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Posts Tagged ‘Elaine DiFalco’

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TRACKLISTING:
1. Two Views on Flight (4:17)
2. Ankoku (4:55)
3. Words Lurking (3:12)
4. Kurai (5:50)
5. Flow My Tears (4:17)
6. Ananke (1:34)
7. Running Water (5:04)
8. The Ghosts of Dawn (4:14)
9. In Darkness Let Me Dwell (4:55)
10. A Knife Under the Pillow (1:22)
11. Coming Back Home (3:56)
12. Waiting For the Crash (2:08)
13. A Dark Vanessa (3:03)
14. This Night Wounds Time (3:16)

LINEUP
:
Paolo «Ske» Botta – keyboards
Jacopo Costa – vibes
Elaine Di Falco – vocals
Maurizio Fasoli – piano
Pat Moonchy – electric zen garden
Giuseppe A. Olivini – percussion, theremin
Francesco Zago – guitars, mellotron, bass

With:
Bianca Fervidi – cello (1-3)
Rachel O’Brien – vocals (5)

2013 was another very busy year for guitarist/composer (and AltrOck Productions co-founder) Francesco Zago. In the summer, his new “vintage prog” band Not A Good Sign made its recording and concert debut, and a few months later  he appeared on In Between, the new album by his long-time associate Markus Stauss’ outfit Spaltklang – to which should be added his participation in original RIO band Stormy Six’s live CD/DVD Benvenuti nel Ghetto.

However, it is with the Empty Days project that Zago offers his most distinctive contribution to the rich musical landscape of the recently ended year. Featuring some of his Yugen cohorts (the ubiquitous Paolo “Ske” Botta, Jacopo Costa, Maurizio Fasoli and Giuseppe Olivini), plus Milan-based sound/noise artist Pat Moonchy and US-based vocalist Elaine Di Falco (of Thinking Plague/3 Mice fame, who had also guested on Yugen’s 2010 album Iridule), Empty Days was not conceived as a studio-only project: the release of their eponymous album in September 2013 was accompanied by a few live appearances in Italy and Switzerland, as well as at Wurzburg’s Freakshow Festival in Germany.

Clocking in at about 50 minutes, Empty Days includes 7 songs and 7 instrumentals, all relatively short, which represent the two main directions of Zago’s current musical interests: art-rock songs with brooding lyrics and ethereal melodies, and darkly rarefied ambient compositions, arranged in a neatly alternating pattern. Unlike Yugen’s intricate, carefully composed pieces, the tracks are more like impressionistic sketches created through a shimmering sonic palette in delicate patterns of light and shade.  Interestingly, Empty Days’ outstanding artwork, with its muted sepia shades and  austere layout, for once is not credited to AltrOck’s in-house graphic artist Paolo “Ske” Botta. While the cover image was provided by renowned contemporary artist Salvatore Garau (who is also Stormy Six’s drummer), the booklet is credited to Zago himself, proving the versatility of his artistic inspiration.

Elaine Di Falco’s performance is one of the undisputed strengths of Empty Days. Here she shows a different side of her art than on Thinking Plague’s 2012 album, Decline and Fall – where the music’s mind-boggling complexity forced her voice into an apparently flat, yet oddly riveting timbre. Here, her dusky contralto displays more curves than angles, lending a hauntingly soft quality to Zago’s wistful vignettes, and providing the ideal vehicle for the pensive, often rather gloomy lyrics. Only one of the songs, the well-known “Flow My Tears” by English Renaissance composer John Dowland,   is interpreted by a different singer – mezzo soprano Rachel O’Brien, whose classically trained voice adds to the piece’s mournful feel.

Di Falco’s multitracked vocals, complemented by Fasoli’s rippling piano and Costa’s gently chiming vibraphone in opener “Two Views on Flight”, weaves a magical, dreamlike atmosphere reminiscent of Dead Can Dance or Kate Bush (or even Gentle Giant), while the somber drone of the cello fits her like a glove in the delicate “Words Lurking”, echoed by Zago’s subtle guitar. “Coming Back Home” revisits one of the songs featured on Not A Good Sign’s debut in understated yet markedly atmospheric fashion, enhanced by mellotron surges and ethereal guitar arpeggios. On the other hand, “In Darkness Let Me Dwell” (another Dowland composition) and “A Dark Vanessa” (from Vladimir Nabokov’s novel Pale Fire) hinge on Di Falco’s deep, almost whispered vocals and minimalist instrumentation to create a mysterious, faintly unsettling mood. The album’s centerpiece, however, is the arrestingly beautiful “Running Water” (with lyrics by Nobel Prize winner Seamus Heaney), whose title is evoked by Fasoli’s flowing piano and DiFalco’s compelling voice, almost chasing each other in a hypnotic movement.

