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Posts Tagged ‘Francesco Zago’

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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. Almost I (6:37)
2. Almost II (3:12)
3. Not a Good Sign (7:54)
4. Making Stills (6:43)
5. Witchcraft by a Picture (7:37)
6. Coming Back Home (5:52)
7. Flow On (6:07)
8. The Deafening Sound of the Moon (4:33)
9. Afraid to Ask (3:08)

LINEUP:
Paolo ”Ske” Botta – keyboards, glockenspiel
Alessio Calandriello – vocals
Gabriele Guidi Colombi – electric bass
Martino Malacrida – drums
Francesco Zago – electric and acoustic guitars

With:
Maurizio Fasoli – piano (3, 5, 9)
Bianca Fervidi – cello (5, 7, 9)
Sharron Fortnam – vocals (5)

In spite of its rather alarming handle, Not A Good Sign –  AltrOck Productions’ own “in-house” band (as guitarist/composer Francesco Zago was one of the label’s founders in 2005) – is set to make waves on the overcrowded progressive rock scene. Although the presence of members of two major modern Italian prog bands (Zago and Paolo “Ske”  Botta of Yugen, Gabriele Guidi Colombi and Alessio Calandriello of La Coscienza di Zeno) have led some to use the “supergroup” tag, this band is fortunately quite a different animal, bringing together Altrock’s two complementary sides – its signature cutting-edge bent and a fresh, modern twist to classic prog modes. The result is one of the most impressive albums released in 2013 so far.

Not a Good Sign developed from an idea by Botta, Zago and AltrOck mainman Marcello Marinone. Calandriello and Guidi Colombi were asked to join in 2012, and drummer Martino Malacrida put the finishing touch to the lineup. The band’s live debut took place in June at the AltrOck/Fading Festival in Milan, a few days before their self-titled album’s official release, Writing credits are shared by Botta and Zago, with assistance from Guidi Colombi on one track. The band’s name reflects the current economic and political climate of Europe and its impact on people. This not exactly optimistic outlook is also reflected in the lyrics, penned by Zago, whose tense, brooding mood and use of strong imagery hints at Van Der Graaf Generator.

As other reviewers have pointed out, the most immediate comparisons that come to mind when first listening to Not A Good Sign are Swedish prog giants Änglagård and Anekdoten, and the band certainly approach classic prog with a similar attitude, avoiding the overt imitation that mars the opus of other modern bands. As in the case of both those bands, the influence of King Crimson looms large over Not A Good Sign’s sound (something that Botta and Zago have readily admitted to), though their Italian heritage smooths out some of the sharper edges. Indeed, though the album was entirely recorded in English, it also possesses a uniquely melodic touch that tempers the angularity of the heavier sections, embodied by Alessio Calandriello’s clear, versatile voice. In spite of his obvious Italian accent, he does a great job in interpreting Zago’s moody lyrics, his voice blending perfectly with the instrumentation. Drummer Martino Malacrida (the only unknown quantity of the band) proves himself an accomplished rhythm machine, tackling complex patterns with aplomb and remarkable synergy with Gabriele Guidi Colombi’s powerful yet elegant bass lines. Zago’s guitar – in full-blown rock mood, displaying a different side of his artistic personality – and  Botta’s impressive array of vintage keyboards reveal the ease born of a long partnership, sometimes embarking in exciting, Deep Purple-style duels.

Not A Good Sign admirably balances the vocal and the instrumental component, the latter often capitalizing on the main composing duo’s experience in the Avant-Prog field. Opener “Almost I” pummels the listener into submission with its explosive Crimsonian intro, its heavy, doomy riffing bolstered by keyboards, and an overarching Gothic feel. “Almost II”, led by Calandriello’s melodic, well-modulated voice assisted by discreet guitar and piano, temporarily releases the tension built up by the previous number; while the almost 8-minute title-track (the longest song on the album) introduces an element of jagged dissonance, intensified by Calandriello’s high-pitched tone and dramatic organ with hints of Goblin – an intricate, deeply cinematic piece that sums up the band’s musical vision. The instrumental “Making Stills” lulls the listener at first with its subdued, sparse texture, then suddenly turns brisk and urgent, culminating in a crescendo in which all the instruments strive for attention.

