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Archive for the ‘World Music’ Category

TRACKLISTING:
1. Bella Lee (3:34)
2. Parliamone (5:43)
3. Infraditi (7:36)
4. Fungo (6:42)
5 Cane di Schiena (6:32)
6. Pappa Irreale (2:27)
7. Antenna (7:59)
8. Klez (4:16)
9. Max Dembo (8:47)

LINEUP:
Filippo Cantarella – violin, viola
Marco Ravera – electric and acoustic guitar, synthesizer
Tommaso Rolando  – acoustic bass, electric bass, acoustic guitar, synthesizer, sampler, trumpet
Nando Magni – trombone
Nicola Magri – drums

With:
Cosimo Francavilla – soprano saxophone (2)
Antonio Carletti – weird vocals (7)

In my writings I have often mentioned the lively music scene of the great port of Genoa – not surprising for a city that, throughout its long history, has been one of the many melting pots of the Mediterranean region, bringing together East and West, North and South in a heady mixture of tradition and modernity. This is the kind of fertile ground from where Fabrizio De André’s Creuza de Ma, one of the undisputed masterpieces of the whole ‘world music’ scene, originated. Five-piece Calomito, a relatively recent addition to the variegated Italian music scene, bring an unique twist to the time-honoured musical heritage of their home town, with a sound that marries the warmth of the Mediterranean with a strong international bent.

Calomito have been around since the mid-2000, releasing their debut album, Inaudito, in 2005. After a five-year hiatus and some line-up changes, the band have made a comeback with Cane di Schiena, issued in the first half of 2011 by Milan-based label AltrOck Productions (also responsible for outstanding, cutting-edge releases such as Yugen’s three albums and mirRthkon’s Vehicle). Though they have been almost forcibly placed under the RIO/Avant umbrella, Calomito are one of those bands that – luckily for fans of genuinely interesting music, much less so for those who delight in labelling everything – are extremely hard to pigeonhole, due to their boldly eclectic approach to music-making.

As a fellow Italian reviewer  jokingly stated at the beginning of his own review of the album, you may want to consider taking a couple of days off in order to listen to Cane di Schiena properly. Indeed, though clocking in at a mere 53 minutes, the album presents an  incredibly dense (though never claustrophobic) amount of music which unfolds with each successive listen, and therefore devoid of any immediately digestible tunes. On the other hand, unlike what many believe about any kind of music that bears even a faint whiff of ‘avant-garde’, there is nothing discordant, abrasive or random about Calomito’s sound. Each of the tracks is clearly very carefully structured, as it is nearly always the case with ‘chamber rock’ outfits – a definition that, in my view, fits Calomito to a T. Like their label mates Yugen, they transcend the boundaries of the RIO/Avant classification, and should rather be seen as purveyors of eclectic yet oddly intimate music tha requires all of the listener’s attention to be fully appreciated.

This does not imply that Cane di Schiena is one of those deadly serious albums that command a quasi-religious devotion. Calomito’s humorous disposition, which descends directly from the likes of Stormy Six and Picchio dal Pozzo (as well as the Canterbury scene, which is also a clear musical influence), immediately comes across from titles such as “Pappa Irreale”(a pun on pappa reale, the Italian for “royal jelly”) or “Infraditi” (an intentionally ungrammatical spelling of the  word meaning “flip-flops”). The music itself, while quite light-hearted at times, can on occasion reach for a more subdued, sober tone. On the whole, Cane di Schiena comes across as a flawlessly executed album that never descends into a depressing or overly involved tone.

As is the case of other ‘chamber prog’ ensembles, Calomito employ a number of other instruments alongside the traditional rock trinity of bass, guitar and drums, assisted by various synthesizers. The substantial contribution of the horns evokes parallels with bands such as Miriodor, which emerge quite clearly right from the album’s opening track, “Bella Lee” – an incredibly dense 3 minutes of music; while the equally important role played by strings (violin and viola) brings instead to mind one of the best modern‘chamber rock’ outfits,  Seattle-based band Moraine, as well as vintage Frank Zappa. The more upbeat passages, suggesting a jazz-rock or Canterbury matrix, made me think of Forgas Band Phenomena, though Calomito sound slightly more angular than the French band. Furthermore, while Univers Zéro’s broodingly apocalyptic production seems to be the polar opposite in tone to Calomito’s essentially cheerful approach, Nicola Magri’s stunning, beyond-merely-propulsive drumming style cannot but evoke the way in which Daniel Denis supports the whole fabric of the Belgian outfit’s sound.

