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TRACKLISTING:

1. Where Are They Now? (20:38)
2. The Mind’s Eye (8:15)
3. Perdu Dans Paris (10:47)
4. Paroxetine 20mg (7:15)
5. A Sale of Two Souls (7:51)
6. GPS Culture (7:00)
7. The Music That Died Alone (7:51)
8. In Darkest Dreams (including “After Phaedra”) (21:25)**

** on DVD disc only

LINEUP:
Andy Tillison – lead vocals, keyboards
Jonathan Barrett – bass
Luke Machin – guitar, vocals
Tony Latham – drums
Theo Travis – saxophones, flute

Just like Phideaux, The Tangent are one of those bands that do not need to be introduced to prog fans – unless they are the kind that adamantly refuses to listen to anything produced later than 1989. In spite of their frequent line-up changes, the fiercely independent outfit, based in an artistically fertile area like the north of England, has always been much more than just a vehicle for the undisputed talent of Andy Tillison – keyboardist, singer and songwriter with a a passion for the making of progressive rock with a keen edge of social and political awareness. Straddling the line between vintage and modernity, The Tangent have established a reputation for thought-provoking music with a healthy dose of dry British wit, and the kind of technical brilliance that is put at the service of the music rather than the other way around.

As the title indicates, Going Off on Two is the logical follow-up to the band’s first live album and DVD, released in 2007 and titled Going Off on One – though the line-up has undergone yet another overhaul (and, at the time of writing, has further changed, with drummer Nick Rickwood replacing Tony Latham). However, while the 2007 set was based on actual concerts, for Going Off on Two The Tangent have chosen a bold, unusual format that may well set a trend within the prog scene. Making full use of a live-in-the studio situation, the band are playing, to all intents and purposes, before a worldwide audience: the numerous fans from over 40 countries that have helped the DVD happen through their financial support. Recorded over a period of five days in December 2010 in a converted abattoir in the town of Stockport (on the outskirts of Manchester), it was inspired by popular Seventies TV programmes such as the legendary “The Old Grey Whistle Test”, whose performances often resulted in much sought-after recordings. The “gig” brings together the best of two worlds, the immediacy of a live performance and the relative comfort of the studio surroundings.

The polar opposite of the shallow, image-driven acts that command the attention of modern audiences, the band members are five refreshingly ordinary men of various ages that look as if they are genuinely having fun, in spite of the high level of complexity of their music – they are even shown dancing outside the studio in the end credits of the DVD. Dressed in comfortable, everyday clothes, obviously at ease with each other, they certainly do not deserve the vicious jibes flung at them by some alleged music journalist with a shockingly unprofessional attitude. Thankfully, progressive rock is not the sole prerogative of young, good-looking hipsters, and prog artists have every right to look like “accountants and sheep farmers” instead of posing as something they are not.

The 90-minute DVD, filmed by experienced documentary director Paul Brow, comes strikingly packaged with stunning cover artwork by renowned artist Ed Unitsky (a longtime collaborator of the band). While it contains few extras, they will definitely be of interest to fans of the band, or even to those who are getting acquainted with them. The images are crisp and clean, and the excellent photo gallery depicts the band members in various, often humorous situations, emphasizing their endearingly down-to-earth attitude. Though mostly focused on technical matters, the interviews are liberally laced with humour, and can be enjoyed even by those who (like myself) are not practising musicians. I especially liked the part in which Tillison explains his use of computers to generate all sorts of keyboard sounds, pointing out that Seventies icons like Emerson and Wakeman were ground-breaking because they made use of cutting-edge technology. So much for the current obsession with anything analog!

The 8 tracks chosen for this landmark performance span all of The Tangent’s almost 10-year career, bearing witness to the band’s remarkable skill in quality control. Indeed, The Tangent bridge the gap between classic prog of the symphonic persuasion and the elegant jazz-rock of the Canterbury scene, with a sound that is at the same time sleek and intricate, melodic and edgy, with plenty of wit thrown into soften the blow of the often barbed social commentary. While Andy Tillison’s voice may be a bit of an acquired taste, and it is definitely not you would call conventionally “beautiful”, its wry, understated tone blends surprising well with the music. And then, in spite of the obvious collective talent involved, The Tangent are not interested in bludgeoning the listener over the head with their technical prowess, even if their obvious dedication to their craft is highlighted in the brief interviews included in the Extras. While the current members of the band may not be as well-known as some of its former members (which, especially in the early days of the band’s activity, led critics to label them as a “supergroup”), they are certainly no less talented. In particular, Tony “Funkytoe” Latham’s drumming is nothing short of stunning, and Jonathan Barrett’s fretless bass delivers the kind of fat, slinky lines that prog fans have come to treasure.

