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Dario D’Alessandro

After a couple of months of silence, I am glad to have the opportunity to post this outstanding interview with Dario D’Alessandro of Sicilian outfit Homunculus Res (undoubtedly one of the best modern bands to come out of Italy for a long time), conducted by fellow music enthusiast Michael Björn.

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Homunculus Res
Dario D’Alessandro interview

(Japanese language version originally published in Strange Days #198, March 19 2016)

Text & interview: Michael Björn

Already with the first propulsive beats in odd time signatures on their debut album in 2013, Homunculus Res made it clear that great things were happening on the island of Sicily. With their new album Come Si Diventa Ciò Che Si Era, there is no longer any doubt that they are the new heirs to the throne of Canterbury-inspired progressive rock bands.

When the organ resolves the last 40 seconds of “Doppiofondo del barile” you could swear that Hatfield & the North are in the studio control room, clapping their hands. But although the humour, the inventive song writing, the short pop songs, the mass of ideas piled on top of each other and the complex arrangements all firmly root them in the Canterbury music tradition, Homunculus Res are no copycats.

Whereas Egg, Caravan and National Health all had a lovely cup of tea waiting for them at the end of a song; there is no such romantic dream of Albion in the music made by Homunculus Res.

When you leave that cup of tea behind, strange things happen. One could argue that Henry Cow did exactly this and the result was the RIO movement. Homunculus Res, however, are less overtly oriented towards politics; their focus instead seems to be the modernistic tradition of mainland Europe. They re-examine and re-invigorate their Canterbury influences in every twist and turn, outfit them with retro-futuristic sounds from space machines and dance moves from the Cabaret Voltaire nightclub.

Although such modernistic influences were certainly an integral part of the Canterbury scene, particularly during Soft Machine’s early years, here they are developed into a unique strain of rock music that touches a deep nerve in the listener.

How did Homunculus Res manage to develop their singular vision? We asked bandleader Dario D’Alessandro to tell us more.

How, when and why was Homunculus Res formed?

Dario: The band was founded in 2010. At that time, I wanted to play progressive music that was complex but at the same time pleasant to listen to and fun. I had already written several songs. The meeting with the Di Giovanni brothers – Daniele on drums and David on keyboard –  has made this possible because they also wanted to experiment with odd time signatures and musical mathematical games. Like me, they also they a strong taste for melody.

The current line-up is a prog-rock quintet, including Mauro Turdo, to whom I willingly leave the most difficult guitar parts, and Daniele Crisci on bass. When we play a live show, we try to involve horn players, flute and /or sax, to complete the arrangements.

We are all interested in the arts. As for myself, I am primarily a painter and graphic artist. In fact, I curate all the graphical parts of our project.

 

Davide Di Giovanni, Dario D’Alessandro

 

Is it true that the band name Homunculus Res comes from Otto Rippert’s six-part science fiction film “Homunculus” from 1916? What does the name signify to you?

Dario: I wanted a band name that was mysterious but also funny. Initially, it was Homunculus REX, haha! A graceful mockery of the seriousness of certain themes that still fascinate me. The name can also be a derogatory version of Man himself; a small man with no soul, morally poor. Probably this character metaphorically represents a critique of modern society. The inspiration mainly comes from Goethe’s Faust.


You have a different approach to music than most other Italian progressive bands.

Dario: True, we have a different approach than the Italian style in general; less “romantic”, more amused and perhaps more geared to the North-European and American tastes.

I don’t know why.


My two favourite Italian bands are Homunculus Res and Breznev Fun Club. Would you count yourself as part of the same scene?

Dario: We can probably both broadly be called Avant-Prog, but it is obvious that there are huge differences in our styles. Breznev Fun Club leader Rocco Lomonaco is a great meticulous composer who looks to the contemporary avant-garde music; whereas we are a band that basically uses the rock language.

But Rocco and I hold each other in high regard and we will write something together soon.


You have called Picchio Dal Pozzo the most important Italian band. Do you see Homunculus Res as a continuation of their music?

Dario: For me, Picchio dal Pozzo is something wonderfully unique and unrepeatable that happened on the Italian music scene. I am very pleased that the critics compare us, but we feel very tiny compared to them, although they are an endless source of inspiration. Maybe what we have in common is a surreal sense of humour.

Picchio dal Pozzo founding member Aldo De Scalzi has in fact collaborated on a song on our second album. He is very nice to us; a very kind and cheerful person.


How did you get so many artists to guest on the album?

Dario: Well, I just expressed my admiration to them and vice versa. For example, I found the music of Regal Worm very fresh, unconventional and similar to our intentions.

For us it was a real privilege. Dave Newhouse (the Muffins / Rascal Reporters) played many horn parts, showing great mastery and naturalness with the modesty that is typical of great musicians. He’s a wonderful and sensitive person.


There is also a track called “Egg Soup” by Steve Kretzmer from Rascal Reporters. Did he write it for you? I thought Steve Kretzmer had left music for good?

Dario: I included the opening theme from the fantastic Rascal Reporters album “Happy Accidents” on our first album. Then, I came in contact with Brian Donohoe (Volaré, Alpha Cop), who has taken over the huge Rascal Reporters tape archive in order to digitise and remaster it.

Brian put me in touch with Steve Kretzmer, who was amazed that someone had done a Rascal Reporters cover. I tried to convince Steve to play or make a song together, although he has not played for a long time. However, thanks to Brian, they had the brilliant idea to give me an unreleased 1977 piano piece, “Egg Soup”.

From what I know, Steve Kretzmer will return to write music.


What is Canterbury music to you?