Accompanied by acoustic guitar and glockenspiel, the ethereal voice of North Sea Radio Orchestra’s Sharron Fortnam weaves her magic in a riveting rendition of John Donne’s poem “Witchcraft by a Picture”, sandwiched between two intense, riff-laden sections that would not be out of place on a Black Sabbath album. The following two tracks, “Coming Back Home” and “Flow On”, are strongly vocal-oriented – the former almost catchy in spite of the rather depressing lyrics, the latter providing a showcase for Malacrida’s assertive drumming and Botta’s Genesis-inspired Moog sweeps. With the sinister “The Deafening Sound of the Moon”, the band pack a lot into barely over 4 minutes –  King Crimson-like angularity followed by imperious organ slashes and sharp riffs intersecting with the vocals, then mellowing out with a melodic guitar solo reminiscent of Steve Hackett’s style. Then, in the short, atmospheric finale of instrumental “Afraid to Ask” Maurizio Fasoli’s piano ebbs and flows, with sudden flares of guitar-driven intensity on the steady backdrop of Bianca Fervidi’s somber cello.

Unlike most traditional supergroups, who are often much less than the sum of their parts, Not A Good Sign deliver in spades, combining outstanding technical skills with above-average songwriting. Clocking in at a mere 51 minutes, the album (mastered by Udi Koomran with his usual skill) is very cohesive, and avoids the pitfalls lurking behind overambitious, epic-length pieces. With their debut, Not A Good Sign prove that paying homage to vintage prog does not mean descending into the near-plagiarism of many albums released in the past few years. No review of an album featuring Paolo Botta would be complete without a mention for his artwork, and here he has truly outdone himself – the gorgeously minimalistic shots of vintage glassware emerging from a pitch-black background the polar opposite of the overblown, fantasy-themed art often associated with prog. Highly recommended to everyone, no matter what their prog “affiliation”.

Links:
http://altrockproductions.bandcamp.com/album/not-a-good-sign

https://www.facebook.com/notagoodsign

http://www.dprp.net/wp/interviews/?page_id=4545

http://www.altrock.it

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In a couple of weeks’ time, fans of AltrOck Productions, the cutting-edge Italian label founded by Marcello Marinone and Francesco Zago in 2005, will be offered the unique opportunity to attend a two-day festival featuring a selection of exciting Italian and European bands, many of them have appeared on these pages.

The event, scheduled to take place on the weekend of June 1-2 at La Casa di Alex, a cultural centre on the outskirts of Milan, will see a total of seven bands taking turns on the stage. The label’s subsection Fading Records, dedicated to bands and artists who revisit “traditional” prog modes with a modern attitude, will be represented by Ciccada (Greece), La Coscienza di Zeno and Ske (Italy), who will be joined by highly awaited Norwegian outfit Wobbler; while October Equus (Spain) and Humble Grumble (Belgium) will add some intriguing RIO/Avant spice to the proceedings. Bassist Pierre “W-Cheese” Wawrzyniak (of fellow AltrOckers Camembert) will join Ske on stage for their first-ever live performance: while La Coscienza di Zeno will premiere their forthcoming second album, titled Sensitività.

The festival will also mark the stage debut of Not A Good Sign, the newest offering from AltrOck and  the label’s own “supergroup” of sorts, featuring Yugen’s Paolo “Ske” Botta (who is also the label’s main graphic artist) and Francesco Zago, and La Coscienza di Zeno’s Gabriele Guidi Colombi and Alessio Calandriello, as well as drummer Martino Malacrida. The band, who was started in 2011 by Botta and Zago (later joined by the other members),  aims to revisit the sounds of classic prog – liberally seasoned with hard rock and psychedelic suggestions – with a thoroughly modern attitude, focusing on the creation of melancholy, haunting atmospheres. Their self-titled recording debut, officially released on June 10, will be available for purchase at the festival. Yugen’s Maurizio Fasoli (piano), cellist Bianca Fervidi and vocalist Sharon Fortnam (Cardiacs/North Sea Radio Orchestra) also guest on the album. You can listen to a preview of the album here.