The setlist offers a nicely balanced selection of material, bookended by two 20-minute epics dating from different stages of The Tangent’s career – “Where Are They Now?”, from 2009’s Down and Out in Paris and London,  and “In Darkest Dreams” from their 2003 debut, The Music That Died Alone. Two particularly tasty tidbits for the band’s fans appear in the shape of “The Mind’s Eye”, from the forthcoming album COMM (to be released in the fall of 2011), and Andy Tillison’s homage to German Seventies electro-prog masters Tangerine Dream, “After Phaedra” (which is only featured on the DVD). The former is a tense, edgy number driven by Tillison’s powerfully expressive keyboard work and fresh-faced new guitarist Luke Machin’s sharp yet fluid guitar; while the latter is accompanied by striking psychedelic visuals reminiscent of the Seventies, yet also amazingly modern.The occasional use of split, parallel frames (which in “Where Are They Now?” show idyllic views of England’s “green and pleasant land”) adds further interest to the “concert” footage. However the highlight of the DVD , in visual terms lies in the stunning images of Paris by night that are seamlessly integrated into the band’s performance of “Perdu Dans Paris” – which in the second half of the song, in order to complement the lyrical matter, turn into heart-wrenching shots of homeless people, in stark contrast with the beauty and allure of the Ville Lumière.

The stripped-down setting – so unglamorous to trendy so-called journalists, but perfectly in character with the reality of things for most prog artists (as illustrated in my reviews of gigs at Baltimore’s Orion Studios) – sets off the band’s unassuming, yet dedicated attitude, the undeniable intricacy of the music tempered by humour and level-headedness. The members of The Tangent may not look like rockstars (as none of us thankfully do), but they obviously love every minute of what they do, and the very format of the DVD celebrates the nowadays indispensable synergy between artists and their followers. The Tangent represent a voice of strong integrity in today’s music world, proving to the sceptics that progressive rock in the 21st century is not merely a vehicle for dazzling instrumental performances and lyrical escapism, but can foster social awareness and create a genuine bond between providers and users of art.

Links:
http://www.thetangent.org

http://www.paulbrow.co.uk

www.edunitsky.com

 

 

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TRACKLISTING:
1. Snowtorch – Part One (19:39)
a) Star of Light
b) Retrograde
c) Fox on the Rocks
d) Celestine
2. Helix (5:54)
3. Snowtorch – Part Two (16:11)
a) Blowtorch Snowjob
b) Fox Rock 2
c) Coronal Mass Ejection
4. ” … ” (2:34)

LINEUP:
Phideaux Xavier – acoustic guitar, piano, vocals
Ariel Farber – vocals, violin
Valerie Gracious – vocals
‘Bloody’ Rich Hutchins – drums
Mathew Kennedy – bass guitar
Gabriel Moffat – electric guitar
Linda Ruttan Moldawsky – vocals, metal percussion
Molly Ruttan – vocals
Mark Sherkus – keyboards, piano
Johnny Unicorn – keyboards, saxophone, vocals

With:
Stephanie Fife – cello
Chris Bleth – flute, soprano saxophone

With 7 albums released since 2003 (not counting Ghost Story, originally released in 1997 and reissued in 2004, and mostly consisting of material dating from a previous project called Satyricon) Phideaux need  no introduction to prog fans. Based on a group of childhood friends who grew up together in the New York area, but are now scattered all over the US territory, they are a proudly independent outfit, a group of gifted musicians coming from diverse backgrounds led by the remarkable talent of Phideaux Xavier, whose highly individual approach to the production of progressive rock has turned them into firm favourites of a wide-ranging, yet rather volatile scene.

Throughout the years the band have perfected a format that, while not exactly uncommon in the prog world, has been given a new twist by Phideaux Xavier’s fertile mind and keen awareness of social matters. All of the band’s albums since 2006’s The Great Leap have been based on elaborate concepts that, eschewing the  often formulaic fantasy topics that are still quite popular with prog bands and their fans, present reflections on the state of  the modern world – albeit coached in metaphorical terms. In some ways, Phideaux has become a 21st-century equivalent of Roger Waters, down to the configuration of the band – which, with its ten members, plus various collaborators, is a veritable mini-orchestra. Everything, so to speak, is done in the family, with guitarist Gabriel Moffat in the role of the producer, and backing vocalists (and twin sisters) Molly Ruttan and Linda Ruttan Moldavsky responsible for the elegantly minimalistic artwork.

Released in the spring of 2011, a couple of months before Phideaux’s appearance at the 2011 edition of ROSfest, Snowtorch is a compact, 45-minute offering that  manages to pack more content in its streamlined running time than most of the sprawling behemoths favoured by some artists. Featuring the same line-up as its predecessor, 2009’s  Number Seven, it is, in Phideaux’s own words, “a musing on life, language and solar flares”, conceived as single suite in various movements, though split in two separate halves connected by a stand-alone song also based on the composition’s main theme.This strategy of building the album’s musical content around a recurring theme is what makes Snowtorch a symphonic offering in the truest sense of the word. With a perfect balance between vocal and instrumental parts, and the added bonus of thought-provoking lyrics, the album stakes its claim as the rightful heir of the great classics of the Seventies – though bringing a definitely modern twist to those old prog warhorses, the epic and the concept album.

In fact, listening to Snowtorch may evoke strong comparisons with classical music, on account of both the structure and the nature of the compositions, which combine the powerful surge of exhilarating crescendos with intimate, low-key moments. However, Phideaux’s sound is quite far removed from the somewhat cheesy grandiosity of bands such as The Enid. With two keyboardists (plus Phideaux himself on piano) providing a lush, yet tightly-woven background tapestry, bolstered by Ariel Farber’s violin and guest artist Stephanie Fife’s cello, Chris Bleth’s flute adding a pastoral touch to some of the quieter sections, the music possesses a dramatic fullness that complements the harmonious beauty of the vocal parts.