Dario: For me, as for many others, it is music that quirkily and smartly blends electric jazz with the progressive rock and psychedelia: A quest into complex rhythms and delicious harmonies with a pataphysical and surreal attitude. Everything is so graceful and refined, both in the most violent raids of Egg and in the most ethereal Wyatt melodies.

You seem to have a strong affection for the nonsensical elements of that music. The absurdism as well as the humour shines through even though I do not understand a word of Italian.

Dario: The absurdity attracts me, and I am attracted to music that explores the unknown. I am fascinated by eccentric literary authors such as Rabelais, Sterne, Kafka and Jarry; and I love Dadaism and Surrealism. However I would not call my lyrics “nonsense” – it is more appropriate to think of them as symbolic texts.

I try to give a musicality to the words. If the humour comes out even for a not Italian listener, this pleases me!

Top: Daniele Crisci, Mauro Turdo, Davide Di Giovanni Bottom: Daniele Di Giovanni, Dario D’Alessandro

 

Many of your songs are extremely short…

Dario: Many things can happen within a short space of time – and we tend to get bored when repeating or stretching phrases or riffs. This may stem from our love for beautiful “pop” songs, and we hope it is also stimulating for the curious listener


Your new album also contains the 18-minute track “Ospedale Civico” that seems to reference National Health. Why keep some things together and divide others up?

Dario: My way of composing is similar to the method of a writer of short stories. “Ospedale Civico” is connected by various internal references, recurring themes and self-citations, in a coherent continuum and self-sufficient form. The song is definitely a reference to National Health; it is a hallucinatory journey inside a public hospital, treated as in a J.G. Ballard story. Full of disjointed phrases uttered by patients, the general feeling is grotesque and restless but, because of that, it is tragicomic as in the Italian cinema tradition.

I also involved Wyatt Moss-Wellington, who sang some magnificent choruses. He was making a beautiful, long piece entitled “Sanitary Apocalypse” during the same period; an enjoyable coincidence, so it was perfect for the cause.


Is there any collaboration on the writing or on arrangements?

Dario: I write almost everything and propose it to the group.  I have not studied music so I do not write a score, even if I try to translate the music to midi files. The songs originate on guitar or keyboard or, in the case where I need to understand things concomitantly, they are born on a computer.

We then try to find the best arrangement together, and witnessing a song take shape with the band is the thing I enjoy the most. On some parts I’m inflexible (some chords, a sequence of notes, or a precise rhythm), while for other things I leave it the group to decide all together.

On each record, there are also one or two songs written by keyboardist Davide.


I saw a live concert recording of you online. Is it very difficult to play your music live?

Dario: Some songs are not very easy to play. There are so many things to remember and many steps are very tight. Maybe we mostly love the studio atmosphere; we work on the arrangements and we have fun during recordings and postproduction.

In any case we do rehearse frequently and our few concerts are appreciated even by those who don’t know us.

 

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Music Is My Only Friend – 2015 in Review

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First off, I feel the need to apologize to my readers for the string of rather depressing titles given to my “Year in Review” posts. No matter how optimistic I try to be at the beginning of a new year, life always finds a way to disappoint my expectations. 2015, though, was special – for all the wrong reasons. Even now that things are going somewhat better (though far from ideal), I still occasionally feel the urge to withdraw from everyone – hence the not exactly uplifting title of this piece.

This sorry state of affairs obviously impacted my inspiration as regards writing reviews and the like. My blog was neglected for most of the year, with only 9 posts in 12 months, and the few label owners who regularly sent me their material took me off their mailing lists – which contributed to my feelings of isolation, even if I cannot blame them for that. Music remained nevertheless a constant source of comfort, thanks to the ready availability of new (and not so new) material on streaming services such as Progstreaming and Bandcamp. This allowed me to listen to most of the albums I was interested in, and keep in touch with a scene that I have been steadily supporting for the past few years. Some days I had to force myself to listen, but thankfully things got easier with time.

Although full-length reviews were thin on the ground, I kept up my collaboration with Andy Read’s excellent weekly feature Something for the Weekend?, as well as my activity as a member of the RIO/Avant/Zeuhl genre team (also known as ZART) at my “alma mater”, ProgArchives. In the second half of the year i was able to resume writing longer reviews, not only for my blog, but also for DPRP – though not yet on a regular basis. On the other hand, our concert attendance hit an all-time low. To be fair, ProgDay 2015’s extremely high level of quality more than made up for the many other gigs that we ended up missing. The only other show we attended was The Muffins’ one-off performance at the Orion Studios in mid-May, which unfortunately I was unable to enjoy as much as it would have deserved.

As usual, the amount of new music released in 2015 under the ever-expanding “prog” umbrella was staggering, and required a rather selective approach. The year just ended further proved that the scene is splintering in a way that, while it may help people more effectively to find music that appeals to their tastes, may also in the long run cause harm – especially as regards the live scene. Festivals in the US have further shrunk in number, with the cancellation (and apparent demise) of the NJ Proghouse Homecoming Weekend leaving only ROSfest and ProgDay still standing. Europe seems to be faring somewhat better (though one has to wonder how long this will last), and festivals appealing to a broad range of tastes within the prog spectrum continue to be reasonably well-attended.

On a positive note, websites dedicated to prog are going strong, as is the rather controversial Prog magazine (whose fan I am definitely not). It remains to be seen if what has always been a niche market (even in the Seventies, when bands that enjoyed commercial success were just the tip of a very large iceberg) will be able to keep up with such a vast output in the following years. In some ways, as I also observed in last year’s post, going underground has freed progressive rock from the constraints of appealing to market tastes, but (in my view at least) the opportunity for almost everyone to produce an album and put it on Bandcamp or Soundcloud poses a lot of questions as regards quality control.