Ranging from the almost 6 minutes of “Kurai” to the barely over one minute of the piano interlude of“A Knife Under the Pillow”, the instrumentals, explore the instruments’ potential to build up cinematic ambient soundscapes that veer from the soothing, Japanese-inspired “The Ghosts of Dawn”, with its rarefied, crystalline sound effects, to the strident, menacing “Ananke” and “Waiting for the Crash”. The longest track on the album at almost 6 minutes, “Kurai”, with its sparse, ominous texture, slashed by sudden cascading chimes and eerily reverberating sounds, aptly reflects its title (Japanese for “dark”, and also the name of another of Zago’s projects, whose album was released in 2009). The 5-minute “Ankoku” is a spacey, faintly discordant piece anchored by Bianca Fervidi’s cello’s muted drone; while in closing track “This Night Wounds Time” piano and mellotron surge in unison, echoing between pauses of near-silence.
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As I anticipated in my 2013 retrospective, Empty Days fully deserves to be included among the year’s landmark albums. Though, not surprisingly, its main target will be the ever-demanding RIO/Avant crowd, the strong melodic quotient of the songs make the album potentially more accessible for people who are normally daunted by “weird” music. In any case, Empty Days is a thing of beauty, lovingly crafted by one of the most genuinely creative artists on the current progressive rock scene, and highly recommended to anyone who loves music that flies in the face of today’s depressing commercial trends

Links:
http://www.francescozago.com

https://www.facebook.com/FrancescoZagoMusician

http://www.altrock.it

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TRACKLISTING:
1. Malthusian Dances (6:39)
2. I Cannot Fly (8:34)
3. Sleeper Cell Anthem (6:10)
4. A Virtuous Man (11:45)
5. The Gyre (4:42)
6. Climbing the Mountain (8:38)

LINEUP:
Elaine Di Falco – voice
Mark Harris – saxes, clarinets
Mike Johnson – guitars
Kimara Sajn – drums, keyboards
Dave Willey – bass

With:
Kaveh Rastegar –  bass (1)
Robin Chestnut – drums (5)
Dexter Ford – bass (5)

Described by founder Mike Johnson as an “enterprise” rather than a band in the conventional sense, Thinking Plague seem to fit the definition of “cult act” to a T. The many different incarnations of the US answer to seminal European outfits such as Henry Cow and Univers Zéro – based in the rugged mountain state of Colorado, where it was formed by Johnson and guitarist/drummer Bob Drake in 1982 – read like a veritable “who’s who” of the US avant-progressive scene. Thinking Plague’s whole existence has also been characterized by a constant struggle against circumstances, which has inevitably impacted the frequency of their releases. Indeed, with a total of 7 studio albums released in almost 30 years of history, they definitely count among the least prolific bands on the scene, together with Cuneiform label mates Miriodor.

The average progressive rock fan, steeped in the grand symphonic tradition of the early Seventies, usually has a very controversial relationship with the more forward-thinking fringes of the movement – and very few bands are as likely to send prog fans running for the exits as Thinking Plague. Unabashedly intellectual, as their very name (associating the act of thinking with a curse of sorts) suggests, with extremely well-written, thought-provoking lyrics, Thinking Plague take the proverbial complexity of the Avant subgenre up a notch.  Decline and Fall, their highly-awaited seventh album, released almost 9 years after A History of Madness, is certainly no exception. The album also showcases the band’s new lineup (though drummer Robin Chestnut, who was introduced on the occasion of Thinking Plague’s headlining appearance at Cuneifest in November 2011, only appears on one track), spotlighting the contributions of new singer Elaine DiFalco (recently seen on two outstanding albums, Dave Willey and Friends’ Immeasurable Currents and 3 Mice’s Send Me a Postcard) and drummer/keyboardist Kimara Sajn, a gifted multi-instrumentalist well-known on the Seattle experimental music scene.

Clocking in at under 47 minutes, and entirely written by Mike Johnson, Decline and Fall features 6 tracks connected by a fil rouge made all too clear by the title and artwork  – an apocalyptic reflection on the dismal state of Planet Earth, which, according to Johnson’s musings, has long gone past the point of no return. Through vivid verbal imagery flawlessly supported by the head-spinningly intricate music, humankind is depicted as rushing headlong (and heedlessly) towards destruction, its disappearance the only thing that will be able to save the Earth. While the term “concept album” is generally associated with overambitious productions that often collapse beneath the weight of their own pretensions, Decline and Fall is tight and tense, the synergy between lyrics and music embodied by Elaine DiFalco’s stunning vocal performance. Reviews often mention the role of vocals as just another instrument, but the observation is rarely as fitting as in this particular case. DiFalco’s extremely versatile voice ranges from soothing the ear with subdued gentleness to tackling parts of rollercoaster-like intensity, bolstered by the use of multi-tracking to almost vertiginous effect.