The first half of the “Snowtorch” suite opens with the subdued melody of “Star of Light”, introduced by piano, organ and Phideaux’s husky, expressive voice; then it soon gains intensity, the intricate, orchestral keyboards and relentless drumming driving the vocals along towards a climax. The main theme is introduced, and brought to fruition in a splendid, organ-driven section peppered by guitar excursions, the two instruments sparring in a peaks-and-valleys pattern. “Retrograde” revolves around a lovely, emotional duet between Phideaux and the band’s other lead vocalist, Valerie Gracious, whose soaring soprano shows more than a hint of steel without any trace of saccharine – an enthralling song almost out of a classic Broadway musical. The entertaining ditty “Fox on the Rocks” (with lyrics penned by keyboardist Johnny Unicorn), sung by Phideaux in a near-falsetto register, prepares the listener for  instrumental “Celestine”, a veritable keyboard tour-de-force,  pastoral and stormy in turns, where solemn mellotron washes underpin the sparring of piano, synth and organ, with violin, metal percussion and sax joining the fray.

As previously hinted, “Helix” bridges the gap between the two parts of the titular suite – a majestic, powerful piece sustained by Valerie Gracious’ commanding performance, with all the instruments working together to produce a solid wall of sound  – which reminded me of the dramatic sweep of some episodes of Pink Floyd’s “The Wall”. “Snowtorch Part Two” – shorter and somewhat edgier than Part One – opens in almost upbeat fashion with the funnily (and punnily)-titled instrumental “Blowtorch Snowjob”, then culminates in the explosive, ELP-influenced keyboard-and-drum orgy of “Fox Rock 2” (with an unbridled organ solo that would sit quite comfortably on Tarkus). Things finally mellow out with the sedate, Pinkfloydian atmosphere of “Coronal Mass Ejection”, an ominous, somber piece which reprises the album’s main theme, briefly climaxes with guitar slashes and intense vocals, then ends with sparse piano. The short “ghost track” included at the end as a sort of instrumental summary wraps things up with a cheery feel that seems to release the tension built up throughout the album.

Effortlessly marrying superb musicianship and genuine passion, Snowtorch brims with gorgeous melodies, the kind that stick in your mind for quite a while. While often pervaded by a sense of impending doom, it can also be oddly jaunty; for all its lush, multilayered arrangements, it is never gratuitously pretentious. With all-round flawless performances, excellent songwriting and beautiful singing, it has quickly established itself as one of the strongest releases of the year so far. Though influenced by the great tradition of the golden age of prog, unlike the myriad of “retro” acts Phideaux manage to sound like no one else on the current scene. An album such as Snowtorch is living proof of how they are almost single-handedly dragging symphonic prog right into the 21st century.

Links:
http://www.bloodfish.com/

 

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TRACKLISTING:
1. Calling Out (4:55)
2. Still Water (5:04)
3. Unity (1:59)
4. Another Day (4:36)
5. Water Of Life (10:00)
6. Live For Him (5:26)
7. Indian Summer (2:38)
8. By My Side (3:55)
9. Vacant Halls (6:44)
10. Freedom Road (6:05)

LINEUP:
Dave Auerbach – guitars
Dean Hallal – lead and backing vocals
Kevin Jarvis – keyboards, guitars, dulcimer, vocals
Jennifer Meeks – flute, lead and backing vocals
Frank Tyson – bass, vocals, whistling
Rick Walker – drums, percussion

With:
Jeff Hodges – additional keyboards, percussion, samples and loops

Hailing from Sumter (South Carolina), where they were formed in 1997 by keyboardist Kevin Jarvis and drummer Rick Walker, Farpoint have 12 years of live performances and 5 studio albums under their collective belts. Their recording debut, First Light, appeared  in 2002, though with a different line-up than the one appearing on this album.  Kindred is also the band’s first release for Georgia-based label 10T Records, while their previous albums had all been released independently.

Farpoint are part of a group of mostly American bands and artists that are openly Christian in inspiration, which is bound to alienate some listeners. To be honest, Farpoint are not as heavy-handed as other acts (Neal Morse comes to mind) in the way they handle the religious content of their lyrics. Moreover, the generally upbeat, positive nature of their musical offer may come across as refreshing in an age of often somewhat contrived misery and navel-gazing. Rather than concentrating on complex theological issues, Farpoint’s lyrical universe is simple, almost naive, their unabashedly optimistic songs revolving about ideas of love, hope and trust, both in God and mankind.

On a personal level, even if I am not religious, and would rather not see music turned into a vehicle for any ideological manifesto, I do not see anything wrong with delivering a positive message. The main problem, at least to my ears, is that quite a few of the songs on Kindred (right from opener “Calling Out”) remind me of the music that would be played during a service, back in my days as a good Catholic girl and a member of the local church choir. Associating this kind of music with progressive rock can be a tad awkward, and indeed Kindred is only marginally related to prog as we know it. On occasion, the instrumental interplay allows glimpses of greater complexity, but on the whole the majority of the tracks featured on the album are rather conventional, mainstream-sounding songs with a heavy emphasis on vocals and plenty of catchy hooks.