Links:
http://altrockfading.blogspot.it/

http://www.alexetxea.it/

www.altrock.it

https://www.facebook.com/notagoodsign

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yugen mirrors

TRACKLISTING:
1. On the Brink (0:59)
2. Brachilogia7  (3:09)
3. Catacresi5 (6:39)
4. La Mosca Stregata ( 0:57)
5. Overmurmur (5:30)
6. Industry (7:50)
7. Cloudscape (10:38)
8. Ice (1:55)
9. Becchime (12:38)
10. Corale Metallurgico (9:19)

LINEUP:
Paolo Ske Botta – organ, electric piano, synth
Valerio Cipollone – soprano sax, clarinets
Jacopo Costa – marimba, vibes
Maurizio Fasoli – piano
Matteo Lorito – bass
Michele Salgarello – drums
Francesco Zago – guitar

Founded in 2004 in Milan (Italy) by guitarist/composer Francesco Zago and AltrOck Productions mainman Marcello Marinone, Yugen (a core concept of  Japanese aesthetics that can be roughly translated as “profound grace and beauty”) took the progressive rock scene by storm with the 2006 release of their debut album, Labirinto d’Acqua – a supremely accomplished slice of chamber rock following in the footsteps of the original Rock in Opposition movement. Their second album, Uova Fatali, came two years later, and was based on music composed by Stormy Six’s Tommaso Leddi; while their third effort, Iridule (2010), was widely hailed as a masterpiece of the RIO/Avant subgenre.

An ensemble rather than a conventional band, Yugen revolve around a core group of Zago, keyboardist Paolo Ske Botta (often mentioned in this blog for his work as AltrOck’s in-house graphic artist) and pianist Maurizio Fasoli, joined in 2008 by reedist Valerio Cipollone, and augmented by a number of high-profile guest artists (including  mainstays of the US Avant Progressive scene such as Dave Kerman, Dave Willey, Elaine DiFalco and Mike Johnson,  and Guy Segers of Univers Zéro fame) In September 2011, almost exactly one year after Iridule’s release, the band appeared at the fourth edition of the Rock in Opposition festival, organized in the southern French town of Carmaux. Their performance as a seven-piece –a short excerpt of which is featured in Adele Schmidt and José Zegarra Holder’s documentary Romantic Warriors II – was captured on CD with the assistance of Orion Studios owner Mike Potter, and released at the tail end of 2012 with the title of Mirrors.

Though some may have wondered about Yugen’s ability to recreate Zago’s astonishingly intricate, painstakingly orchestrated compositions as a mere seven-piece rather than as an ensemble of up to 18 musicians (as in their studio albums), any doubts will immediately be dispelled by the sheer quality of the performances recorded on Mirrors. In spite of the constraints –  such as the allegedly short time dedicated to rehearsal – the band as a whole handle the complexities of the music with remarkable flair, without sounding cold or clinical as the highbrow quality of the material might suggest. While Zago’s main sources of inspiration as a composer (as pointed out by Sid Smith in his excellent liner notes) lie in both Renaissance and 20th-century classical music, his earlier rock roots often surface. His dense guitar riffs provide a backdrop for the constantly shifting dialogue between reeds and keyboards, bolstering the impeccable work of Michele Salgarello and Matteo Lorito’s rhythm section – which tackles daunting tempo changes with admirable composure. The music blends sharp angles and smooth curves, flowing naturally even at its most intricate, with melody lurking in the most unexpected places and revealing the unmistakable Italian imprint of this quintessentially cosmopolitan outfit.

The almost 60-minute album features 10 tracks drawn from Labirinto d’Acqua and Iridule, rearranged so as to adapt to the more rigid configuration of a live band. The longest, more intense compositions are concentrated in the second half of the album, which is introduced by a stunning version of Henry Cow’s iconic “Industry” (from the English band’s final release, 1979’s Western Culture). With their deeply intellectual titles reflecting the nature of the music, the compositions are arrestingly complex, though with a sense of organic warmth that is sometimes lacking in the production of highly celebrated bands belonging to the same movement.