Though the word “multilayered” frequently crops up in prog reviews, it sounds like an understatement if applied to Decline and Fall. True, the listener might occasionally feel that the music is too clever or intricate for its own good, in a sort of “art for art’s sake” manner, and keeping track of the twists and turns in the compositions is anything but an easy task. Decline and Fall demands a lot from its listeners, and it is definitely not the kind of music you would want to keep in the background while doing the housework. On the other hand, contrarily to the trend shown by most “mainstream” prog, displays of individual brilliance have little or no place in Thinking Plague’s world. Each instrument, like a thread in a tight, complex weave, gets its chance to shine, but as part of a whole rather than in isolation. Consequently, solo spots are few and far between, though the excellent sound quality brings each contribution to the fore.

Similarly, Decline and Fall is best approached as a whole, even if each track has its own distinct personality. Unpredictable by definition, the music can be almost unbearably dense, while at times turning rarefied, almost ethereal. Brisk opener “Malthusian Dances” thrives on Sajn’s commanding percussion work, while Mark Harris’ assertive clarinet spars with Johnson’s guitar. “I Cannot Fly”, a barbed attack on the easy consolation offered by religion, is suitably sparse and dissonant, though fleshed out by Dave Willey’s muscular bass lines – which are also spotlighted in “Sleeper Cell Anthem”, together with Sajn’s solemn, martial drumming. The mesmerizing ebb and flow of the  album’s centerpiece, the almost 12-minute “A Virtuous Man”, is so fragmented as to be nearly impossible to describe, and yet oddly cohesive;  DiFalco’s voice seamlessly blends with the impossibly complex lines of the music, surging and fading along with it. The shorter, mostly instrumental “The Gyre” introduces closing track “Climbing the Mountain”, an oddly serene, keyboard-driven number enriched by atmospheric mellotron and understated piano whose unexpectedly abrupt ending seems to suggest humankind’s inevitable demise.

No matter how clichéd it may sound, the warning of “not for the faint-hearted” is quite fitting for an album such as Decline and Fall. Those looking for catchy melodies, conventionally “beautiful” singing and lush orchestrations are bound to be put off by Thinking Plague’s off-kilter, yet highly reasoned approach to composition, and the undeniably depressing subject matter is unlikely to appeal to fans of the more escapist side of prog. This is not the by-numbers doom-and-gloom typical of many progressive metal bands, but a genuinely dystopian vision of the future of humankind conveyed in strikingly beautiful imagery – a true soundtrack of the Apocalypse. While Decline and Fall is clearly not an easy proposition, it will yield rich rewards for those brave enough to approach it.

Links:
http://www.generalrubric.com/thinkingplague/main.html

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TRACKLISTING:
1. Hot Rod Waltz (3:33)
2. Invitation (2:24)
3. Forro Fuega (2:45)
4. Tse-Tse (4:06)
5. 20 Heart (0:54)
6. Orkneys (4:12)
7. Mr. Hamster’s Dilemma (3:51)
8. Celleste (4:57)
9. Botellas de Botica (3:27)
10. Experiment (3:35)
11. Year of my Solstice (5:28)
12. Skallaloo (3:38)

LINEUP:
Elaine DiFalco – voice, piano, keyboards, vibraphone, handclaps, shaker, accordion, qarkabeb, rhythm box, percussion
Cédric Vuille – guitar,  e-bow guitar, bass, keyboards, cuatro, clarinet, ukulele, nose flute, percussion, kalimba, theremin, banjolele, flute, spoons, triangle, jew’s harp
Dave Willey – accordion, bass, tambourine, electric and acoustic guitar, surdo, zither, shaker, percussions, mailing tubes

With:
Daniel Spahni – drums (1, 6, 7, 9, 10, 12)
Raoul Rossiter – pandero, triangle (3)
Udi Koomran – shaker, hand claps (6)
Naama and Michal Koomral – happy sisters (7)