Some of my readers will undoubtedly notice the absence of some of the year’s higher-profile releases. As I did last year, I decided to avoid mentioning albums I had found disappointing or just plain uninteresting, as well as those I have not yet managed to hear. A lot of other people have mentioned those albums in their own Year in Review pieces, and I think there is no use in pointing out the negative instead of concentrating on the positive. Compared with some of the previous years, 2015 started out in rather low-key fashion, with many highly anticipated releases concentrated in its second half. On the other hand, the first part of the year brought albums that are very well worth checking out, though they may never enjoy the status of other discs. It was also a year that, while prodigal with very good releases, mostly lacked genuine masterpieces. On the whole, I feel I have just scratched the surface, as perusing the myriad of Best of 2015 lists published on the web constantly reveals some album I have not heard of before.

As I mentioned in last year’s post, my tastes have been steadily moving away from “standard” prog, though a few albums that qualify as such have been included here. In fact, my personal #1 album of the year was released by a band that first got together in the late Seventies, and is probably closer to “conventional” prog than people would expect from me. However, Hands’ masterful Caviar Bobsled is a unique album that does not really sound like anything else, definitely fresher and more modern than a lot of highly praised albums by artists who have been active for a much shorter time.

Having promoted US prog for a while now, I am glad to report that the American scene produced some fine specimens over the past few months – with the NY/NJ region being again very much in evidence. Brilliant releases from The Tea Club (Grappling), 3RDegree (Ones & Zeros Vol. 1) and Advent (Silent Sentinel) highlighted the work of bands that have reached full maturity in terms of musicianship and compositional flair. To this outstanding trio I would also add Echolyn’s I Heard You Listening (more of a slow grower than their career-defining 2012 album) IZZ’s stylish Everlasting Instant, as well as a couple of well-crafted albums with a more traditional bent, both recommended to keyboard lovers – Kinetic Element’s sophomore effort, Travelog, and Theo’s debut, the dystopian concept The Game of Ouroboros.

All of the above-mentioned albums offer plenty of sophisticated music with great melodic potential, standing at the crossroads between tradition and modernity. The contemporary US scene, however, is also rife with cutting-edge artists that constantly challenge the perceptions of their intended audience. Works such as Upsilon Acrux’s highly charged Sun Square Dialect, the hypnotic math-rock of BattlesLa Di Da Di, Stern’s gloomily haunting Bone Turquoise, The Nerve Institute’s idiosyncratic Fictions (containing previously unreleased material), Ben Levin Group’s “pronk” opus Freak Machine (featuring most members of Bent Knee), Jack O’The Clock’s Outsider Songs (a collection of quirky covers), and Andrew Moore Chamber Works’ intriguing debut Indianapolis (steel drums meet chamber rock) proved the vitality of the US avant-garde scene. Thinking Plague (whose new album is expected in 2016), reissued their seminal debut, In This Life, while two albums involving previous or current members of the band – Ligeia Mare’s Amplifier and +1’s Future Perfect (the latter one of the many projects of keyboardist/composer Kimara Sajn) – helped to make the wait more bearable. Another fine Avant-related album (though in a more song-based vein), Omicron, came from former Alec K Redfearn and the Eyesore’s vocalist, Orion Rigel Dommisse.

New, highly eclectic releases by “jazzgrass proggers” Galactic Cowboy Orchestra (Earth Lift) and Yes-meets-country trio Dreadnaught (the EP Gettin’ Tight With Dreadnaught), Marbin’s fiery Aggressive Hippies, Djam Karet’s supremely trippy Swamp of Dreams, Fernwood’s delightful acoustic confection Arcadia, Mammatus’s monumental stoner-prog opus Sparkling Waters, and ethereal chamber-folk duo Fields Burning’s eponymous debut also illustrated the versatility  of a scene that is all too often associated with heavily AOR-tinged music.

On the other side of the Atlantic, the British scene has been experiencing a renaissance in terms of creative modern progressive rock. Top of the heap, and definitely one of the best 2015 releases as far as I am concerned, were two Cardiacs-related albums: William D. Drake’s superb Revere Reach, one of those rare discs that are impossible to label, as well as being a delight from start to finish, and Guapo’s hypnotic, surging Obscure Knowledge. Thieves’ Kitchen’s stately, poignant The Clockwork Universe, with its original take on “classic” prog modes, completed my personal trinity of top 2015 British releases.

The runners-up, however, are all quite deserving of attention from discerning prog fans. Richard Wileman’s über-eclectic Karda Estra regaled its followers with a whopping three releases – the full-length Strange Relations (recorded with the involvement of The Muffins’ drummer extraordinaire Paul Sears), and the EPs The Seas and the Stars and Future Sounds (the latter also featuring Sears). Guitarist Matt Stevens’ The Fierce and the Dead made a comeback with the intense EP Magnet, and A Formal Horse’s second EP, Morning Jigsaw, provided a British answer to Bent Knee and MoeTar. John Bassett (of Kingbathmat fame) produced an exciting follow-up (simply titled II) to the 2014 debut of his instrumental, stoner-prog solo project, Arcade Messiah; in a similar vein, the cinematic psych/space of Teeth of the Sea’s Highly Deadly Black Tarantula. To further prove that the modern British prog is definitely not steeped in nostalgia, Colin Robinson’s Jumble Hole Clough brought us more of his quirky, electronics-infused antics with A List of Things That Never Happened, and Firefly Burning a heady dose of drone-folk with their latest effort, Skeleton Hill.