Introduced by the dramatic drums and piercing, sustained guitar of “On the Brink”, the set unfolds with two tracks from Labirinto d’Acqua. The shorter “Brachilogia” weaves a sinuous, slightly dissonant tune, beefed up by guitar riffs and high-energy drumming, in which clarinet and marimba share the spotlight, interspersed by subdued piano passages; while “Catacresi” fully deploys Paolo Botta’s arsenal of keyboards, ranging from the sharp whistle of the synth to airy, atmospheric passages that would not be out of place on a Genesis album, creating a sort of cinematic tension. The instruments at times converge in perfect unison, at others pursue their individual paths, though with a constantly perceptible sense of inner discipline.

After the brief respite of “La Mosca Stregata”, “Overmurmur” barges in with an almost strident, apparently chaotic development, each instrument thrown in sharp relief, gradually mellowing out towards the end. The aforementioned “Industry” renders the martial, intense mood of the original, though softening its abrasive quality and spotlighting the deep, slightly hoarse rumble of the organ. On the other hand, “Cloudscape” reveals a different facet of Zago’s creative inspiration, its 10 minutes a masterpiece of skillfully handled atmospherics that paint a breathtaking sonic picture of the title. The track develops fluidly and elegantly, its sounds beautiful and melodic albeit not in a conventional, mainstream sense, slowing down almost to a whisper before the end. In the short, entrancing “Ice” – originally conceived as a showcase for Elaine DiFalco’s distinctive contralto, with lyrics by Nobel Prize winner Seamus Heaney  – the vocals are replaced with a wistful clarinet line redolent of Debussy, preparing the listener for the one-two punch of “Becchime” and “Corale Metallurgico”. The former is the kind of composition that is likely to send fans of melodic prog running for the exits, and makes indeed for demanding listening. Unabashedly cerebral and gloriously intricate (and twice as long as the studio version featured on Iridule) its multiple, angular twists and turns and bristling sound effects evoke the squawking of the chickens referenced in the title (becchime means “chicken feed” in Italian). Also true to its title, album closer “Corale Metallurgico” conveys a powerful industrial feel, with peaks of intensity ebbing into rarefied pauses, and moments of almost unbridled chaos suddenly morphing into a dynamic flow.

Presented in a visually stylish package with outstanding artwork and photography (courtesy of Paolo Botta, Lutz Diehl and Alessandro Achilli), as well as Sid Smith’s thought-provoking liner notes, Mirrors captures one of the foremost standard-bearers of contemporary cutting-edge progressive rock at the very height of its creative powers. Although the music may not always be what one would term accessible, even staunch followers of the more traditional branches of prog might find something to appreciate in the album’s pristine beauty. An absolute must for fans of RIO/Avant –Prog and chamber rock, Mirrors is sure to go down as one of the standout releases of 2012.

Links:
http://us.myspace.com/yugenband

https://www.facebook.com/Yugentheband

http://production.altrock.it/

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TRACKLISTING:
1. Snake Eating Its Tail (1:44)
2. Norrgarden Nyvla (3:03)
3. Hands of the Juggler  (4:44)
4. Rethinking Plague (3:49)
5. Presage (10:21)
6. Land Arf   (6:19)
7. Brachilogia (3:08)
8. Distillando   (4:11)
9. Crossroads (4:37)
10. Luoghi Che Aspettano (6:44)

LINEUP:
Emilio Galante – flute, piccolo
Valerio Cipollone – bass clarinet, clarinet
Andrea Pecolo – violin
Bianca Fervidi – cello

With:
Massimo Giuntoli – piano (6)

As my readers will have noticed, this blog generally deals with music that, in one way or the other, belongs to the rock universe. However, the album that will be reviewed in the following paragraphs (as the ensemble’s own name aptly points out), while conceived as an homage to a movement in whose name the word is prominently featured, cannot by any stretch of the imagination be described as rock.