In any case, the members of Farpoint show excellent musicianship, and their songwriting skills are none too shabby either. Production-wise, Kindred can boast of outstanding clarity of sound, which allows each instrument to shine without overwhelming the others. Farpoint are very much ensemble players, each of the members contributing to the final result. The album is also quite well-balanced, clocking in at a very reasonable 51 minutes, with two shorter, mostly acoustic instrumental interludes (“Unity” and “Indian Summer”) and most of the other songs between 4 and 6 minutes – with the sole exception of the 10-minute “Water of Life”. However, those expecting a towering effort in typical “prog epic” tradition will be disappointed, because the song – in spite of some noteworthy instrumental passages such as the lengthy, flute- and guitar-driven introduction, with some sterling bass work by Frank Tyson (whose flawless performance is one of the best points of the album) – becomes quite lightweight every time vocals are involved.

On the other hand, the prog references are few and far between, and mostly concentrated in the uncharacteristically meditative, downbeat “Vacant Rooms” (in my view the highlight of the album, a heartfelt reflection on the loss of loved ones), with its spacey keyboards and lovely, Gilmour-influenced guitar solo leading to an intense crescendo in the final part of the song. “Live for Him” displays some lively classic rock touches, especially in Dave Auerbach’s excellent guitar and Hammond organ passages that bring to mind early Deep Purple, as well as an interesting drumming pattern in the bridge – but is somehow let down by the country-meets-church-music flavour of the vocal parts. A couple of other songs – notably “Another Day”, with its jangly, bluegrass-style guitar – reminded me of the alt.country slant of The Decemberists’ latest album, The King Is Dead,  though minus Colin Meloy’s distinctive vocals. Indeed, Dean Hallal’s smooth, well-modulated voice seems quite well-suited to mainstream, country-tinged pop-rock; while Jennifer Meeks’s ethereal soprano is quite underused, her only solo spot being the rather cheesy “By My Side”.

Clearly informed by strong faith and a positive worldview, Kindred is likely to appeal to those listeners who lean towards the melodic, more accessible side of prog, as well as those who like a well-crafted mainstream song delivered in a pleasing manner. Personally, I found the instrumental passages far more interesting than anything featuring vocals, though I am quite sure that  a lot of people will find the album as a whole to their taste. Needless to say, anyone who objects to religious or other ideological messages in their music will do well to steer clear of this album.

Links:
http://www.farpointband.com/

http://www.farpointband.com/

http://www.10trecords.com

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TRACKLISTING:
1. Overture 3.07
2. Il Tredici 11.46
3. Dark Age 6.18
4. The Guillotine 6.00
5. Timepiece 5.30
6. Sobriety 8.19
7. Tema 1.08
8. Steam 9.30

LINEUP:
Gadi Ben Elisha – electric and acoustic guitars, mandolin
Sagi Barness – bass guitar
Aviv Barness – keyboards, saxophone
Igal Baram – drums, percussion
Shem-Tov Levi – flute

With:
Michael Lam – English horn
Elinoy Yogev – bassoon

The name Sanhedrin will not fail to ring a bell with those who are familiar with the Gospels – either because of their religious upbringing or inclination, or for reasons of historical interest – as the name indicates the supreme court of ancient Israel by which Jesus Christ was tried. Though there are also three extreme metal outfits bearing the same name, this particular band (unlike the others, and like the original institution)  hails from Israel, a country whose contribution to the progressive rock scene has been steadily growing – especially in terms of quality – over the past few years.

Originally formed by brothers Sagi and Aviv Barness as a Camel tribute band, Sanhedrin soon started writing their own material, influenced by the golden era of progressive rock. After going through the usual turmoil of line-up changes, in 2006 they started recording their debut album. Four years in the making, Ever After was mixed and mastered by renowned Israeli sound engineer and  producer Udi Koomran, and completed in 2010 – to be released in February 2011 as on the Fading Records division of Italian label AltrOck Productions.

The musical connection between Sanhedrin and Camel will soon become evident even to a first-time listener. Andy Latimer’s crew, even if not as hugely influential on the younger generations of prog bands  as the likes of Genesis, Yes or ELP,  have clearly been a source of inspiration for many outfits who choose a more melodic direction while avoiding the excess of bombast that occasionally characterizes symphonic prog. Even if Camel have sometimes been rather unkindly indicted of being purveyors of ‘elevator prog’, or just a second-tier band lacking the clout of the bigger-name acts, it is undeniable that their restrained elegance has won over a lot of fans.

While Ever After may not be the most original album released in the past few months or so, it is definitely not overtly derivative – at least not as much as other albums which I have recently heard, and which are quite highly rated. Fading Records has been created for albums with a more traditional prog bent than the material usually issued by AltrOck Productions, and their first release, Ciccada’s A Child in the Mirror, was a stunning example of ‘retro-prog’ that managed not to sound like a carbon copy of the great Seventies bands. Ever After is much in the same vein, a classy product performed with impressive technical skill, yet exuding a sense of warmth and pastoral beauty that makes listening a genuinely enjoyable experience. While Camel are obviously the most relevant influence, on numerous occasions Pink Floyd (especially their early Seventies output) spring to mind, and echoes of early Genesis can also be detected. However, Sanhedrin also bring their own signature to the table: the ethnic references subtly scattered throughout the album (not just Middle Eastern, but also Celtic and central European) remind the listener of Israel’s multicultural milieu. Like Camel, the basic combination of guitar-bass-drums-keyboards is enhanced by the exquisitely soothing sound of the flute, with additional woodwinds also employed to add depth and dimension. Unlike the English band, though, Sanhedrin have opted for an exclusively instrumental format, which is quite an interesting choice, and a deviation from the standard symphonic tradition, where vocals play a rather important role.

