vitaly Appow – bassoon, saxes
Alexander But’ko – accordion
Andrey Evdokimov – acoustic and electric guitars
Natalja Malashkova – oboe
Dmitry Maslovsky – bass guitar
Olga Podgaiskaja – piano, keyboards, vocals
Olga Polakova – flute
Anastasia Popova – violin
Nikolay Semitko – drums, percussion
Vyacheslav Plesko — double bass
Sergey Dolgushev – vocals

Jury Korogoda —electric guitar (6,9)
Cirill Christia — violin (6,8,9)
Nadia Christia — cello (6, 9,11)

One of the very few bands originating from the small and politically isolated Eastern European country of Belarus, Rational Diet was an unabashedly intellectual ensemble whose music was not for the faint-hearted. After releasing a total of five albums (the last three of which on Italian label AltrOck Productions) between 2000 and 2010, Rational Diet split up because of a disagreement over artistic direction. Its members went on to form two separate groups, Archestra and Five-Storey Ensemble, whose debut albums – titled Arches and Not That City – were both released in the spring of 2013. While Arches was released on French label Soleil Mutant (a subdivision of Soleil Zeuhl), Five-Storey Ensemble have remained part of the AltrOck roster.

Not That City’s liner notes trace the genesis of this new yet familiar band, explaining the reasons for the change, reflected in the album’s more intimate and “streamlined” sound if compared with Rational Diet’s overly intellectual approach (which had become a liability rather than an asset, hindering the band’s natural development). The transition from Rational Diet to Five-Storey Ensemble was complete when the former band’s  remaining members – keyboardist/vocalist/main composer Olga Podgaiskaja, bassist Dmitry Maslovsky, drummer Nikolaj Semitko and reedist Vitaly Appow – merged with  Fratrez, a quartet hailing from the Belarus capital of Minsk, whose sound was strongly rooted in medieval and folk music. The lineup that recorded Not That City (a mini-orchestra with no less than 11 members) is augmented by former Rational Diet bandmates Cirill and Nadia Christia and Archestra guitarist Jury Korogoda on a handful of tracks.

A mostly acoustic album, performed with instruments generally associated with classical and folk music, Not That City has very few connections to rock music (even of the progressive variety), and the presence of drums and electric guitar/bass is so discreet as to be almost imperceptible. In this and other aspects, Five-Storey Ensemble bring to mind Belgian outfit Aranis, though their sound also bears the unmistakable imprint of the Eastern European tradition. The literary inspiration that had been an essential component of Rational Diet’s output is still very much in evidence: the album features three songs with lyrics by early 20th century poet Alexander Vvedensky, and another two were originally part of the soundtrack for the experimental play Bondman’s Wings.

Though Not That City is largely instrumental, some of the tracks feature vocals with an operatic quality that, however, meshes remarkably well with the instrumentation rather than swamping it. Band leader Olga Podgaiskaja’s sweet, achingly wistful soprano complements Sergey Dolgushev’s intense tenor;  their duet in the sprightly, folksy “Yesterday Dormant” acquires a dramatic quality from the use of two different themes –  melodic, almost pleading for the female voice,  more upbeat for the male one. In the intimate, melancholy ”The Incommunication”, the two voices occupy centre stage, while the instruments (mainly piano and bassoon) keep discreetly in the background.

Running at a very reasonable 55 minutes, the album as a whole is very cohesive and surprisingly full of melody, with few concessions to those spiky, dissonant moments so often associated with the Avant-Progressive subgenre – the most notable of which can be found in the second half of “A Disappearing Road”  and in the complex, riveting textures of the nearly 8 minutes of “The Unpainted”, where the electric guitar is treated like an orchestral instrument rather than a typically rock one. Conversely, the influence of medieval and Renaissance music emerges clearly in the lilting, percussive “To Ringfly” and “The Protector”; while the aptly titled “Fear-Dream”, laden with a dark, menacing tone, taps into a richly cinematic vein that is also evident in “Amid the Smoke and Different Questions”, in which Dolgushev uses his voice as another instrument. The album’s bookends, opener “The Harbinger” and the title-track, sum up the whole of the band’s musical approach, blending almost gloomy solemnity with elegant dance-like passages, showcasing the instruments’ flawless interplay and the band’s mastery of the art of buildup – both examples of stately yet ]mesmerizing 21st –century chamber music with only passing nods to the rock aesthetics.