Trying to describe any of the nine tracks in detail would not do any of them justice. While “Infraditi” is probably the one track with the strongest connections to the RIO/Avant school of progressive rock – an astoundingly complex, 7-minute rollercoaster ride apparently throwing in anything but the proverbial kitchen sink, from carnival-like music to jazzy touches to jagged, almost dissonant passages – the somewhat low-key “Parliamone”, true to its title (meaning “let’s talk about it”) seems to reproduce a dialogue between two persons, with horns and synthesizers in the role of human voices. The choppy, dynamic “Fungo” exemplifies the way in which Calomito use pauses to create interest, rather than produce an impression of patchiness; while the title-track’s slow, meditative mood, some passages so low as to be barely audible, produces an intense, almost mesmerizing effect.

Especially in the second half of the album some intriguingly exotic influences show up, which bring to mind comparisons with Slivovitz, another über-eclectic Italian outfit hailing from Naples, my home country’s second biggest port (and musical capital). “ Pappa Irreale”’s lilting, dance-like pace punctuated by violin is sharply redolent of Irish folk, or even American country; and the upbeat, drum-driven “Klez”, as the title points out, contains elements of klezmer and Eastern European gypsy music. A folksy also tone emerges in parts of the initially low-key “Antenna”, possibly the most complex number on the album (and the only one briefly featuring ‘weird vocals’), ending with an exhilarating crescendo in which guitar, trombone and violin seem to engage in a sort of conversation. Closing track “Max Dembo” introduces some new elements, such as spacey sound effects that  enhance the powerful, rolling tone of the drums and the echoing guitar lines, as well as shades of Brazil in the relaxed, almost sultry pace of first half of the track.

In spite of the density of its musical content, Cane di Schiena is far from inaccessible, and – while undoubtedly a challenging listen – does not rely on spiky, jarring sounds to make its impact. There is plenty of melody to be found on the album, and the music possesses a natural flow and easy elegance that make listening a pleasure rather than a chore. Even though fans of traditional symphonic prog may be daunted by anything bearing the label of ‘avant-garde’, I would encourage everyone who loves progressive music to give Calomito a try. With their successful blend of technical skill, seemingly boundless creativity, eclectic influences and keen sense of humour, they are one of the most interesting bands heard in the past couple of years, and definitely one to watch.

Links:
http://www.calomito.com/

http://www.myspace.com/calomito

http://production.altrock.it/start.asp

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TRACKLISTING:

CD1
1. Hymn (4:29)
2. The Joy of Molybdenum (feat. The Trey Gunn Band) (5:29)
3. The Fifth Spin of the Sun (2:04)
4. Val El Diablo (feat. Alonso Arreola) (4:35)
5. Morning Dream (feat. Sergey Klevensky) (6:49)
6. Real Life (5:12)
7. Maslenitsa (feat. The Farlanders) (9:31)
8. Gallina (1:05)
9. Dziban (6:15)
10. Misery, Misery, Die, Die, Die… (feat. TU) (1:55)
11. Pole (0:44)
12. Thick and Thorny (feat. Quodia) (2:35)
13. Down Spin (1:13) 14. Absinthe & A Cracker (feat. TU) (3:17)
15. The Shimmering (2:23)
16. Fandango (feat. TU) (4:05)
17. Well (feat. Inna Zhelannaya) (5:56)