AltrOck Chamber Quartet is the brainchild of gifted flutist and composer Emilio Galante, known for his work with avant-jazz ensemble Sonata Islands (hence the album’s title), who is here assisted by Valerio Cipollone (also a member of Yugen, one of the finest modern outfits in the RIO/Avant vein), Bianca Fervidi and Andrea Pecolo. The album’s witty cover artwork (a brilliant concept by AltrOck resident graphic artist Paolo Ske Botta), showing a violin adorned by Brazilian-themed images, plays on the possible misunderstanding of the word RIO  by those unaware of the acronym’s meaning. Composer Giovanni Venosta, who was responsible for the transcription of three of the original compositions featured on the album, revisits his first experiences with the Rock in Opposition movement in the album’s foreword (offered also in an English-language version, with an eye for AltrOck’s growing international following).

Recorded in February 2012 and released a few months later,  Sonata Islands Goes RIO might be  called (at least in part) a rather highbrow take on a very popular rock product such as the tribute album. Indeed, half of the 10 tracks on the album reinterpret well-known RIO/Avant compositions, while the remaining five are the work of modern Italian composers (including Galante himself) who have been influenced by the subgenre’s distinctive modes of expression. In true chamber tradition, the music is performed by a very limited number of instruments – flute, piccolo, clarinet, violin and cello – ruling out the presence of percussion, guitars or keyboards (with the exception of Massimo Giuntoli’s “Land Arf”, on which the composer himself guests on piano). While at first the result is very intriguing, even fascinating, those who are not chamber music devotees may find things a bit heavy going after a while – even if the album, at around 48 minutes, is by no means excessively long.

For the chamber-music novice, the most approachable tracks are definitely those in the first half of the album, especially the three Fred Frith compositions, “Snake Eating Its Tail” (transcribed by renowned clarinetist Mauro Pedron), “Norrgarden Nyvla” and “Hands of the Juggler” (both transcribed by Giovanni Venosta). In the second, Galante’s flute adopts a particularly assertive, almost harsh tone, while the first makes the most of the lively dialogue-like interplay of the reeds, and the third skillfully shifts from stately melody to dissonance. Galante’s revisitation of Thinking Plague’s “Love” – aptly titled “Rethinking Plague” –  conveys the  elaborate angularity of the Denver band’s sound, while adapting it to a somewhat different musical format. However, Venosta’s string-driven transcription of Univers Zéro’s iconic “Presage”, while undoubtedly faithful to the spirit of the original, cannot fully convey its hauntingly martial allure, and the absence of  Daniel Denis’ imperious drumming diminishes the impact of the final product .

On the other hand, the more recent compositions seem to  be much more suited to the minimalistic chamber format – starting with Francesco Zago’s jagged, intricate “Brachilogia7”, led by Galante’s sharp-toned piccolo. Massimo Giuntoli’s brisk, almost upbeat piano lends a sense of fullness and rhythm to “Land Arf”, whose melancholy middle section showcases Andrea Pecolo’s violin to great effect. Galante’s own composition “Distillando” (originally commissioned by the History Museum of the north-eastern Italian city of Trento) is sparse and almost ethereal in spite of the piercing tone of the piccolo, while the lilting tango of Tiziano Popoli’s “Crossroads” reintroduces a measure of melody in its engaging duet between violin and reeds. “Luoghi Che Aspettano”, penned by Stefano Zorzanello, closes the album with its ambitious but surprisingly effective combination of eerie dissonance and more upbeat, almost melodic flow.

From the above description, it should be quite clear that Sonata Islands Goes RIO is not for everyone. Chamber music in itself can be an acquired taste even for classical music fans, and the daunting nature of anything bearing a RIO label has been discussed all too often in this blog. However, the sheer excellence of the individual performances and the often riveting quality of the music should be enough to attract open-minded listeners who are looking for something more challenging than traditional progressive rock. Needless to say, the album will delight fans of RIO/Avant Prog and contemporary chamber music.