An astonishing beautiful album that (rather uncharacteristically) drew me in right from the first listen, Not That City, as already hinted in the previous paragraphs, has much more in common with modern classical music than rock. Though certainly more accessible than most of the band’s previous incarnation’s output, it does require a good amount of concentration on the part of the listener, as well as an appreciation for the minimalistic, understated approach of chamber rock as compared to conventional prog’s tendency towards bombast. As far as I am concerned, this is one of the top releases of the year so far, and highly recommended to only to fans of the RIO/Avant scene, but also to all open-minded music lovers.



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1. Iperbole (6:21)
2. Butterfly Song (8:31)
3. Trasfiguratofunky (7:31)
4. Negative (7:03)
5. Just Cannot Forget (2:25)
6. Flash (5:23)
7. Clamores Horrendos Ad Sidera Tollit (6:49)
8. Vacuum Fluctuation (8:04)
9. Re-Awakening (8:03)
10. Isterectomia (7.26)

Alessandro Seravalle – vocals, electric, acoustic, e-bow & 12-string guitars, synths, keyboards, samples
Raffaello Indri – electric guitar
William Toson – fretted & fretless bass guitars
Ivan Moni Bidin – drums
Gianpietro Seravalle – electronic percussion, soundscapes

Simone D’Eusanio – violin (1, 2, 8)
Cristian Rigano – synth solos (3)
Giorgio Pacorig – keyboards (3)
Pietro Sponton – congas (3), vibraphone (4)
Flavia Quass – vocals (4)
Andrea Fontana – percussion (4)
Davide Casali – bass clarinet (5)
Jacques Centonze – percussion (8)
Carlo Franceschinis – double bass (8)
Alessandro Bertoni – piano (9)
Mariano Bulligan – cellos (9)
Massimo De Mattia – flute (9, 10), bass flute (10)

In spite of a name referencing one of Genesis’ most popular songs and a “progressive metal” tag, Italian band Garden Wall are neither one of the many followers of the “retro-prog” trend, nor a bunch of Opeth or Dream Theater devotees. Hailing from the north-eastern Italian region of Friuli, the band was put together by vocalist and multi-instrumentalist Alessandro Seravalle in the late Eighties, and released their debut album in 1993. Assurdo, their eight album, forms the third and final chapter of the trilogy begun in 2002 with Forget the Colours, and continued with 2004’s Towards the Silence. It is also their first release with Lizard Records  (one of the most rolific independent labels for modern progressive rock), and – unlike their 2008 album, Aliena(c)tion – contains completely new material.

Now a quintet, with only Seravalle and guitarist Raffaello Indri left of the original lineup, Garden Wall have pulled out all the stops for their recording comeback. Not being familiar with their previous output, and misled by the “prog-metal” tag, when I first heard the album I was confronted with something that was almost impossible to label. Moreover, while most of my reviews include comparisons with other bands or artists (something that readers generally appreciate), this time I was hard put to find any suitable frame of reference within the progressive rock spectrum.

If I had to use a single adjective to define Assurdo, I would call it unpredictable. While far too many albums and individual songs seem to endlessly reproduce the same structure, the 10 compositions featured on Garden Wall’s eight CD take the listener on a veritable rollercoaster ride that will leave all but the most open-minded rather bewildered, as well as drained. To say that Assurdo is not an easy listen would be an understatement: spanning a wide range of influences and moods, each song conceived as a mini-suite in many different movements, and providing a canvas for Alessandro Seravalle’s amazing vocal gymnastics, the album is an exercise in deconstruction rather than a showcase for cohesive compositional standards.

Obviously, this is not meant as criticism: though Assurdo is clearly a daunting prospect for anyone not used to more challenging fare than the average “mainstream prog” release, it can also be immensely rewarding for those who will invest time and patience in  trying to “unlock” it. Its densely woven texture, made of so many different layers, its deeply literate nature (the album’s title comes a quote from Robert Musil’s The Man Without Qualities, “Everything is absurd when you see it clearly”), a complex instrumentation  blending state-of-the-art electronic soundscapes with warm ethnic percussion, lyrical flute and violin, and gutsy electric guitar – all make for a very demanding listening experience, though one that can confidently bear the “progressive” label. For all its cosmopolitan, cutting-edge allure, Assurdo does have that indefinable “Italian” quality that the use of the Italian language (though juxtaposed with English) lends to even the most avant-garde musical efforts – as proved by a band like Nichelodeon, whose mainman Claudio Milano has been actively involved in the realization of Garden Wall’s latest effort.