CD2
1. Jacaranda (feat. KTU) (3:57)
2. The Magnificent Jinn (3:24)
3. Contact (3:50)
4. Drunk (feat. Inna Zhelannaya) (6:26)
5. Killing for London (6:32)
6. Kuma (4:29)
7. Single Cell Shark (feat. Matte Henderson) (3:31)
8. Cheeky (feat. matt Chamberlin) (3:33)
9. Make My Grave in the Shape of a Heart (feat. TU) (1:24)
10. Spectra (1:57)
11. Capturing the Beam (1:23)
12. Hard Winds (3:05)
13. Arrakis (feat. The Trey Gunn Band) (6:54)
14. Flood (3:17)
15. Untamed Chicken (feat. TU) (4:15)
16. Down in Shadows (feat. N.Y.X.) (4:44)
17. Californ-a-tron (0:49)
18. Vals (feat. Sergey Klevensky) (3:18)
19. 9:47 P.M. (feat. Saro Cosentina) (5:03)

Reviewing a compilation obviously involves a rather different process than reviewing an album of completely new material. My readers will forgive me if this write-up is not as detailed as my reviews usually are, and, for instance, does not include information on all the musicians featured on every track. In this particular case, the compilation is a 2-CD package, comprising a total of 36 tracks spanning almost 20 years of the career of one of the most interesting artists on the current music scene – Texas-born touch guitarist, composer and multimedia storyteller  Trey Gunn, known to the majority of prog fans for his 10-year stint in King Crimson.

I have to admit to having been for quite a long time largely unfamiliar with Gunn’s musical output outside Fripp’s legendary band and a handful of scattered tracks from some of his solo projects. However, two years ago I had the opportunity to see him perform live as a guest of Eddie Jobson’s UKZ project, and was highly impressed by his skills and warm stage personality. Later, I found out that he was born exactly two days before me – perhaps not very relevant from a musical point of view, but an interesting bit of trivia nonetheless.

Released in November 2010, I’ll Tell What I Saw is jam-packed with extremely stimulating music taken from the numerous albums recorded by Gunn in the years from 1993 to the present day, both in his own name or with various other projects featuring international artists. Running at over 2 hours, it manages to sustain a consistently high level of quality, with hardly any filler at all, offering a heady mix of musical styles interpreted with flair, skill and soul. Indeed, Trey Gunn’s output might easily be held up as an example of a genuinely progressive approach to music-making, open-minded and eclectic, always looking for new sources of inspiration, and never letting his creative impulse grow stale.

The oldest items included in the compilation date back from Gunn’s debut album One Thousand Years (released in 1993), and (perhaps unsurprisingly) reveal a strong King Crimson influence, with “Kuma” in particular sounding like something out of the magnificent Discipline. As a matter of fact, the Crimsonian vibe can be heard in all of Gunn’s Nineties material, as witnessed by “Hard Winds”, another track characterized by the insistent, interlocking guitar lines and heavy yet intricate drumming typical of Fripp’s crew in their Eighties and Nineties incarnations. Gunn’s two more recent projects involving drummers – TU with fellow KC alum Pat Mastelotto, and Modulator with German-born wunderkind Marco Minnemann (who was also part of Eddie Jobson’s band when I saw them in 2009) – spotlight the marriage between the drums and the stunning versatility of Gunn’s trademark Warr guitar, with dramatic, mesmerizing textures and plenty of driving energy. However, while the TU tracks are more structured, the Modulator stuff (originally conceived as a 51-minute guitar solo) is largely improvisational in nature. Some of these numbers, especially the thunderous “Untamed Chicken”, seem to emphasize the drum-driven heaviness that characterizes compositions like “Level Five” (from King Crimson’s 2003 album The Power to Believe). Italian outfit N.Y.X.’s “Down in the Shadows” carries nuances of ‘alternative prog’ in the dark, industrial-tinged style perfected by Tool; while the bass-powered “Arrakis”, recorded live in 2001, foreshadows the avant-fusion of contemporary bands such as Zevious.