Links:
http://www.altrock.it

http://www.allmusic.com/album/sonata-islands-goe-rio-mw0002397513

http://www.sonataislands.com/

 

 

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TRACKLISTING:
CD 1 – Studio:
The Pocket Orchestra Tape 1983:
1. Imam Bialdi (6:24)
2. R. V. (7:04)
3. Regiments (14:59)
4. Letters (13:53)
The Knēbnagäujie Tape 1978-1979:
5. Blueing (7:10)
6. White Organ Meats (7:03)
7. Grandma Coming Down The Hall With A Hatchet (5:32)
8. Bagon (16:52)

CD 2 – Live:
1. Annex (5:56)
2. Bagon/Wandering Aimlessly (14:48)
3. Blirt (4:05)
4. Blueing (12:01)
5. Letters (19:12)
6. Parade (5:23)
7. Regiments (Parts 1, 2 and 3) (11:32)
8. Corn Fed (5:37)
9. Sound Check Bonus (0:43)

LINEUP:
Craig Bork – keyboards
Joe Halaijan (aka Joe Who)- clarinets, saxes, incidental vocals
Bill Johnston – cello
Tim Lyons – bass
Tim Parr – guitars
Bob Stearman – drums

With:
Craig Fry – flute (CD 1, 7)
Warren Ashford – tablas (CD 1, 7)
Jack Chandler – saxes (CD 2,  5-6)

If a contest was held for the unluckiest band on the progressive rock scene, Pocket Orchestra would have quite a few chances of winning first prize. In fact, only three members are left of the original six-piece lineup that recorded two demos between 1979 and 1984. What looked like a promising career for one the trailblazers of the RIO/Avant movement in the United States was cut short first by saxophonist Joe Halajian’s family problems (which led to the band going into hiatus), then by guitarist and main composer Tim Parr’s untimely demise in 1988. Thanks to the unstinting effort of Scott Brazieal, leader of Cartoon and a personal friend of the band, the material they had recorded in those short but intense five years finally saw the light in 2005, with the release of the CD Knēbnagäujie (the original name of the band). In the meantime, bassist Tim Lyons had passed away in 1998,  while drummer Bob Stearman (who had had a stroke in 2004) followed suit in 2010.

In spite of those unfortunate circumstances, Pocket Orchestra’s reputation remained very high in RIO/Avant circles, lending them a near-legendary aura in a context that often thrives on cult status. In 2011, Marcello Marinone and Francesco Zago of Italian label AltrOck Productions , assisted by such luminaries as Cuneiform Records’ Steve Feigenbaum and renowned sound engineer Udi Koomran, brought to light some of Pocket Orchestra’s unreleased recordings – including almost 80 minutes of live material – which eventually became the double CD set Phoenix, released in the second half of the year.

The album’s title, reinforced by Paolo “Ske” Botta’s striking cover artwork,  refers to the band’s hometown in Arizona, as well as to the almost miraculous reemergence of recordings that had seemed fated to remain buried in oblivion. Since Knēbnagäujie was sold out, the release of Phoenix was greeted enthusiastically by dedicated RIO/Avant followers, especially those interested in the US scene. While such archival operations rarely claim to present material in truly organic and cohesive form, Koomran’s state-of-the-art mastering has given new life to those 30-year-old live tapes, as well as to the contents of the original Knēbnagäujie  CD. Brazieal’s detailed liner notes, complemented by vintage photos of the band on stage and other memorabilia, complete this lovingly assembled tribute to the “Phoenix reborn”.

As can be expected from their checkered history, while undeniably gifted and dedicated to their craft, Pocket Orchestra had not yet fully developed their potential when circumstances forced them to call it a day. Their compositions suffer from occasional bouts of patchiness, added to some of those features that generally make the whole RIO/Avant subgenre so daunting (often unnecessarily so) to newcomers. Indeed, both the eight tracks on the studio CD and the nine on the live CD are nothing but ambitious and unpredictable, packed with twists and turns of every description.

While the founding fathers of the RIO movement such as Henry Cow and Univers Zero are inevitably referenced, the main influence that can be detected on Phoenix is that of Samla Mannas Manna,  another band belonging to the original RIO contingent – something that earned Pocket Orchestra the tag of “Samla of the desert”. However, Pocket Orchestra’s music is completely instrumental, and also decidedly less melodic, though imbued by a similar brand of playful light-heartedness, embodied by the use of circus music in “Grandma Coming Down the Hall With a Hatchet” .  Sudden blasts of saxophone and clarinet and wailing, piercing guitar excursions seem to be the rule, with Bob Stearman engaging in a mind-boggling range of intricate rhythmic patterns to propel the sound forward.