Plenty of great music also came out of continental Europe. From Scandinavia, one of the year’s most eagerly anticipated albums – Anekdoten’s Until All the Ghosts Are Gone – delivered amply in the quality stakes, as did the scintillating electro-jazz of Jaga Jazzist’s Starfire, Pixel’s warmer, more organic Golden Years, the rambling, keyboard-based jazz-rock of Hooffoot’s debut, Agusa’s space-rock workout Två, the quirky Avant-Prog of Simon Steensland’s A Farewell to Brains, Necromonkey’s all-electronic extravaganza Show Me Where It Hertz, and another long-overdue comeback – Dungen’s sunny Allas Sak – as well as guitarist Samuel Hällkvist’s highly original effort Variety of Live, recorded with an international cast including Pat Mastelotto and Richard Barbieri. Dungen’s guitarist, Reine Fiske, also appeared on elephant9’s highly praised Silver Mountain – the only album mentioned here that I have not yet managed to hear. Heading east, the intriguing, though not widely known, Russian scene produced the haunting psychedelic rock blended with shamanistic chanting of Ole Lukkoye’s Dyatly, The Grand Astoria’s ambitious crossover The Mighty Few, and the lush symphonic-Avant of Roz VitalisLavoro d’Amore.

The thriving French scene presented Avant fans with Unit Wail’s psyche-Zeuhl opus Beyond Space Edge, Ni’s electrifying Les Insurgés de Romilly, Ghost Rhythms’ elegant Madeleine, and Alco Frisbass’ Canterbury-inspired debut. Switzerland, on the other hand, seems to have become a hotbed for all forms of “post-jazz”, with two outstanding Cuneiform releases – Schnellertollermeier’s exhilarating X, and Sonar’s more understated Black Light – as well as IkarusEcho and Plaistow’s Titan. Germany brought the omnivorous jazz-metal of Panzerballett’s Breaking Brain, and Belgium Quantum Fantay’s pulsating space trip Dancing in Limbo. From the more southern climes of Greece and Spain came Ciccada’s lovely, pastoral sophomore effort, The Finest of Miracles, the intriguing Mediterranean math rock of El Tubo Elástico’s eponymous debut, and Ángel Ontalva’s sublime, Oriental-tinged Tierra Quemada.

Italy, as usual, did its part, turning out a panoply of albums of consistently high quality. Fans of the classic RPI sound found a lot to appreciate in La Coscienza di Zeno’s third effort, La Notte Anche di Giorno, Ubi Maior’s ambitious Incanti Bio-Meccanici, and also the harder-edged Babylon by VIII Strada. Not A Good Sign’s comeback, From A Distance, combined Italian melodic flair and Crimsonesque angularity, while Pensiero Nomade’s Da Nessun Luogo introduced haunting female vocals into jazzy/ambient textures. The very title of Slivovitz’s All You Can Eat illustrated the boisterous eclecticism of the Naples-based outfit, and feat.Esserelà’s classy debut Tuorl was a welcome addition to the ranks of modern jazz-rock.

2015 was a great year for fans of the Canterbury sound, witnessing the release of the third installment of the Romantic Warriors documentary series (aptly titled Canterbury Tales) just a few months after the passing of Daevid Allen, one of the scene’s most iconic figures. Moreover, two outstanding Canterbury-related albums came from two vastly different parts of the world: Blue Dogs, the debut by Manna/Mirage, The Muffins’ Dave Newhouse’s new project, and Sicilian outfit Homunculus Res’ brilliant second album, Come Si Diventa Ciò Che Si Era (with Newhouse guesting on the epic “Ospedale Civico”). The latter is one of the finest 2015 releases from my native Italy, a distinction shared with the supremely elegant chamber-rock of Breznev Fun Club’s second album, Il Misantropo Felice (both albums were released on the ever-reliable AltrOck Productions label), and with OTEME’s beautiful comeback, L’Agguato. L’Abbandono. Il Movimento.

AltrOck (whose 2016 schedule looks mouthwatering, to say the least) is also responsible for two of the year’s most distinctive albums: the ultra-eclectic, vocal-based Everyday Mythology by Loomings, a French-Italian ensemble put together by Yugen’s Jacopo Costa, and multinational quintet Rêve Général’s stunning debut Howl (the latest endeavour by former Etron Fou Leloublan drummer Guigou Chenevier). Another debut related to the original RIO scene came with Logos, by English-based quartet The Artaud Beats, featuring drummer Chris Cutler and bassist John Greaves; while Stepmother’s wacky, Zappaesque Calvary Greetings spotlights another multinational outfit, which includes legendary drummer Dave Kerman.

Though in 2015 the latest incarnation of King Crimson released Live at the Orpheum (recorded in LA during their 2014 US tour), there seems to be hardly any new material in sight from the legendary band. Luckily, last year brought a few KC-related albums that are well worth exploring – especially for those who favour the band’s harder-edged output: namely, Pat Mastelotto’s new trio KoMaRa’s dark, gritty self-titled debut (with disturbing artwork by Tool’s Adam Jones), Chicago-based math-rock trio Pavlov3 (featuring Markus Reuter) with Curvature-Induced Symmetry…Breaking, and Trey Gunn’s haunting, ambient-tinged The Waters, They Are Rising.

Other, less widely exposed countries also yielded a wealth of interesting music during the past year. Out of Chile (one of the most vital modern prog scenes) came the good-time Avant-Prog of Akinetón Retard’s Azufre; while, on the other side of the Pacific, Indonesia continues to produce high-quality music, brought to light by Moonjune Records’ irrepressible Leonardo Pavkovic. Guitar hero Dewa Budjana’s Hasta Karma and Joged Kahyangan , and keyboardist Dwiki Dharmawan’s So Far, So Close showcase the unique fusion of Western jazz-rock and the island nation’s rich musical heritage.