On the other hand, Gunn’s collaboration with Russian singer Inna Zhelennaya on her 2009 album Cocoon and on the eponymous 2005 album by The Farlanders explore the fascinating reaches of world music, injecting a welcome dose of thoroughly un-cheesy melody (also evidenced in gorgeous opening “Hymn”) in the proceedings. Zhelennaya’s hauntingly keening Russian-language vocals, somehow reminiscent of Lisa Gerrard’s otherworldly chanting, blend uncannily well with Gunn’s quicksilver guitar, producing some very distinctive results in the likes of the hypnotic “Maslenitsa” (the longest track on the album at almost 10 minutes, and possibly its highlight), “Well” and “Drunk”. Entrancing ambient tones, coloured with a feel of gentle melancholy, surface in Gunn’s collaboration with Russian clarinetist Sergey Klevezny; while the slow, liquid “9:47 PM Eastern Time” brings to mind KC’s “The Sheltering Sky”. KTU’s accordion-laden ”Jacaranda” and the Middle Eastern-flavoured “The Magnificent Jinn” branch further out in world music territory, though combining those ethnic influences with the angular dynamics typical of King Crimson.

As exciting and eclectic as I’ll Tell What I Saw is, I would not recommend listening to the whole 2-CD set in one take, since music this challenging and edgy might induce a sense of sonic overload, especially in those listeners who are used to more conventionally structured fare. Thankfully, there is enough diversity within those 36 tracks to keep the most demanding listeners happy. It is, however, music with a high level of complexity, even in the case of the shorter compositions, and needs to be approached with the right attitude. All in all, this is an excellent summary of Trey Gunn’s adventurous, ever-changing career, and an outstanding introduction to the work of one of the most intriguing purveyors of genuinely progressive music on the current scene.

Links:
http://www.treygunn.com

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TRACKLISTING:
1. Three Views From Chicheng Precipice (after Bai Yuyi) (9:52)
2. Tangabata (15:52)
3. Kan Hai De Re Zi  (Days by the Sea) (3:44)
4. Aviariations on “A Hundred Birds Serenade the Phoenix” (6:48)
5. Bagua  (Eight Trigrams) (10:41)

LINEUP:
Dennis Rea electric and resonator guitars, melodica, Naxi jaw harp, kalimba, dan bau (Vietnamese monochord)
Alicia Allenviolin (1, 3)
Greg Campbell drums, percussion (2)
Ruth Davidson cello (1, 3)
James DeJoie bass flute, bamboo flute, bass clarinet (2)
Caterina De Re voice (4)
Stuart Dempster trombone, conch shell (2)
Will Dowd – drums, percussion (1)
Elizabeth Falconer koto (5)
John Falconer shakuhachi (5)
Jay Jaskot drums (3)
Paul Kikuchi percussion (5)
Kevin Millard baliset (3)

In spite of China’s venerable musical tradition, very few people outside the ‘Asian studies’ circles are aware the authentic musical heritage of the Far East, unless it is in the most superficial of terms. Mentions of Chinese music might conjure, at least to the uninitiated, memories of the cheesy (when not downright ghastly) ‘sonic wallpaper’ that will accompany a meal in most Chinese restaurants of the Western world. However, I am happy to report that Views from Chicheng Precipice – the first recording effort solely credited to Seattle-based guitarist and composer Dennis Rea, a true veteran of the progressive music scene of the US Pacific Northwest – is light years removed from any such kitschy scenario.

Those who are familiar with Rea’s current main projects, the eclectic art-rock of Moraine and the improvisational jazz-rock of Iron Kim Style, will probably find themselves somewhat puzzled by this album – which, on the other hand, provides further proof of the guitarist’s broad horizons and dedication to the pursuit of creative musical avenues. While world music may be all the rage in a some circles, it is nevertheless not easy to find artists that approach the tradition of a country as distant (both literally and metaphorically) as China with such rigorously philological spirit as Rea manages to do – informed by his first-hand, in-depth knowledge of the musical and cultural background of both China and Taiwan, where he spent the years between 1989 and 1993.