The word “anarchic” is probably the best description of Pocket Orchestra’s approach. The average composition can suddenly shift from a laid-back, almost meditative pace to unrelieved chaos – as exemplified by “R.V”, whose first half is deceptively mellow, then erupts into an intense, free-form maelstrom of sound. The sedate, piano-driven passages in the 14-minute, Canterbury-influenced “Letters” are bound to bring to mind the easy elegance of Hatfield and the North or National Health, offset by Parr’s aggressive guitar solo at the end. On the other hand, album closer “Bagon” marries the lovely, melodic Canterbury feel with more typical RIO features such as blaring sax and strident guitar.  As a whole, the first four tracks –dating back from 1983, immediately before Pocket Orchestra went on hiatus – come across as more accomplished, showing a band well on its way to reining in the in-your-face dissonance and chaos that instead emerge in the studio CD’s second half.

The second CD offers an invaluable testimony of the band’s brisk live activity in the years 1980-1984, and includes a number of previously unreleased tracks, as well as noteworthy versions of “Letters” and “Regiments”. Udi Koomran’s experience in the studio managed to bring out the best in recordings whose original quality was less than ideal, presenting a band that was definitely at home on stage. While some of the longer tracks may still reveal a bit of self-indulgence, the shorter ones, such as “Parade” or “Corn Fed”,  show how Pocket Orchestra were gradually but clearly finding their own unique voice and direction, and at the same time tightening up on the compositional aspect.

Though somewhat clichéd, the definition of “rollercoaster ride” seems to be a perfect fit for an album like Phoenix, which probably should come with a warning sticker. While its blend of dignified chamber rock, wild, wacky all-out experimentation and the occasional foray into sophisticated, Canterbury-style jazz-rock will not fail to appeal to fans of everything RIO/Avant, even a cursory listen to opener “Imam Bialdi” will send the average “mainstream” prog fan running for the exits. While bands like Miriodor or Yugen might have a broader crossover appeal and win over staunch devotees of symphonic prog, Pocket Orchestra, as captured on this double set, were definitely raw and uncompromising. All in all, though not exactly a comfortable listen, Phoenix is a moving tribute to a band that might have grown into a force to be reckoned with, had not fate got in the way.

Links:
http://production.altrock.it/prod2.asp?lang=ita_&id=171&id2=172

http://www.allmusic.com/artist/pocket-orchestra-p876979/biography

 
 

 

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TRACKLISTING:
1. Infinicheese (1:35)
2. Clacos Zero (0:35)
3.Untung Untungan 2.0 (11:13)
4. Clacos 1 : Notre Mère à Tous (1:58)
5. El Ruotuav Ed Sram (8:16)
6. Clacos 2 : Die Experimente von Dr Frankenschnörgl (0:48)
7. Le Meurtrier Volant (9:01)
8. La Danse du Chameau:
a) Batifolade  (5:29)
b) Soif! (1:17)
c) La Tempête De Sable (4:51)
d) Rêveries Lubriques Sous une Dune (1:09)
e) The Final Run  (5:01)

LINEUP:
Fabrice Toussaint – tenor trombone, xybraphone, congas, tam-tam, triangle, other percussionBernard Eber – trumpet, didgeridoo, cowbell, whistle, voices
Pierre Wawrzyniak – bass, acoustic guitar, voices
Philémon Walter – drums
Guillaume Gravelin – harp
Vincent Sexauer – electric guitar

 With:
Julien Travelletti – bass trombone (3, 5, 7, 8), tuba (7)
Francesco Zago – electric guitar (3)

When coming across a French band named Camembert, and an album title featuring the word “Attahk”, most progressive rock fans will inevitably think of two illustrious outfits such as Magma and Gong – both of whom have also ties with France. Add to that a rather left-field story about the Earth being invaded by small, gelatin-like beings from outer space called Schnörgl, led by a mad scientist researching weapons of mass destruction, and involving a giant spaceship made of intergalactic cheese – and the resemblance will steadily grow, so that a first-time listener might wonder if they are being confronted with the new frontier of “retro-prog”. However, there is very little “retro-anything” about Camembert, whose thoroughly modern brand of jazz-rock proudly sports that strongly absurdist streak that is one of the distinctive traits of French prog.