Assurdo is one of those albums that need to be absorbed as a whole, so that trying to describe any of the tracks in detail would feel like a pointless exercise. The tracks run between 2 and 8 minutes, with the lone instrumental “Just Cannot Forget” strategically placed in the middle, as a sort of interlude. Taking Demetrio Stratos as a springboard, Seravalle dominates the rest – at times speaking, at others whispering, or even screaming or growling.  Garden Wall’s  impressively omnivorous approach encompasses the academic suggestions of opener “Iperbole”, to the deconstructed funk of the appropriately-named “Trasfiguratofunky”, the haunting trip-hop of “Negative”, the heady Middle Eastern flavour of “Vacuum Fluctuation” – blending jazzy organ, industrial electronics and heavy riffing as in “Clamores Horrendos Ad Sidera Tollit”, employing flute and violin to complement the spacey, ambient-like electronics of closer “Isterectomia”.

At under 70 minutes, Assurdo is not an excessively long album for today’s standards.  However, with its unabashedly eclectic, experimental bent, coupled with a distinct lack of anything even remotely resembling a catchy tune (as well as Seravalle’s acquired-taste vocals), the album is rarely a comfortable listening experience – though a much more solid effort than some overly pretentious releases in the experimental prog field. In any case, adventurous listeners will find a lot to appreciate in Assurdo, one of the most intriguing albums released in 2011, and one that definitely deserves more exposure.



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1. Ludiche Ecchimosi  (5 Danze Immaginarie) (9:42):
a) Ludiche Ecchimosi # 1 (1:44)
b) Ludiche Ecchimosi # 2 (2:30)
c) Ludiche Ecchimosi # 3 (3:04)
d) Ludiche Ecchimosi # 4 (0:51)
e) Ludiche Ecchimosi # 5 (1:33)
2. Il Folletto di Cera (4:31):
a) Miniatura # 1 (0:28)
b) Il Folletto di Cera (4:03)
3. Inseguito dai Creditori (6:01)
4. Tre Pezzi Brevi (7:46):
a) Flutter (5:50)
b) In Mezzo (0:15)
c) Snappy (1:41)
5. L’Onda Vertebrata (20:08):
a) Ouverture (1:55)
b) … Tra le Gocce Che Verso l’Alto Guardano… (2:03)
c) Tu… Onda Vertebrata (1:57)
d) …di un’Ombra… (1:00)
e) Intermezzo (1:44)
f) In Bilico (2:13)
g) Passaggio (2:00)
h) … Addomestico il Sogno (2:21)
i) Non Credere Più (2:25)
l) Coda con Fanfara (2:30)

Bonus tracks:
6. La Follia del Mimo Azoto (3:41):
a) The Breznev Funk Club
b) La Follia del Mimo Azoto
c) The Breznev Funk Club (Reprise)
7. Il Folletto di Cera (instrumental version) (4:30):
a) Miniatura # 1 (0:29)
b) Il Folletto di Cera (4:01)

Franco Sciscio – voice, Sprechgesang
Giuliana Di Mitrio – mezzosoprano
Maria Mianulli – flute
Francesco Manfredi – clarinet in B flat
Michele Motola – soprano and alto sax
Gianfranco Menzella – alto, tenor and baritone sax
Francesco Panico – trumpet in B flat
Francesco Tritto – trombone
Tommaso De Vito Francesco – bass guitar, contrabass, oboe
Michele Fracchiolla – drums, percussion, vibraphone, marimba
Pino Manfredi – piano, keyboards
Rocco Lomonaco – classical, acoustic and electric guitar, banjo, mandolin, quatro, harmonica
Duilio Maci – violin
Angela Schiralli – cello