Recorded between 2006 and 2008, Views from Chicheng Precipice sees the participation of members of both Moraine and Iron Kim Style, as well as other musicians from the Seattle scene, such as Japanese music specialists Elizabeth and John Falconer, and trombone master Stuart Dempster. Running at under 50 minutes, the album features five tracks presenting different facets of the Chinese musical heritage, seen through the eyes of a Western artist in a respectful yet uniquely personal way. Indeed, four out of five numbers (the sole exception being the title-track) are traditional compositions arranged by Rea so as to preserve their spirit even when reinterpreting their form.

Out of those five tracks, the East-West collision of “Days by the Sea” might almost be described as a pop song of sorts (also on account of its markedly shorter running time). Rea’s guitar weaves a tune that, while respectful to the original, incorporates elements of African-American blues, sparring with Alicia Allen’s violin in a stunning dialogue that brought to my mind Rea’s work with Moraine. The title-track, on the other hand, is built around three pentatonic motifs that comprise an original sonic triptych, with a recurring theme and plenty of scope left for improvisations. The composition was performed by Moraine during their performance at NEARfest 2010, though not many members of the audience were able to grasp its sheer elegance and grace in a live setting. Here the triptych comes across in all its understated power, the seamless flow of the music evoking the beauty of the titular mountain landscape (Qingcheng Mountain is the site of a Daoist sanctuary in China’s Sichuan Province). Rea’s guitar converses smoothly with Allen’s violin, while a drum-led improvisation adds a free-jazz touch to the central part of the composition.

The remaining three numbers are of a distinctly more challenging nature, since each of them develops in a fashion that is definitely less attuned to the Western ear. The 15-minute “Tangabata” and the 10-minute “Bagua” both have their roots in ceremonial music, as borne out by their stately, measured pace. The latter makes use of traditional Japanese instruments such as the koto and the shakuhachi (a bamboo flute), supported by solemn yet dramatic percussion work in the creation of a gently meditative mood. “Tangabata”, though a far from accessible piece, might be called the real highlight of the album. While featuring a distinctly Western-flavoured, free-jazz improv section at its very end, most of the composition remains faithful to its ancient origins – a sparse melody of austere beauty, almost suspended in time, made of deep, echoing sounds occasionally brightened by chiming bells. Finally, in “Aviariations on A Hundred Birds Serenade the Phoenix” (whose gently punning title reflects Rea’s ever-present sense of humour) the Chinese oboe traditionally used in the titular piece is replaced by Caterina De Re’s piercing vocal acrobatics, mimicking birdsong in a performance that brings together contemporary Western academic music and Chinese opera. Rea plays guitar and kalimba, whose sounds almost merge with De Re’s impossibly high notes.

Miles away from any tawdrily commercial ‘world music’ recreations, Views from Chicheng Precipice is, as Rea himself puts it, a love letter to the country where he spent four years of his life, an experience that was essential for his development as a musician. A refined, understated listen, it is an album made of subtle contrasts of light and shade, and as such needs to be approached with respect and concentration. The music possesses the delicate, almost brittle beauty of Far Eastern art, in stark contrast with the ‘in-your-face’ nature of much that is fashionable in this day and age. Being such an unabashed labour of love, imbued with profound feelings towards the country and its culture, sets it head and shoulders above the many blatantly contrived releases flooding the current music market. Those who will find themselves intrigued by the album could do much worse than get hold of a copy of Dennis’ book Live at the Forbidden City, a thoroughly enjoyable, extremely well-written account of his years in China and Taiwan – and a perfect companion to this disc. A special mention is also deserved by the stunningly minimalistic cover artwork and detailed liner notes – a simple yet classy package for an album that everyone with an interest in world music should check out.