No 2015 retrospective would be complete without a mention of the many losses sustained by the music world during the past year. The passing of legendary Yes bassist and founder Chris Squire was undoubtedly a traumatic event for prog fans, while the demise of heavy rock icon (and former Hawkwind member) Lemmy a few days before the end of the year was mourned by the rock community at large. Though, of course, the heroes of the Seventies are not getting any younger, neither of these seminal figures was old for today’s standards – unlike jazz trumpeter Ornette Coleman and bluesman B.B. King, who had both reached respectable ages.

As I stated at the beginning of this post, most of the music I have recommended would not qualify as “real prog” for many listeners. It does, however, reflect the direction my tastes have taken in the past few years, and I hope it will lead to new discoveries. Whenever possible, I have provided links to the artists’ Bandcamp pages, where my readers will be able to stream the albums (and hopefully also buy them). For the vast majority of the artists mentioned in this article, music is a labour of love rather than a day job. Though progressive music is alive and well in the second decade of the third millennium, and 2016 already looks very promising in terms of new releases, the scene – now more than ever – needs to be supported if we really want it to survive.

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An Embarrassment of Riches – A 2013 Retrospective

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As the title of this post suggests, 2013 was another bumper year for progressive music – perhaps without as many peaks of excellence as the two previous years, but still offering a wide range of high-quality releases to the discerning listener. On the other hand, it was also a year in which the need for some form of quality control emerged quite sharply. The sheer number of releases that might be gathered under the “prog” umbrella made listening to everything a practically impossible feat – unless one wanted to risk some serious burnout. As modern technology has afforded the tools to release their own music to almost anyone, it has also fostered a sense of entitlement in some artists as regards positive feedback, even when their product is clearly not up to scratch. 2013 also evidenced the growing divide within the elusive “prog community”, with the lingering worship of anything Seventies-related in often sharp contrast with the genuine progressive spirit of many artists who delve deep into musical modes of expression of a different nature from those that inspired the golden age of the genre.

While, on a global level, 2013 was fraught with as many difficulties as 2012, personally speaking (with the exception of the last two or three months) the year as a whole was definitely more favourable – which should have encouraged me to write much more than I actually did. Unfortunately, a severe form of burnout forced me into semi-retirement in the first few months of the year, occasionally leading me to believe that I would never write a review ever again. Because of that, I reviewed only a small percentage of the albums released during the past 12 months; however, thanks to invaluable resources such as Progstreaming, Progify and Bandcamp, I was able to listen to a great deal of new music, and form an opinion on many of the year’s highlights.

I apologize beforehand to my readers if there will be some glaring omissions in this essay. As usual, my personal choices will probably diverge from the “mainstream” of the prog audience, though I am sure they will resonate with others. This year I have chosen to use a slightly different format than in the previous two years, giving more or less the same relevance to all the albums mentioned in the following paragraphs. Those who enjoy reading “top 10/50/100” lists will be better served by other websites or magazines: my intent here is to provide an overview of what I found to be worthy of note in the past 12 months, rather than rank my choices in order of preference.

Interestingly, two of my top 2013 albums (both released at the end of January) came from the UK – a country that, in spite of its glorious past, nowadays rarely produces music that sets my world on fire. Although the magnificent Gothic cathedral of Guapo’s History of the Visitation and the lyricism and subtle complexity of Thieves’ Kitchen’s One for Sorrow, Two for Joy may sound wildly different, they both represent a side of the British progressive rock scene where the production of challenging music is still viewed as viable, and image-related concerns are a very low priority.

Indeed, in 2013 the UK was prodigal with interesting releases for every prog taste. Among the more left-field offerings coming from the other side of the pond, I will mention Sanguine Hum’s multilayered sophomore effort, The Weight of the World – one of those rare albums that are impossible to label; Godsticks’ intricate, hard-hitting The Envisage Conundrum; the unique “classical crossover” of Karda Estra’s Mondo Profondo; The Fierce and the Dead’s fast and furious Spooky Action (think King Crimson meets punk rock); Tim Bowness’ Henry Fool with Men Singing, their second album after a 12-year hiatus; and Brighton-based outfit Baron (who share members with Diagonal and Autumn Chorus) with their haunting Columns. A mention is also amply deserved by volcanic multi-instrumentalist Colin Robinson’s projects Jumble Hole Clough and Churn Milk Joan – whose numerous albums are all available on Bandcamp. The prize for the most authentically progressive UK release of the year, however, should probably be awarded to Chrome Black Gold by “experimental chamber rock orchestra” Chrome Hoof, who are part of the Cuneiform Records roster and share members with their label mates Guapo.

The US scene inaugurated the year with the late January release of Herd of Instinct’s second album, Conjure, a completely instrumental effort that saw the basic trio augmented by Djam Karet’s Gayle Ellett on keyboards fleshing out the band’s haunting, cinematic sound. Ellett’s main gig (who will be celebrating their 30th anniversary in 2014) also made their studio comeback with The Trip, featuring a single 47-minute track combining ambient, electronics-laden atmospheres (as per self-explanatory title) with a full-tilt psychedelic rock jam. Later in the year, Little Atlas’ solid Automatic Day and Sonus Umbra’s brooding Winter Soulstice brought back two bands that had long been out of the limelight. From the US also came a few gems that, unfortunately, have almost flown under the radar of the prog fandom, such as The Knells’ eponymous debut with its heady blend of post-rock, classical music and polyphony; Jack O’The Clock’s intriguing American folk/RIO crossover All My Friends; Birds and Buildings’ über-eclectic Multipurpose Trap; The Red Masque’s intensely Gothic Mythalogue; and the ambitious modern prog epic of And The Traveler’s The Road, The Reason.

