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Posts Tagged ‘Il Tempio delle Clessidre’

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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On May 25-26, 2013, the Italian “prog hub” of Genoa and its surrounding region of Liguria will be the undisputed protagonist of an event of international scope targeted to anyone who is in the business of making and promoting music. The FIM (Fiera Internazionale della Musica), the largest event of its kind organized in Italy, will take place at the Ippodromo dei Fiori in the medieval hill town of Villanova d’Albenga. The town lies about 50 km (31 miles) west of Genoa, in the hinterland of the famed Riviera di Ponente, the western stretch of the Italian Riviera, curving towards the French border and following the route of the Via Aurelia, the longest of the original Roman roads.

Over two whole days, the event will offer a unique showcase to up-and-coming bands and artists from all over Italy. Four stages and other dedicated spaces will allow musicians to perform with their own instruments, and the participants will also have a wide range of workshops, seminars and other happenings to attend – all covered by a daily entrance fee of € 15.

One of the core events of the fair, the Riviera Prog Festival will host a total of 13 bands (as well as the symphonic orchestra of the neighbouring town of Sanremo, known internationally for its Festival della Canzone Italiana)  in the afternoon and evening of both days, starting from 3 p.m. The bands that will take turns on stage during this event-within-the-event represent some of the best that Italian progressive rock has to offer, with an eye to its glorious past and another to the thriving contemporary scene – an example that US organizers would do well to follow, instead of focusing on foreign acts to the detriment of homegrown talent.

Though most of the bands and artists on the lineup are based in Liguria, other parts of Italy have not been neglected: Goad and Le Porte Non Aperte hail from Tuscany, while Claudio Simonetti/Daemonia and Biglietto per l’Inferno  (both protagonists of the original RPI movement in the early Seventies) are based respectively in Rome and Milan. The local talent includes veterans such as The Trip (who counted one Ritchie Blackmore among its early members), Latte E Miele (who were slated to headline the sadly cancelled Farfest 2012), DeliriumGarybaldi and Il Cerchio d’Oro, and modern bands such as Il Tempio delle Clessidre (whose career-defining NEARfest appearance endeared them to the US prog community), G.C. Neri Band, La Coscienza di Zeno and newcomers Flower Flesh.

FIM has been sponsored by a number of local agencies, including the region of Liguria, and partnered by media outlets such as local radio and TV stations, as well as the association Centro Studi per il Progressive Italiano (CSPI), independent label Black Widow Records and recording studio Maia (all based in Genoa). The event’s website (unfortunately only in Italian, at least for the time being) contains detailed information on the event, including tips for anyone who would like to combine the pleasures of music with those of sightseeing.

Links:
http://www.fimfiera.it/

http://cspigenova.blogspot.com/

http://www.blackwidow.it

http://www.maiagroup.it/maia/studio-di-registrazione

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After a wait that felt even longer than usual (and some disturbances in between), the big day finally dawned, accompanied by a wave of stiflingly humid heat. Unlike our last time at NEARfest, two years ago, when our car broke down the day before the event and we had to rent one in order to make it, this time everything went smoothly. The scenic route that we took, through Pennsylvania Dutch country and the lovely city of Lancaster,  caused us to reach our destination somewhat later than expected, but it was well worth it. Highways are undeniably very convenient, but they often leave a lot to be desired if one wants to see some interesting sights.

As I made it abundantly clear in the three essays I wrote last year after NEARfest 2011’s cancellation, I was a bit skeptical about the whole “going out with a bang”  affair. However, the past weekend turned out to be one of the most memorable experiences I have had in a long time – and a sort of watershed moment on a personal level. Indeed, it was so packed with excitement, friendship and great music that it ended up being even more exhausting than usual – especially as the constant adrenaline rush caused me to miss out on sleep for two out of three nights. All in all, though, it was an unforgettable weekend, even if somewhat marred by a rather anticlimactic ending.

After a one-year gap, there was a poignant sense of familiarity when we drove from our hotel to the Zoellner Arts Centre. It was sad to think that it would be the last time (though, of course, you never know how such things are going to pan out), but still we resolved to enjoy the event to the fullest. After visiting the vendor rooms and reconnecting with old friends and acquaintances for a couple of hours, at 7 p.m. we sat down in our comfortable seats (located at the edge of one of the orchestra rows, which meant not getting a 100% complete view of the stage, though with the advantage of being able to move freely) and got ready for the first set of the weekend.

Having heard some music from Belgian chamber rock outfit Aranis prior to the festival, I knew I was going to like them a lot, but I was not prepared for the sheer triumph that was their performance. Judging from the crowd’s reaction, they are the kind of band that – even if tagged as “RIO/Avant” (a label likely to send quite a few prog fans running for the exits) – have a powerful cross-subgenre appeal on account of the strongly melodic nature of their music. The presence of legendary drummer Dave Kerman (a veteran of the NEARfest stage)  added a more definite rock note to the supremely elegant sound of the band – a seven-piece led by Joris Vanvinckenroye, and featuring three very talented female instrumentalists (flutist Jana Arns, accordionist Marjolein Cools and violinist Liesbeth Lambert). With only an amplified nylon-string guitar to anchor the band to the rock ethos, they delivered a positively mesmerizing set, oozing with diverse influences – the biggest of which, to my ears, being Argentine composer Astor Piazzolla, together with their fellow Belgians Univers Zero and 20th-century composers such as Stravinsky and Ravel, and a generous sprinkling of Old World folk music. Their compositions, of varying length and understated complexity, were at times almost infectious, with whimsical titles such as “Tomatissimo” or “Spaghetti Polonaise”. Most importantly the band members seemed to be genuinely enjoying themselves, introducing the songs with liberal helpings of humour, while their outstanding musicianship created a tightly woven flow of beautiful sounds. Dave Kerman’s role in the band was much closer to an orchestra percussionist than a traditional rock drummer, more textural than propulsive; he delighted the audience with an array of exotic instruments, including one that looked like some creature’s jawbone. Aranis provided an amazing start to the festival, and a big hit with the crowd – witnessed by the seemingly never-ending line of people at the post-set signing session.