Link:
http://www.dennisrea.com

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Tracklist:
1. Northern Hemisphere (5:03)
2. Isadora (4:19)
3. Waterways (7:00)
4. Centaur Woman (7:09)
5. Bathers (4:57)
6. Communion (4:02)
7. Moth (4:03)
8. In The Stable Of The Sphinx (8:20)

Bonus tracks  (Eclectic re-issue, 2004):
1. Waterways (demo) (6:40)
2. In the Stable of the Sphinx (demo recorded in July 1968) (11:10)
3. Eight Miles High (recorded at Tangerine Studios, London, 3rd September 1969) (6:51)

Lineup:
Dave Arbus – electric violin, flute, bagpipe, recorders, two saxophones
Ron Caines – soprano & alto saxophones (acoustic & amplified), organ, vocals (4)
Dave Dufont – percussion
Geoff Nicholson –  guitars, vocals
Steve York – bass guitar, harmonica, Indian thumb piano

Though I have neglected my blog for some time, I have definitely not forgotten about it (and hopefully neither have you, my dear readers!). Unfortunately, my other reviewing commitments sometimes have to take precedence – unless I want to find myself even more backlogged than I already am.

Anyway, for the first update for almost three weeks, here is another 1969 album, and one of the lost gems of the earliest years of progressive rock. As a matter of fact, having been released a few months before In the Court of the Crimson King, Mercator Projected might very well be considered as the first prog album – though, sadly, nowhere as well-known as King Crimson’s iconic debut.

Mercator Projected marks the debut of East of Eden, one of the most exciting, authentically progressive acts of  those golden years, now unfairly overlooked by most.  Drenched in exoticism, from its stunning, surprisingly modern cover (depicting a heavily tattooed woman’s back) to its evocative title (a Mercator projection is a cylindrical map projection that distorts the shape and size of large objects),  the album is a thoroughly exhilarating listen, blending Eastern sounds with jazz, blues, heavy rock and psychedelia in a heady brew that might at first sound dated, but still holds a deep fascination for the  discerning music fan.

One of East of Eden’s strengths lies in their use of an impressive array of instruments that, at the time, were not yet common currency in rock music. Dave Arbus’ electric violin (which, incidentally, also graces The Who’s “Baba O’ Riley”) dominates the proceedings, weaving ethereal melodies or bringing a strident note to the compositions, while saxes and flute add their distinctive character to the band’s sound. In the best tradition of the original progressive rock movement, and not unlike the mighty Crims’  seminal debut, the songs on this album are at the same time accessible and experimental, harsh and gently soothing. While the band do not reject their rock and blues roots, they also push the envelope with their richly textured soundscapes, which evoke many different moods.

Closing track “In the Stable of the Sphinx”, a jazzy, sprawling instrumental (also present in a longer version in the 2004 remastered edition), is possibly the album’s masterpiece: mainly guitar-driven, unlike most of the other tracks, it features some brilliant sax and violin work. Flutes take centre stage in the dreamy, hippyish “Isadora”; while “Waterways” and “Bathers” conjure images of Eastern-style languor and sensuality, with lashings of sumptuous violin and keyboard melodies. On the other hand, the bluesy, harmonica-driven “Centaur Woman” sounds somewhat grating, and is in my view the weakest offering on the album, even though the slightly distorted, dramatic vocals add some spice to the song.

As even a cursory listen will make it clear, Mercator Projected is not the accomplished work of a seasoned band. However,  even in  its undeniable rawness,  it shows the promise than East of Eden would fulfill in their sophomore effort, Snafu. It is a great pity that they did not achieve the fame they would have deserved for their highly individual, creative approach to music-making – they could have become as big as Yes or King Crimson, but now they are forgotten by almost everyone but the real aficionados of the ‘golden era’  of the genre.

On any account, Mercator Projected is highly recommended to anyone who likes their prog to be eclectic and challenging, even if a bit rough around the edges. This is an album that every self-respecting prog fan should  try at least once.

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Tracklisting:

1. Sequenze e frequenze (16:22)
2. Aries (5:26)
3. Aria di rivoluzione (5:01)
4. Da Oriente ad Occidente (6:32)

Lineup:

Franco Battiato – lead vocals, VCS 3, guitar, piano, calimba
Gianfranco D’Adda – percussion
Gianni Bedori –  tenor sax (2)
Jane Robertson – violoncello (3)
Daniele Cavallanti – clarinet, soprano sax (3)
Gaetano Galli – oboe (4)
Rossella Conz – soprano (1)
Jutta Nienhaus – recitative vocals (3), soprano (1, 4)

After two reviews of English-language albums, I thought it was time for me to introduce one of the greatest artists on the Italian scene – a musician that, while still relatively obscure in English-speaking countries,  has quite a strong following all over Europe.