Breznev Fun Club’s cleverly amusing name, which hinges on the common mispronunciation of the words fan and fun on the part of English-speaking Italians, may not be very familiar to most progressive rock listeners, but it is certainly a secret worth learning about.  As the album’s subtitle of Lost and Found implies, L’Onda Vertebrata is a collection of music written in the years 1990-1997 by multi-instrumentalist and composer Rocco Lomonaco (based in Milan, but hailing from the southern Italian region of Basilicata) and singer/lyricist Francesco Sciscio, and performed by an extended line-up of guest musicians, most of them members of chamber and symphonic orchestras. Though Breznev Fun Club was originally born as a trio, the evolution of their music in a more experimental direction required a looser configuration. However, Lomonaco is planning to put together a smaller group in order to perform on stage the music included on this album and its follow-up, titled Il Misantropo Felice, scheduled for a 2012 release on AltrOck Productions.

For an album that can be quite comfortably placed under the capacious RIO/Avant umbrella, L’Onda Vertebrata is a surprisingly melodic and accessible effort, sophisticated yet not needlessly daunting. Indeed, despite the undeniably complex and “highbrow” nature of the music,  the album as a whole never tries to hit the listener over the head with its cleverness and supposed superiority to “mainstream” prog. Even Franco Sciscio’s half-sung, half-recited vocals (a technique called by the German word of Sprechgesang) do not sound as overdone as in other albums that employ a similar style – though obviously they can be much of an acquired taste, and a deterrent for those who prefer a more traditional approach to singing.

L’Onda Vertebrata shares a number of features with contemporary classical and chamber music, and at times– as is the case with other similar outfits, such as Aranis or Factor Burzaco – it may strike the listener as rather far removed from the directness of rock. However, there are also moments in which the whole range of rock instruments is effectively employed, emphasizing the eclecticism of Breznev Fun Club’s approach.  Though, as the liner notes point out, the individual numbers are pieced together from parts composed in different moments of the band’s activity – reflected by their structure of “mini-suites” in various movements – they come across as much more cohesive than one might expect.

As suggested in the previous paragraphs, the music on display on L’Onda Vertebrata offers a lot of variety, though in an elegantly understated way. Echoes of Canterbury (especially Hatfield and the North and National Health) surface in opener “Ludiche Ecchimosi”, introduced by the lovely vocalizing of mezzosoprano Giuliana Di Mitrio, who also appears in the final part of the sparse, Debussy-like “Tre Pezzi Brevi”, accented by the clear, lilting sound of mallet percussion; while the lively “Inseguito dai Creditori”, whose choppy, Hammond-driven first half turns solemn, almost austere towards the end, might be effectively described as “Canterbury with a bite”. “Il Folletto di Cera” is a textbook example of how avant-garde does not necessarily mean noisy or jarring, with Sciscio’s theatrical vocals (reminiscent of Nichelodeon’s Claudio Milano) offset by the gentle, romantic flow of the melodies seamlessly woven by the lush instrumentation.

More than a conventional prog “epic”, the 20-minute title-track is a mini-opera divided in 10 parts that offers a wide range of modes of expression – from the airy, slow-paced opening to heavier, dramatic passages which brought to my mind Italian Seventies cult outfit Pholas Dactylus, from solemn church organ to fluid, jazzy moments enhanced by a rich fabric of horns and reeds. The first of the two bonus tracks, “La Follia del Mimo Azoto”, harks back to the time when Breznev Fun Club were heavily funk-oriented, at times reminding me of New York-based outfit Afroskull with their powerful horn section; while the Canterbury influence emerges again in the instrumental-only version of “Il Folletto di Cera”.

In spite of its rather intellectual vibe, L’Onda Vertebrata is a surprisingly accessible album, which is sure to win over lovers of both “chamber rock” and contemporary academic music, but that may even appeal to those of more mainstream tastes – especially on account of its high melodic quotient (quite revealing of its Italian matrix). An excellent, classy testimony of Rocco Lomonaco’s over two decades of activity as a musician and composer, the album will also whet the appetite of devoted followers of AltrOck Production’s roster in anticipation of the release of Il Misantropo Felice. The very detailed liner notes (unfortunately only in Italian), illustrating the history of the band as well as of each of the tracks, and the striking green hues of the cover artwork also deserve a special mention.



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