As Israel is part of the Mediterranean region, it is not surprising to find echoes of vintage Italian prog right from the opening track, appropriately called “Ouverture”, together with a nice pinch of Middle Eastern spicing and jazzy touches. The 3-minute number sets the album’s mood very effectively, with its beautifully clear guitar tone, gentle flute and airy keyboards, the various sections flowing seamlessly into each other. The nearly 12-minute ”Il Tredici”, the longest track on the album (which runs at a very sensible 51 minutes), brings the Camel and Pink Floyd influences together in a majestic slice of gently melancholy symphonic prog, with magnificent Latimer- and Gilmour-inspired guitar leads and layers of keyboards. In spite of its slightly macabre title (suggested by the faint recorded sounds of an angry mob heard throughout the piece), “The Guillotine” alternates atmospheric, almost meditative moments with brisker ones driven along by organ and march-like drumming.

More ethnic influences emerge in the first half of “Dark Age”, possibly the highlight of the whole album, dedicated to fellow Israeli musician Arik Hayat of Sympozion, who committed suicide at the end of 2008. The lively, Celtic-tinged tune, described by lilting mandolin and flute, reminded me of some instances of Italian ‘minstrel’ Angelo Branduardi’s output, while the somber, organ-dominated mood of the middle section lifts towards the end, with a slightly dissonant passage suggestive of King Crimson. “Sobriety”, true to its title, merges the Celtic flavour of its flute-and-drum opening with the spacey yet majestic tone of Pink Floyd circa A Saucerful of Secrets (clearly referenced in a particular organ passage), and an intricate ending that brings martial drums and sharp, clear guitar to the fore. While “Timepiece” adds some almost tentative bouts of heavier riffing to a framework that combines the pastoral feel of Camel with the atmospheric mood of Pink Floyd, closing track “Steam” (introduced by the short acoustic interlude of “Tema”) explores definitely heavier territory, especially in its second half, where the assertive tone of the guitar and the subtle shifts in tempo commanded by bass and drums seem to suggest a running train; the electric piano section in the middle brought instead to my mind Ray Manzarek’s stunning performance in The Doors’ iconic “Riders on the Storm”.

While, as the previous paragraphs make it abundantly clear, Ever After may not be the most innovative proposition on the current prog scene, it is an album whose every note spells class and a deep love of the musical craft. A thoroughly enjoyable listen, highly recommended to fans of classic symphonic prog, especially those who lean more towards the instrumental side of things, it is an excellent debut from an equally excellent new band.

Links:
http://www.myspace.com/sanhedrin1

http://www.reverbnation.com/sanhedrin1

http://production.altrock.it/index.htm

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TRACKLISTING:
1. Fino all’Aurora (6:44)
2. D-Sigma (4:13)
3. 4.18 (1:37)
4. Discesa (7:32)
5. Tra Due Petali di Fuoco (6:06)
6. L’Inganno (7:20)
7. Agli Uomini Che Sanno Già Volare (4:36)
8. Il Declino (5:44)
9. Phoenix (5:07)
10. La Notte Trasparente (7:47)

LINEUP:
Alessandro Corvaglia – vocals
Fabio Zuffanti –  bass, bass pedals, backing vocals
Agostino Macor – keyboards
Andrea Monetti – flute, sax
Matteo Nahum – guitars
Maurizio Di Tollo – drums, backing vocals

One of the many projects in which Genoa-based bassist and composer Fabio Zuffanti is involved, La Maschera di Cera (The Wax Mask, named after a ‘50s horror movie starring Vincent Price) have been active since the beginning of the new millennium, releasing four studio albums and a live one. Their third album, LuxAde (released in 2006, and based on the Greek myth of Orpheus) brought them to the attention of the many fans of classic Italian prog scattered around the globe, which culminated with their appearances at the 2007 edition of NEARfest and the 2009 edition of ProgDay, two of the highest-profile progressive rock events in the world. They also appeared in the Romantic Warriors documentary, alongside fellow Italians D.F.A.

Petali di Fuoco, their fourth studio release (produced by a veritable RPI icon such as PFM drummer/frontman Franz Di Cioccio) marks a distinct change in the band’s compositional approach, and consequently also in their sound, which has been somewhat streamlined. While the band’s three previous albums had the hard-edged, retro-symphonic sound of Seventies outfits such Il Balletto di Bronzo and Biglietto per l’Inferno down pat, dispensing with the electric guitar in favour of luxurious keyboard textures and plenty of Mellotron – as well as sporting a strong conceptual bent – Petali di Fuoco takes a more mainstream direction, featuring 9 shorter, unconnected songs with more straightforward lyrics. While there are still Italian bands paying homage to the great tradition of the elaborate concept album, La Maschera di Cera seem to have followed the example set by other Genoese bands like Delirium (with their superb comeback release Il Nome del Vento) and Il Tempio delle Clessidre, and chosen a more accessible format for this album.