Possibly the most eclectic, innovative artist on the Italian pop/rock scene, Sicilian-born Franco Battiato, like many of his contemporaries, started his long career in the early Seventies, when Italy was swept by a wave of musical creativity inspired by the British progressive rock movement, though only partly rooted in it. The ancient island of Sicily possesses a rich cultural tradition, where north and south, east and west comfortably meet and influence each other, and Battiato’s music is the living embodiment of this archetypal ‘melting pot’. Even his poppier Eighties songs are brimming with references to the heady exoticism of the Middle East and India, or the melancholy, decadent milieu of Central Europe before WWI. Similarly, he is not averse to using foreign languages in his lyrics, or even his native Sicilian dialect (which, like every other Italian dialect, was once a full-fledged language). His erudite, thought-provoking lyrics draw upon a vast body of knowledge, not solely limited to the western world. Philosophy, mythology, religion, literature, art, all is fair game for Battiato, the man who brought multiculturalism to Italy way before  the current wave of immigration had even begun.

Released in 1973, at the height of the popularity of progressive rock in Italy and elsewhere, Sulle corde di Aries is in every way a quantum leap from Battiato’s first two albums, the still rather immature Fetus and the more accomplished Pollution. Even if for today’s standards it is a very short recording (a bit over 30 minutes in length), its four tracks pack an aural and emotional wallop that most of the much longer offerings released nowadays can only dream of achieving. The 16-minute-plus, electronic tour-de-force  Sequenze e frequenze opens with haunting strains of synths and wind instruments, which only hint at what is to come. Then Battiato’s filtered voice kicks in, a voice miles away from the big, dramatic vocals often associated with Italian prog. Somewhat thin and reedy, with a heavy Sicilian accent, it is however perfectly, exquisitely modulated, and strongly redolent of the Middle East – almost reminiscent of a muezzin’s call. The short lyrics are incredibly evocative in a visual sense, so that when he sings “ogni tanto passava una nave” (every now and then a ship passed), in my mind’s eye I can almost see a ship slowly moving over the horizon in a hazy summer’s day.  When the singing finally fades away, the track turns into an orgy of eerie, trippy sounds wrung out of a VC3 S, overlaid by the hypnotic, lilting beat of a kalimba – and almost nothing else. It is all very simple, even minimalistic, but at the same time extremely powerful, in a way that so much electronic music can rarely achieve.

Introducing what used to be the B-side of the album, Aries is a mostly instrumental track with a definite avant-garde vibe, featuring harsh saxophone and galloping percussion beats. An excellent piece of music indeed, but in my opinion not as successful as the remaining two tracks, where Battiato’s distinctive singing style is pushed to the fore. Aria di rivoluzione paints a picture of Europe in the years between the two world wars – the Italian lyrics reference the Abyssinian war, while the German ones  (courtesy of Wolf Biermann, spoken by Analogy’s Jutta Nienhaus in a tone that hovers between martial and sensual) mention Hitler and Stalin. The juxtaposition of two such different languages, of the singing and the spoken word (a strategy that Battiato would further pursue in his career), adds depth and interest to what is the most melodic offering on the album. Finally, Da Oriente a Occidente seems to foreshadow the increasing influence of  world music in more recent times, with Battiato’s chanting vocals skillfully backed by two sopranos, and a beautiful, mandolin-led coda.

I saw Battiato performing live in the early Eighties, when he was on his way to his major commercial breakthrough. I entered the theatre as a sceptic, and came out as a convert. This unique musician, who brought a genuine breath of fresh air to the staid Italian pop scene, showed that there was a whole musical world to be explored beyond the established traditions of the opera and the canzone. Years after, I introduced my all-American husband to Battiato’s music, and am happy to say that this album has become one of his desert island discs.