Camembert are a six-piece hailing from the city of Strasbourg in north-eastern France, where they formed in 2005.  Schnörgl Attahk, their first full-length CD, which marks the beginning of the band’s collaboration with Milan-based label AltrOck Productions, was preceded in 2009 by the release of the 6-track EP Clacosmique. Most of the material that had originally appeared on the EP has been included on the album, though in almost completely rearranged form. Camembert members Fabrice Toussaint and Pierre Wawrzyniak had also appeared on another noteworthy 2011 release, Ske’s 1000 Autunni – and Ske mainman Paolo Botta (who also plays keyboards with Yugen, and is a gifted graphic artist) returned the favour by providing suitably wacky artwork for Camembert’s debut.

As previously hinted, Schnörgl Attahk manages the remarkable feat of combining an amazing level of complexity with an upbeat, ebullient mood that will provide the perfect antidote to the excess of earnestness of far too much prog. The outrageous tale of Dr Frankenschnörgl and his dastardly plans for a global takeover is told through the artwork and detailed liner notes, as the album is completely instrumental. On the other hand, while no actual singing is involved, the music suggests the events in strikingly effective manner, appealing to the listener’s powers of imagination.

Like the best examples of progressive rock (modern or otherwise), Schnörgl Attahk is a quintessentially eclectic effort. The band’s handling of their main sources of inspiration eschews derivativeness, moving rather along the lines of incorporating those sources into the fabric of their own original sound – whose foundation is a sinuously intricate brand of jazz-rock with roots in Frank Zappa’s output circa Apostrophe, as well as Shamal/Gazeuse!-era Gong (incidentally, both Pierre Moerlen and Mireille Bauer were originally from the Strasbourg area – perhaps something in the water?). However, the many pieces of Camembert’s musical mosaic are extremely variegated, supported by a very distinctive instrumentation that rules out keyboards, but hinges primarily on an unusual combination of horns, mallet percussion and harp. The gentle, liquid voice of the latter, blending harmoniously with the rippling tinkle of Fabrice Toussaint’s xybraphone and the warm, organic sound of various percussion instruments, gives Camembert’s sound a unique imprint.

While the two short, consecutive openers, “Infinicheese” and “Clacos Zero”, set the scene in textbook-spacey fashion, with swishing electronics and occasional guitar touches, the 11-minute “Untung Untungan 2.0” makes a bold entrance with its lively avant-fusion allure, then unfolds in a myriad of dazzling twists and turns, to which Francesco Zago’s guitar lends some extra bite. The easy, natural flow of the music, whose melodic flair almost belies its inherent complexity, brings to mind Canterbury acts like Hatfield and the North, and the energetic presence of the horns, coupled with Pierre Wawrzyniak’s solid bass lines, lend a funky swagger to tracks like “El Ruotuav ed Sram” (“Le Vautour de Mars” spelled backwards). Shades of Magma and Univers Zéro lurk in the imperious, martial pace of  the intense “Le Meurtrier Volant”, while in the 5-part suite, “La Danse du Chameau”, sprightly Latin-tinged rhythms in the style of early Santana, weird voices and dense, faintly dissonant passages coexist, held together by the lush yet unconventional instrumentation.

An exciting slice of sparkling eclecticism, combining melody, complexity and zany humour in an irresistible mixture, Schnörgl Attahk is almost mandatory listening for fans of modern jazz-rock and RIO/Avant prog, and will particularly appeal to fans of genre-straddling bands such as Frogg Café, miRthkon or Miriodor, as well as newer outfits like Calomito or Slivovitz. With all-round outstanding performances, excellent production values (courtesy of Udi Koomran and Eric Gauthier-Lafaye), and a genuinely positive attitude that will put a smile on your face (as well as a very restrained running time, which allows the music to be absorbed without weariness setting in), Schnörgl Attahk  proves that it is fully possible to pay homage to the trailblazers of the past without turning into a nostalgia act.

Links:
http://www.myspace.com/camembert67

http://production.altrock.it/home.asp?lang=ita_&id=9&id2=9

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