On Petali di Fuoco, the core of founding members Alessandro Corvaglia, Fabio Zuffanti, Agostino Macor and Andrea Monetti (plus drummer Maurizio Di Tollo, who joined the band in 2004) has been augmented by guitarist Matteo Nahum, who proves to be the album’s real ace in the hole. A classically-trained musician (and devoted Steve Hackett fan)  with the perfect combination of flawless technique (without any concessions to the deplorable shredding trend) and genuine emotion, his contribution lifts the level of the album from merely good to excellent. Even though the music is unabashedly retro, a loving homage to the classic Italian prog sound of the Seventies without any real claim to innovation, and the songs sometimes skirt the Italian melodic pop tradition a bit too close for comfort, Petali di Fuoco delivers a very satisfying listening experience, at least for those people who like their prog with lots of vocals. On the other hand, Alessandro Corvaglia’s strong, confident voice, markedly different from the operatic style of the likes of Francesco Di Giacomo, but equally suited to tackling material at the same time melodic and challenging, can bring to mind some internationally-known Italian pop singers, and therefore come across as vaguely annoying to those who like the angular, acquired-taste vocal styles of so many prog singers.

Running at about 55 minutes, Petali di Fuoco is a well-balanced effort that never threatens to outstay its welcome. Most of the songs – as immediately evidenced by opener “Fino all’Aurora”, an upbeat, organ- and flute-driven number ending with a beautiful guitar solo  – have a conventional verse-chorus-verse structure, but the lush orchestration and seamless instrumental interplay reveal their progressive matrix. Though Corvaglia’s voice often seems to dominate the proceedings, the instruments spin a tightly-knit web of sound that provides a solid foundation for the development of each song. While “D-Sigma” and “Discesa” keep things simmering in the same spirit as the opener, with melodious, Hackett-inspired guitar passages opening airy spaces in the dense, keyboard-driven heavy prog textures of the songs, the title-track and “Agli Uomini Che Sanno Già Volare” take a more subdued direction, with a sparser, somewhat melancholy instrumental backdrop that pushes the vocals to the forefront and leaves a lot of room for Corvaglia’s emotional delivery.

Though Petali di Fuoco is a strongly vocal-driven album, two instrumentals have been included – one, “4.18”, a short classical guitar number in the style of Genesis’ “Horizons”, the other, “Phoenix”, starting out slowly but building up to a crescendo powered by keyboards and drums – a structure paralleled by “Il Declino”, in which a somewhat somber piano solo is offset by the unbridled passion of Corvaglia’s vocals. On the other hand, with “L’Inganno” La Maschera di Cera explore vintage hard rock territory, powered by Agostino Macor’s rumbling Hammond organ and whistling Moog, and featuring an almost jazzy piano passage in the middle, as well as a soaring guitar solo at the end. The album ends with a veritable bang: “La Notte Trasparente”, at almost 8 minutes the longest track on the album, is also the most complex, with all the instruments creating intricate yet airy textures with more than a nod to classic Genesis, and a showcase for Matteo Nahum’s spectacular guitar work. His solo at the end starts out slowly, and then gradually drives towards an exhilarating climax that had me think about Gary Moore or Blue Oyster Cult’s Buck Dharma.

Though some prog fans may be disappointed by the lack of epics and the generally more streamlined nature of Petali di Fuoco, the album will certainy prove a treat for lovers of the sounds of vintage Italian prog. With lush instrumentation, a nice balance between orchestral grandiosity and more intimate, subdued moments, plenty of melody and warm, passionate vocals, it contains all the elements that keep attracting many listeners to Italian progressive rock – as well as those that often turn people off, such as the enhanced sentimentality and occasionally bombastic passage (though not as prominently as in their previous studio albums). It is, indeed, very much a ‘retro-prog’ effort – which might make it pointless (as a fellow reviewer put it) in the eyes of some of the more jaded set – but it cannot be denied that Petali di Fuoco is a quality offering brimming with flair and songwriting expertise. Even if, speaking from a strictly personal point of view, the music on the album is not always my cup of tea, I would not hesitate to recommend the album to everyone interested in Italian prog.

Links:
http://www.myspace.com/lamascheradicera

http://www.zuffantiprojects.com/

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TRACKLISTING:
1. Un Dono (2:13)
2. Wizard Intro (3:03)
3. Madre Africa (7:54)
4. Questa Penombra E’ Lenta (6:57)
5. Chimera (4:23)
6. The Game (10:38)
a. Wizard of your Sky
b. Mickey’s
c. Jump
d. Wizard of your Life
7. Cluster Bombs (6:43)
8. This Open Show (3:16)
9. C’Era Una Volta (2:59)

LINEUP:
Paolo Siani – drums, vocals, keyboards, bass, guitars

With:
Ricky Belloni – electric guitar (6)
Carlo Cantini – violin (6)
Guido Guglielminetti – bass (2, 4, 6)
Mauro Pagani / flute (3)
Alessandro Siani – electronics (1, 5)
Franco Testa – bass (5)
Roberto Tiranti – vocals (3, 6, 7)
Giorgio Usai – Hammond organ (6)
Joe Vescovi – Hammond organ (3)
Marco Zoccheddu – electric guitar (2, 3, 4, 7), piano (5, 7)
Gianni Alberti – sax (5)
Ottavia Bruno – vocals (5)
Giacomo Caiolo – acoustic guitar (4)
Nadia Enghèben – soprano (3)
Alberto “Artley” Buttarelli – vocals, flute (8)
Diego Gordi – piano (8)
Fabio Gordi – piano (8)
Daniele Pagani – piano (8)
Giuliano Papa – cello (8)
Vittorio Pedrali – vocal recitation (1)