Sulle corde di Aries is undoubtedly one of the great masterpieces of Italian prog, and one of the still-undiscovered gems of progressive rock. Even if the album may not be easy to find for people outside Europe, I hope this review  will encourage more people to delve into the music of this amazing artist – as well as dispel any preconceived notions about the supposedly sickly-sweet, mock-classical nature of Italian progressive rock.

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Tracklisting:

1. The Art of Parties (4:09)
2. Talking Drum (3:34)
3. Ghosts (4:33)
4. Canton (5:30)
5. Still Life in Mobile Homes (5:32)
6. Visions of China (3:37)
7. Sons of Pioneers (7:07)
8. Cantonese Boy (3:44)

Lineup:

David Sylvian – vocals, guitar, keyboards
Mick Karn – bass guitar, saxophone, oboe, african flute, vocals
Steve Jansen – drums and percussion, keyboards, vocals
Richard Barbieri – keyboards, tape, programming, vocals

With:
Yuka Fujii – vocals
Simon House – violin

And now for something completely different, though this album and the one previously reviewed have something in common – the release date.

Japan’s swan song, Tin Drum, is an album that does not often get the love (or at least respect) it amply deserves.  There are still people who believe ‘New Wave’ and progressive rock to be two mutually exclusive entities, so that even the slightest connection with the likes of punk or New Wave is grounds enough to dismiss a band out of hand. For what it is worth, I believe there is more creativity to be found in many of those much-reviled Eighties bands (often tagged by hardcore prog fans as ‘guilty pleasures’) than in a great deal of  bands or artists with impeccable prog credentials. Though being progressive has nothing to do with  flinging mellotrons around with wild abandon, or penning 30-minute-long epics on would-be weighty (and often terminally boring) topics, nowadays it seems to be far more acceptable to label a symphonic metal band as progressive than one associated with those two late Seventies-early Eighties movements. A band like Japan, with their suits, make-up and hairspray, in some people’s minds becomes synonymous with  ‘synth pop’,  and end up being lumped together with the likes of Visage or Spandau Ballet.

Released just prior to the band’s split, Tin Drum is undeniably Japan’s most mature effort, and the one which earns them a rightful place in progressive territory. It is no wonder that its four members went on to pursue musical careers that brought them in much closer contact with prog: David Sylvian collaborated with Robert Fripp and Holger Czukay, among others;  his brother, drummer Steve Jansen, followed him for most of his solo career; keyboardist Richard Barbieri is now well-known as member of Porcupine Tree, and bassist Mick Karn worked with jazz guitarist David Torn and legendary drummer Terry Bozzio. Such career developments should be proof enough of the fact that Japan were much more than a mere ‘New Romantic’ band, in spite of their image – which, by the way, is as much related to  David Bowie and Roxy Music as to the likes of Duran Duran, setting the band squarely into the  elusive ‘Art Rock’ tradition.

Virtuoso bassist Mick Karn (one of the truly unsung heroes of his instrument, currently fighting advanced cancer) is probably the real star of this album – his thick, pneumatic bass lines all over the place, working in perfect unison with Steve Jansen’s agile, inventive drumming. Their finest hour as a rhythm section is the 7-minute-plus “Sons of Pioneers”, which displays more than a fleeting Krautrock influence. The album’s highlight, the haunting “Ghosts”, is instead dominated by Barbieri’s sparse synth textures and Sylvian’s brooding vocals.  The Oriental theme evident in both the band’s name and the album’s title shows up most clearly in the intriguingly catchy “Visions of China” , closing track “Cantonese Boy”, and the instrumental “Canton” – even though it can be felt throughout the record, in the lilting, intricate interplay of bass and drums, the use of exotic percussion, and even Sylvian’s highly stylised vocals (an acquired taste for sure,though absolutely perfect for the band’s sound). The overall sound of the album is further enhanced by the contribution of former High Tide and Hawkwind violinist Simon House.

The beautiful, stylish cover artwork is an added bonus to one of the best discs released in the Eighties, full of outstanding musicianship and intriguing lyrical themes. Approach this album with an open mind, forgetting any labels and tags – and you will be surprised by 38 minutes of stunning music.

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