The fall season brought some more left-field fireworks from the ever-reliable AltrOck Productions and Cuneiform Records. miRthkon’s Snack(s) and ZeviousPassing Through the Wall, both outstanding examples of high-energy modern progressive rock by two veritable forces of nature in a live setting, were preceded by Miriodor’s long-awaited eighth studio album, Cobra Fakir, premiered at ProgDay in an utterly flawless set. More RIO/Avant goodness came from Europe with Humble Grumble’s delightfully weird Guzzle It Up, Rhùn’s Zeuhl workout Ïh, October Equus’s darkly beautiful Permafrost, and Spaltklang’s unpredictable In Between. From Sweden came Necromonkey’s self-titled debut, an idiosyncratic but fascinating effort born of the collaboration between drummer extraordinaire Mattias Olsson and Gösta Berlings Saga keyboardist David Lundberg.

Among the myriad of prog-metal releases of the year, another UK band, Haken, stood head and shoulders above the competition: their third album The Mountain transcended the limitations of the subgenre, and drew positive feedback even from people who would ordinarily shun anything bearing a prog-metal tag. Much of the same considerations might apply to Kayo Dot’s highly anticipated Hubardo, though the latter album is definitely much less accessible and unlikely to appeal to more traditional-minded listeners. Fans of old-fashioned rock operas found a lot to appreciate in Circle of Illusion’s debut, Jeremias: Foreshadow of Forgotten Realms, a monumentally ambitious, yet surprisingly listenable album in the tradition of Ayreon’s sprawling epics, rated by many much more highly than the latter’s rather lacklustre The Theory of Everything.

Some of the year’s most intriguing releases came from countries that are rarely featured on the prog map. One of my personal top 10 albums, Not That City by Belarus’ Five-Storey Ensemble (one of two bands born from the split of Rational Diet) is a sublime slice of chamber-prog that shares more with classical music than with rock. Five-Storey Ensemble’s Vitaly Appow also appears on the deeply erudite, eclectic pastiche of fellow Belarusians (and AltrOck Productions label mates) The Worm OuroborosOf Things That Never Were. The exhilarating jazz-rock-meets-Eastern-European-folk brew provided by Norwegian quintet Farmers’ Market’s fifth studio album, Slav to the Rhythm, was another of the year’s highlights, guaranteed to please fans of eclectic progressive music. From an even more exotic locale, Uzbekistan’s own Fromuz regaled their many fans with the dramatic Sodom and Gomorrah, a recording dating back from 2008 and featuring the band’s original lineup.

In the jazz-rock realm, releases ran the gamut from modern, high-adrenalin efforts such as The AristocratsCulture Clash, Volto!’s Incitare by (featuring Tool’s drummer Danny Carey), and keyboardist Alessandro Bertoni’s debut Keystone (produced by Derek Sherinian) to the multifaceted approach of French outfit La Théorie des Cordes’ ambitious, all-instrumental double CD Singes Eléctriques, the sprawling, ambient-tinged improv of Shrunken Head Shop’s Live in Germany, and the hauntingly emotional beauty of Blue Cranes’ Swim. Trance Lucid’s elegantly eclectic Palace of Ether and the intricate acoustic webs of Might Could’s Relics from the Wasteland can also be warmly recommended to fans of guitar-driven, jazz-inflected instrumental music.

Leonardo Pavkovic’s Moonjune Records, however, proved throughout the year as the most reliable single provider of high-quality music effortlessly straddling the rock and the jazz universe, with the triumphant comeback of Soft Machine Legacy and their superb Burden of Proof, The Wrong Object’s stunning slice of modern Canterbury, After the Exhibition, and Marbin’s sophisticated (if occasionally a a bit too “easy”) Last Chapter of Dreaming. Pavkovic’s frequent forays into the booming Indonesian scene brought masterpieces such as simakDialog’s fascinating, East-meets-West The 6th Story, and I Know You Well Miss Clara’s stylish Chapter One – as well as Dewa Budjana’s ebullient six-string exertions in Joged Kahyangan. Dialeto’s contemporary take on the power trio, The Last Tribe, and Dusan Jevtovic’s high-octane Am I Walking Wrong? also featured some noteworthy examples of modern guitar playing with plenty of energy and emotion.

Song-based yet challenging progressive rock was well represented in 2013 by the likes of Half Past Four’s second album, the amazingly accomplished Good Things, propelled by lead vocalist Kyree Vibrant’s career-defining performance; fellow Canadians The Rebel Wheel’s spiky, digital-only concept album Whore’s Breakfast;  Simon McKechnie’s sophisticated, literate debut Clocks and Dark Clouds; and newcomers Fractal Mirror with their moody, New Wave-influenced Strange Attractors. New Jersey’s 3RDegree also released a remastered, digital-only version of their second album, Human Interest Story (originally released in 1996). Iranian band Mavara’s first international release, Season of Salvation, also deserves a mention on account of the band’s struggles to carve out a new life in the US, away from the many troubles of their home country.