In spite of his tenure as the drummer of Italian Seventies band Nuova Idea, Paolo Siani is certainly not a household name in the world of progressive rock – unless you count those dedicated fans of the scene who collect even the most obscure albums. Additionally, he shares the same name with an Italian-American artist of vastly different temperament, which can be misleading to those who are looking for more information. Although an excellent outfit, Nuova Idea did not achieve the fame of their fellow Genoese New Trolls (whom keyboardist Giorgio Usai and guitarist Ricky Belloni joined after the band’s demise) or Delirium, and disbanded after their third album, the highly-regarded Clowns, released in 1973. Subsequently Siani joined avant-garde outfit Opus Avantra for their second album, then beat band Equipe 84. Though he dropped off the musical radar for almost three decades, he worked as a producer and kept writing and recording his own music. It was the renewed interest in prog and the Italian Seventies scene that prompted Siani to resume his career as a musician – as well as a commendable humanitarian purpose, that is, raising funds on behalf of Genoa’s renowned Gaslini paediatric hospital.

Though Castles, Wings, Stories and Dreams, released by Genoa-based label Black Widow, is to all intents and purposes a solo project by Siani, it also sees a reunion of sorts of his mother band, as well as an impressive roster of guest musicians, including three of his former Nuova Idea bandmates: the above-mentioned Giorgio Usai and Ricky Belloni, plus guitarist Marco Zoccheddu, who had left the band to join Osage Tribe after Nuova Idea’s debut. Unlike many albums of this kind, however, it is remarkably tight from a compositional point of view. Moreover, despite Italian prog’s reputation for being somewhat overwrought,  the album avoids that particular trap, keeping melody and clarity at the forefront while not neglecting the occasional flight of instrumental fancy.

Clocking in at under 50 minutes, Castles, Wings, Stories and Dreams is a decidedly song-oriented effort that manages to achieve a good balance between vocal and instrumental parts. The album opens with “Un Dono”, where an expressive male voice recites a brief, uplifting text by Mahatma Gandhi on a backdrop of sparse electronic keyboards. The following instrumental, “Wizard Intro”, blends symphonic suggestions à la Yes with hard rock touches, all infused with an unmistakable Italian flavour. “Chimera”, also instrumental, hints instead at a jazzy inspiration, with a loose structure made up of different solo spots (bass, sax and piano) over a train-like background rhythm provided by drums and keyboards. Siani’s voice can be heard on one track, “Questa Penombra E’ Lenta” (which is also the closest the album gets to a conventional ballad in the unique Italian style), assisted by the clear, melodic voice of Ottavia Bruno, and complemented by lovely acoustic guitar and an airy synth solo.

Three tracks feature the powerful yet clear voice of Roberto Tiranti, lead singer of power/progressive metal band Labyrinth (with a brief stint in New Trolls in the late Nineties). His gritty performance on “Cluster Bombs” – a hard-hitting, anti-war song powered by Hammond and military-style drumming that owes more than a little to Deep Purple or Uriah Heep – increases the song’s emotional impact. Tiranti shows his more melodic side on the 10-minute, 4-part epic “The Game”, a richly textured composition where all the instruments get their chance to shine without overwhelming each other, with Hammond flurries and wistful violin strains. Tiranti then reverts to a more authoritative, hard-rocking persona in the haunting “Madre Africa”, where the Deep Purple influences represented by Joe Vescovi (formerly of The Trip, a band that briefly included Ritchie Blackmore among his members) and his Hammond organ are tempered by Mauro Pagani’s flute, whose sound brings to mind Delirium or Osanna. The album is wrapped up by two short, low-key pieces, the melancholy, cello-driven “This Open Show” and the instrumental “C’Era Una Volta”, a Baroque-inspired number performed by Siani alone.

As can be expected, Castles, Wings, Stories and Dreams is not particularly innovative, nor does it pretend to be such. Like other fellow reviewers, I also have some reservations on the choice of mixing Italian and English lyrics. The supposed ‘international appeal’ of English vocals, in my opinion, dilutes that unique quality of Italian prog that is so often connected with the use of such a great vehicle for music as the Italian language. However, in spite of these drawbacks, the album is a solid effort, a fine slice of vintage Italian prog with a thoroughly 21st-century sound quality, and excellent performances all round from Siani and his guest musicians. The album should also appeal to fans of classic hard rock with progressive overtones. At the time of writing, Paolo Siani is planning a live show in October in his hometown of Genoa, which hopefully will not remain a one-off.