Love or hate the Internet, there is no doubt that without its existence an album such as Send Me a Postcard would have never seen the light of day – much to the detriment of the contemporary non-mainstream music scene. In fact, the three artists who have adopted the quaintly endearing name of 3 Mice reside at opposite ends of the world – Cédric Vuille (of Débile Menthol and L’Ensemble Rayé fame) in Switzerland, Dave Willey and Elaine DiFalco (both members of Thinking Plague, Willey also Hamster Theatre’s founder and mainman) in Colorado. Israeli sound engineer Udi Koomran (one of the icons of the modern Avant-Prog scene) acted as a catalyst by arranging a meeting between the three artists in 2008, when Thinking Plague performed in Vuille’s home town of Geneva. After finding out that they were kindred spirits in their musical vision, Vuille, DiFalco and Willey started their project by sharing files on the Internet, then drafting in some trusted collaborators (namely L’Ensemble Rayé’s drummer Daniel Spahni and Hamster Theatre’s percussionist Raoul Rossiter, as well as Koomran himself). Send Me a Postcard, lovingly packaged in Elaine DiFalco’s delightful artwork, was finally ready for release at the end of 2011.

Clocking in at about 42 minutes, and featuring 12 short tracks (the longest barely above 5 minutes), Send Me a Postcard belongs to the “new generation” of undeniably progressive albums that, however, dispense with most of the trappings of traditional prog – such as epics, orchestral arrangements and somewhat pretentious concepts. Even if the association of the members of 3 Mice with the RIO/Avant scene may prove daunting to those who are more conservatively inclined, the album has more in common with Hamster Theatre’s playful, folksy attitude than Thinking Plague’s austere intensity. Songwriting credits are shared equally between the three artists, who lend them their individual imprint; DiFalco’s compositions are the closest to classic RIO/Avant modes, though with a more informal, laid-back attitude.

Unlike Willey’s recent solo album, the outstanding Immeasurable Currents (which has a very similar structure in terms of running time and number of tracks), Send Me a Postcard is mostly instrumental, though DiFalco’s distinctive voice appears on half of the tracks, engaged in lovely wordless vocalization. There is nothing overly serious or academic about 3 Mice’s approach: the overall mood is decidedly upbeat, reflecting the sheer joy of making music that is at the same time complex and accessible. The emphasis is firmly placed on the sleek, seamless instrumental interplay, with the three musicians switching effortlessly from one instrument to the other; the main actors – the accordion, the guitar and the piano – are complemented by an impressive array of exotic percussion and other ethnic instruments.

Not surprisingly, being the result of the collaboration between a European artist (belonging to a French-speaking cultural environment) and  two American ones, Send Me a Postcard is a quintessentially cosmopolitan effort, merging European folk with Brazilian and Latin suggestions, with classical influences and a hint of intriguing Avant flavour thrown in for good measure. Thanks to Koomran’s peerless mix, every instrument is finely detailed with stunning clarity of sound, and the melodic quotient of each composition is brought to the fore in a remarkably ear-pleasing way. It is also quite intriguing to see how much variety can be packed in a 3-minute song, and how the rich instrumentation creates multilayered  textures in spite of the chamber-like nature of the ensemble.

“Hot Rod Waltz” opens the album with a bold rock-meets-folk flair – electric guitar, bass and drums beefing up the sound and providing a fine foil for the nostalgic tone of the accordion. As suggested by the title, “Orkneys” taps the rich Celtic folk vein, starting out very much like a traditional reel (though driven by accordion rather than the more customary fiddle), and turning more sedate towards the end. The delicate, intimist tone of “Invitation” and “Tse Tse” and the gently chiming interlude of “20 Heart” are offset by the brisk, infectious pace of the Brazilian-influenced, percussion-heavy “Forro Fuega” and the sprightly Caribbean dance of closing track “Skallaloo”. In the only song featuring lyrics, the quirky tale of “Mr Hamster’s Dilemma”, the refreshing laughter of Udi Koomran’s daughters echoes in the background, complementing the jangly, sunny tone of the guitar. On the other hand, the eerie wail of the theremin adds a faintly disquieting note to “Celleste”, and intensifies the autumnal tone of the piano-led “Year of My Solstice”; while the haunting, effects-laden drone of “Experiment” points to the three artists’ RIO/Avant background.

Though quite likely to remain a one-off, Send Me a Postcard is an excellent effort that can be warmly recommended to all lovers of great music, Fans of folk/world music with an ear for quirkiness and subtle complexity will find it especially appealing, though devotees of “traditional” prog’s grandiosely orchestrated textures might find it disappointingly simple for their standards. Easy on the ear without being poppy, brimming with lovely melodies and brilliant instrumental performances (not to mention Elaine DiFalco’s gorgeous voice), Send Me a Postcard is a little gem that will reveal its many charms at each listen.

Links:
http://www.allmusic.com/album/send-me-a-postcard-r2412999

http://www.cdbaby.com/cd/3mice

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