Even more so than in the past few years, many of 2013’s gems hailed from my home country of Italy, bearing witness to the endless stream of creativity of a scene that no economic downturn can dampen. One of the most impressive debut albums of the past few years came from a young Rome-based band by the name of Ingranaggi della Valle, whose barnstorming In Hoc Signo told the story of the Crusades through plenty of exciting modern jazz-rock chops, without a hint of the cheesiness usually associated with such ventures. Another stunning debut, the wonderfully quirky Limiti all’eguaglianza della parte con il tutto by Sicilian outfit Homunculus Res, delighted fans of the Canterbury scene; while Not A Good Sign’s eponymous debut blended the angular, King Crimson-inspired melancholia of Änglagård and Anekdoten with that uniquely Italian melodic flair. After their successful NEARfest appearance in 2012, Il Tempio delle Clessidre made their comeback with  AlieNatura, an outstanding example of modern symphonic prog recorded with new vocalist Francesco Ciapica; while fellow Genoese quintet La Coscienza di Zeno made many a Top 10 list with their supremely accomplished sophomore effort, Sensitività. Another highly-rated Genoese outfit, La Maschera di Cera, paid homage to one of the landmark albums of vintage RPI – Le Orme’s Felona and Sorona – by releasing a sequel, titled Le Porte del Domani (The Gates of Tomorrow in its English version). Aldo Tagliapietra’s L’angelo rinchiuso saw the legendary former Le Orme bassist and frontman revert to a more classic prog vein, while iconic one-shot band Museo Rosenbach followed the example of other historic RPI bands and got back together to release Barbarica. Even PFM treated their many fans to a new double album, though scarce on truly new material: as the title implies, PFM in Classic: Da Mozart a Celebration contains versions of iconic classical pieces performed by the band with a full orchestra, as well as five of their best-known songs. Among the newcomers, Camelias Garden’s elegant You Have a Chance presents a streamlined take on melodic symphonic prog, while Unreal City’s La crudeltà di Aprile blends Gothic suggestions with the classic RPI sound; on the other hand, Oxhuitza’s self-titled debut and Pandora’s Alibi Filosofico tap into the progressive metal vein without turning their backs to their Italian heritage. Il Rumore Bianco’s Area-influenced debut EP Mediocrazia brought another promising young band to the attention of prog fans.

However, some of the most impressive Italian releases of the year can be found on the avant-garde fringes of the prog spectrum. Besides Francesco Zago’s project Empty Days (featuring contributions by Thinking Plague’s Elaine DiFalco, as well as most of his Yugen bandmates), OTEME’s superb Il giardino disincantato – a unique blend of high-class singer-songwriter music and Avant-Prog complexity – and the sophisticated, atmospheric jazz-rock of Pensiero Nomade’s Imperfette Solitudini deserve to be included in the top albums of the year. To be filed under “difficult but ultimately rewarding” is Claudio Milano’s international project InSonar with the double CD L’enfant et le Ménure, while Nichelodeon’s ambitious Bath Salts (another double CD) will appeal to those who enjoy vocal experimentation in the tradition of Demetrio Stratos.

My readers will have noticed a distinct lack of high-profile releases in the previous paragraphs.n Not surprisingly for those who know me, some of the year’s top-rated albums (such as The Tangent’s Le Sacre du Travail, The Flower KingsDesolation Rose and Spock’s Beard’s Brief Nocturnes and Dreamless Sleep) are missing from this list because I have not yet had the opportunity to listen to them. Others have instead been heard, but have not left a positive enough impression to be mentioned here, and I would rather focus on the positives than on what did not click with me. In any case, most of those albums have received their share of rave reviews on many other blogs, websites and print magazines. I will make, however, one exception for Steven Wilson’s much-praised The Raven Who Refused to Sing, as I had the privilege of seeing it performed in its entirety on the stage of the Howard Theatre in Washington DC at the end of April. Though the concert was excellent, and the stellar level of Wilson’s backing band undoubtedly did justice to the material, I am still not completely sold about the album being the undisputed masterpiece many have waxed lyrical about.

In addition to successful editions of both ROSfest and ProgDay (which will be celebrating its 20th  anniversary in 2014), 2013 saw the birth of two new US festivals: Seaprog (held in Seattle on the last weekend of June) and the NJ Proghouse Homecoming Weekend (held in Dunellen, New Jersey, on October 12-13). As luckily both events enjoyed a good turnout, 2014 editions are already being planned. There were also quite a few memorable concerts held throughout the year, though we did not attend as many as we would have wished. In spite of the often painfully low turnout (unless some big name of the Seventies is involved), it is heartwarming to see that bands still make an effort to bring their music to the stage, where it truly belongs.

On a more somber note, the year 2013 brought its share of heartache to the progressive rock community. Alongside the passing of many influential artists (such as Peter Banks, Kevin Ayers and Allen Lanier), in December I found myself mourning the loss of John Orsi and Dave Kulju, two fine US musicians whose work I had the pleasure of reviewing in the past few years. Other members of the community were also affected by grievous personal losses. Once again, even in such difficult moments, music offers comfort to those who remain, and keeps the memory of the departed alive.

In my own little corner of the world, music has been essential in giving me a sense of belonging in a country where I will probably never feel completely at home. Even if my enjoyment of music does have its ups and downs, and sometimes it is inevitable to feel overwhelmed by the seemingly never-ending stream of new stuff to check out, I cannot help looking forward to the new musical adventures that 2014 will bring.