Links:
http://www.blackwidow.it

http://www.progarchives.com/forum/forum_posts.asp?TID=77100

 

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TRACKLISTING:
1. Oro Caldo (18:30)
2. Stanza Città (1:45)
3. Animale Senza Respiro (21:36)

LINEUP:
Danilo Rustici – guitars, vox organ, electric piano, vocals
Lino Vairetti – lead vocals, rhythm guitars, ARP 2600, Mellotron
Elio D’Anna – tenor and soprano sax, flute, vocals
Massimo Guarino – drums, vibraphone, percussion
Lello Brandi – bass

Palepoli (The Old Town, currently the gorgeous seafront area called Santa Lucia) is the original nucleus of the city that would later become Naples, one of the most loved and loathed places in the world – the Italian music capital, and a notorious abode of crime and squalor (cue the hard-hitting movie Gomorrah, and the deplorable rubbish débacle of a few years ago, which seems to have reared its ugly head once again). Naples is breathtaking in its splendour, and infuriating in its unbridled anarchy – perhaps not the best place to live for those who like quiet and order, but also one to  experience  at least once in a lifetime (for the glorious food as well as for the scenery, the art and the music). The old adage  “See Naples and then die” is indeed quite true. A walk in the so-called Spanish quarters is the closest you can get to a Middle Eastern souk in the heart of western Europe – and probably no one has managed to capture that heady atmosphere better than the third album released by Naples’ own Osanna.

One of the most distinctive bands of the original RPI scene, Osanna were hot stuff back in the Seventies. With their painted faces (harking back to the city’s traditional mask of Pulcinella) and wild, energetic sound, they blended British-style heavy rock with influences coming from the venerable musical tradition of their hometown. It has even been intimated that Peter Gabriel took his cue from Osanna for his stage make-up when the two bands toured Italy together. Like so many of their fellow Neapolitans, the five members of the band had music in their blood – not the tasteful, restrained kind practiced by northern Italians PFM, though, but rather a full-throttle blend of passion, energy and chops.

Much in the same way as ELP’s output, Palepoli is not for those in search of subtlety, though I would not call it self-indulgent either. The chaos on display on the album is of the controlled variety, in spite of the somewhat fragmented nature of the compositions. However, those fragments, like the pieces of a puzzle, eventually fall together to form a complete picture. The two main tracks, sprawling epics that approach or even exceed 20 minutes in length, are linked by a short piece reprising the opening of the album itself, and give an entirely new meaning to the expression ‘rollercoaster ride’. It is no wonder that Palepoli commands such adoration on the part of prog fans. Indeed, it shows progressive rock at its authentic best, soothing and lyrical at times, and at others raw, aggressive and passionate. It also offers further proof of the invaluable contribution brought by local musical traditions  to the progressive melting pot.

Unlike Banco del Mutuo Soccorso and their fellow Neapolitans Balletto di Bronzo, Osanna’s sound is driven by Danilo Rustici’s slashing guitar and Elio D’Anna’s sax and flute – which add a mixture of lyricism and aggression to the already exciting texture of the music – rather than by keyboards. However, it is Lino Vairetti’s stellar vocal performance that lends the album a unique appeal.  Heir to one of the greatest singing traditions in the Western world, Vairetti fully deserves pride of place among the great prog singers:  in my view, his clear, versatile voice is probably second only to Banco’s Francesco Di Giacomo on the Italian prog scene.

The intro to the first track, “Oro Caldo”, a colourful, richly-textured patchwork of musical moods,  suggests the atmosphere of Naples’ narrow alleys and street markets, dirty, noisy, and thoroughly fascinating, a babel of sounds, voices and sights. The influence of Neapolitan folk music, such as the frantic rhythms of the tarantella, is evident throughout the piece, especially when, at the beginning, the band members sing in Neapolitan – probably one of the best vehicles for song and music known to man, and a language with a rich literary tradition in its own right.  “Oro Caldo” rocks hard, but also offers quieter, more meditative moments – just like escaping the chaotic atmosphere of the Naples alleys into a darkened, half-deserted church.

The second epic, “Animale Senza Respiro”, is a somewhat more structured piece, though it does adopt the same eclectic approach as “Oro Caldo”. It is also a distinctly darker offering, with some angular, jazzy stylings bordering on the avant-garde, dominated by flutes and saxes, interspersed with almost unexpected acoustic breaks. Though it is definitely not as easy on the ear as PFM’s stately, melodic compositions, it is nonetheless a captivating number with a strong emotional impact.

If you want soothing, pastoral beauty, or music that does not demand too much engagement from the listener, give this one a miss. Like the city of Naples itself, Palepoli is not for the squeamish. However, if you like your prog with some bite (and here there is plenty – think lashings of red hot pepper), and do not mind hearing people sing in a language other than English, this will grab you like few other discs produced in the Seventies. A concept album that is rooted in gritty reality and not in the airy-fairy, supported by first-class musicianship and singing, Palepoli has  acquired near-legendary status among prog fans, and deservedly so.

After an almost 20-year hiatus, Osanna reformed in the early 2000s (though only Lino Vairetti remains of the original line-up), and recently joined forces with former Van Der Graaf Generator’s saxophonist David Jackson. Their 2009 album, Prog Family, is an excellent compendium of the band’s whole output, with new arrangements of their classics and the contribution of such distinguished guests as singer Sophya Baccini (also a native of Naples), Balletto di Bronzo keyboardist Gianni Leone, and former King Crimson violinist David Cross.

Below this post you will find a link to an interview with Lino Vairetti which I translated for the ProgSphere website, shedding some light on the band’s past and recent history. In the light of the events of the past weekend (amply discussed in my previous blog post), the interviewer’s mention of NEARfest  feels particularly poignant. In my view, Osanna would have made a wonderful headliner for the festival, but were not even considered… Food for thought?

Links:
http://www.osanna.it/

http://www.prog-sphere.com/index.php?s=Lino+Vairetti

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