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TRACKLISTING:
1. Culturismo Ballo Organizzare (5.50)
2. ΔU (1:53)
3. Dj Psicosi (3:49)
4. Preparazione Bomba H (3:13)
5. Sintagma (1:09)
6. JessicaLaura (3:18)
7. (che ne sai tu di un) Cerchio nel Grano (3:49)
8. Rifondazione Unghie (3:18)
9. Ballata dell’amore stocastico (3:16)
10. χΦ (1:30)
11. Nabucco Chiappe d’Oro (4:14)
12. Il Papa buono (2:52)
13. Accidenti (0:24)
14. Centoquarantaduemilaottocentocinquantasette (2:06)
15. Profiterol (1:29)
16. Estate 216 solszt (1:24)
17. Puk 10 (2:25)
18. Il Contrario di Tutto (2:21)

LINEUP:
Dario D’Alessandro – guitar, vocals, keyboards, glockenspiel, percussion
Davide Di Giovanni – piano, organ, MS10, drums, bass, acoustic guitar, vocals
Daniele Di Giovanni – drums, percussion, acoustic guitar, vocals
Domenico Salamone – bass
Federico Cardaci – minimoog, memotron, organ
Dario Lo Cicero – flutes, wind controller
Mauro Turdo – additional guitar (1)

With
:
Paolo Ske Botta: synthesizers, organ, electronics, glockenspiel
Giovanni Di Martino – Microkorg (3)
Totò Puleo – trumpet (3)

With its high-sounding title – taken straight from the realms of philosophy –  Homunculus Res’ debut might initially give the impression of yet another stereotypically pretentious “conventional” prog opus. However, a closer look at the distinctive cover artwork depicting a mushroom-sprouting human head next to a tiny gnome in a pointed red hat should readily clue the listener in on the album’s true nature.

Hailing from the Palermo, Sicily, the band – one of the newest recruits of the thriving AltrOck Productions stable –  is a loose configuration of musicians revolving around multi-instrumentalist and main songwriter Dario D’Alessandro. If the triangular island in the southern Mediterranean sounds like an unlikely birthplace for a progressive rock band – especially if compared with hubs such as Genoa or Milan – it should be pointed out that Franco Battiato, one of the most iconic figures of the early Italian prog scene, also hails from Sicily. Like Battiato, Homunculus Res blend high and popular culture in their lyrics, and also enjoy citations from other musical sources, even though their sound is firmly rooted in the Canterbury tradition. The breezy, often infectious quality of the music –  interspersed with more sedate, almost introspective moments and some seriously intricate instrumental flights – recalls early Soft Machine and Caravan, as well as fellow Italians Picchio Dal Pozzo (whose legitimate heirs Homunculus Res are poised to become) and Stormy Six, or even a more obscure Canterbury-inspired gem,  Cocktail by Patrick Forgas (who later went on to form the outstanding jazz-rock combo Forgas Band Phenomena).

Most of the album’s 18 short tracks (whose titles will reveal an intriguing mix of highbrow, whimsical and more down-to-earth elements) are so closely linked together musically that they almost flow into each other – especially the instrumental numbers, mostly concentrated in the second half. In spite of the album’s overall light-hearted attitude and apparent focus on shorter compositions, the music is richly textured, thanks to the band’s impressively varied instrumentation. While keyboards (supplied by D’Alessandro, Davide Di Giovanni and Federico Cardaci, as well as special guest Paolo Ske Botta) are clearly the stars of the show –  aided and abetted by Daniele Di Giovanni’s ebullient, acrobatic drumming – the guitar plays a discreet but invaluable supporting role, only rarely stepping into the limelight.

The album opens with a song that will stick in your head for a long time – the mostly instrumental “Culturismo Ballo Organizzare”, whose almost 6 minutes are packed with exhilarating stops and starts, while vocals are used as an irresistibly quirky enhancement of the musical line  rather than the “main event”. The following “ΔU” starts in a deceptively low-key, almost wistful manner reminiscent of Hatfield and the North, then turns frantic and chaotic, with strident synth dominating the tune. “DJ Psicosi” returns to the upbeat form of the opener, its title repeated in almost hypnotic fashion, while a weirdly echoing trumpet adds a nostalgic note. The Canterbury vibe takes over in “Preparazione Bomba H”, as well as in the majority of the instrumental pieces comprising the second half of the album (which also occasionally hint at Latin and Brazilian rhythms).

Occasional references to other artists crop up throughout the album, as in the nod to Michael Jackson’s “Billy Jean” in the above-mentioned “Dj Psicosi”, and the lullaby-like homage to Fabrizio De André’ “La Guerra di Piero” at the beginning and at the end of the flute-laced “(che ne sai tu di un) Cerchio nel Grano” (whose very title hints at Lucio Battisti’s “Pensieri e parole”). On the album there is also room for a couple of  ballads, whose apparently romantic tone is belied by the subtle irony of the lyrics – “Jessicalaura” and “La ballata dell’amore stocastico”, in which Dario D’Alessandro channels his inner Richard Sinclair, accompanied by elegant piano. The energetic “Rifondazione Unghie”, on the other hand, features dynamic flute and guitar interplay in pure Jethro Tull style; while the subdued mood of album closer “Il Contrario di Tutto” emphasizes the lyrical musings on the plight of a disillusioned young man longing for an escape from day-to-day routine.

Loaded with humour and the obvious pleasure of the craft of music-making, Limiti all’eguaglianza della Parte con il Tutto is the perfect antidote to too much overwrought, self-important prog. Though the lyrics and their cultural references might be lost on non-speakers of Italian, an understanding of the words is not necessary to enjoy the album and its sophisticated yet accessible brand of “Canterbury Samba Progressive”. Highly recommended to everyone but those who believe that progressive rock and humour should not mix, or else object to non-English lyrics, Homunculus Res’ debut is a delightful, intelligent album that effortlessly blends retro and modern attitudes, with the added interest value of Dario D’Alessandro’s outstanding artwork.

Links:
http://www.altrock.it

http://www.allmusic.com/artist/homunculus-res-mn0003137197

https://www.facebook.com/HomunculusRes

http://www.youtube.com/channel/UC2lGwBU4eo-z8QDVLen0fnA?feature=watch


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