When I saw Van Der Graaf Generator for the first time at NEARfest 2009, I was extremely impressed by their set. Though I cannot really call myself a fan, I have a lot of respect for them, as they are one of the few Seventies bands that have not turned into a parody of themselves, and are still very much relevant. This was borne out by their choice of playing quite a few items from their latest album, A Grounding in Numbers, alongside the older material that everyone was expecting. However, as much as I wanted to love their set, it left me a bit cold, mainly for reasons related to the setlist. The central part of the performance was taken up by a revamped version of “Flight”, a Peter Hammill solo piece originally included in his 1980 album A Black Box. At over 21 minutes, it went on a bit too long, and was a turn off of sorts for anyone who was not a devoted Hammill fan. Even their choice of  classics was not thoroughly convincing, with the exception of the barnstorming “Scorched Earth” that opened the set. In spite of these misgivings, however, the band were in fine form, with Hammill’s voice every bit as strong as in his Seventies heyday, and Guy Evans and Hugh Banton offering a stunning display of skill and precision coupled with genuine emotion. After a while, however, tiredness got the best of me, and I started drifting off. On the other hand, though Hammill’s voice can be a bit hard to put up with for nearly two hours, he was a delight to watch, and a true gentleman, joking with the audience and looking as if he was thoroughly enjoying himself. Not bad for a man who almost died of a heart attack nine years ago… Besides his customary piano, Hammill also played electric guitar on a few songs, showing how the band and their songwriting have adapted to the trio format. Though not the highlight I expected the set to be, it was a fine performance nonetheless.

As tired as I was, I did not get much sleep that night, and on Saturday morning I was not feeling exactly my best. We got early to the venue, and spent a pleasant couple of hours checking out the vendors and chatting with various people before we sat down for the opening act of the day – Connecticut jazz-rock quartet Helmet of Gnats, who were one of the bands I was most interested in seeing. I had got acquainted with their material through their MySpace site and Progstreaming, and their set confirmed my early impressions: stunning chops and potentially great music, but not too strong on the songwriting front. It took them a while to warm up, and for the first couple of songs they hardly communicated with the audience, which brought back memories of Astra’s dismal set in 2010. However, this was clearly due to the overwhelming emotion of having finally fulfilled their dream of performing at the festival after an 11-year wait. After the first awkward 15 minutes or so, the band hit their stride, and guitarist Chris Fox proved to be a warm and endearing frontman, especially when he introduced the band and explained the ties of family and friendship binding its members. The music – which at times reminded me, in style if not in actual content, of the sadly disbanded D.F.A. – had moments of riveting beauty, especially when keyboardist Matthew Bocchino fired up the Hammond organ and seamlessly meshed with Fox’s beautifully clear, fiery guitar in a fashion that made me think of Colosseum II. The tracks, all quite long, tended to ramble a bit, with highly exhilarating moments alternating with lulls that caused the attention to wander somehow. People who are not into jazz-rock/fusion may have found them a bit hard to follow, due to the overall lack of cohesion at the compositional level. However, they are an extremely talented bunch of musicians who genuinely enjoy playing together, with a keen sense of humour as displayed by their song titles and rather hilarious name – whose origin I finally learned later during the day, when I got to meet the band in the lobby. I hope to have the pleasure to see them again in the future, and perhaps review their next album.

Having never having been a follower of the original neo-prog scene (with the sole exception of Marillion in their early incarnation), I was barely familiar with Twelfth Night, and my expectations were also quite low. My increasing tiredness prevented me from staying longer than the first three songs (at that point, I really needed to take a break), but I would be lying if I said they were the worst band I have ever seen, as other attendees instead claimed. With only one of the original members left (drummer Brian Devoil), and two members of fellow UK band Galahad on board, they mostly sounded like a cross between an Eighties synth-pop band and a glam-metal one, with some occasional symphonic prog influences thrown in for good measure. Their look was also a throwback to the Eighties, with a penchant for the use of visuals and stage props; the mannequin in the 19-minute epic “We Are Sane”, accompanied by politically-charged images on the screen, made me think of Pink Floyd circa The Wall and The Final Cut. In spite of the not exactly enthusiastic reception on the part of the audience, and plagued by a host of technical issues, the guys in the band were delighted to be there (it was their first ever US appearance) and gave their best. Though Andy Sears is undeniably a good frontman, I did not care for his vocals, nor did the piercing, whistling sound of the synthesizer do anything for me; however, the band’s brash, punk-tinged energy held the attention of those who stuck around. Though some attendees thought that Twelfth Night were out of place in the lineup, there is a sizable part of the prog audience that enjoys their particular take on progressive rock, and one of the reasons for NEARfest’s success in the past 14 years has been precisely their “big-tent” approach.

With a new album (titled Viljans Öga) about to be released, 18 years after Epilog, and a 9-year hiatus since their last tour, Swedish legends Änglagård were probably the most highly anticipated act on the lineup. While I was familiar with their seminal debut, Hybris, I had never really connected with their music as I did with their contemporaries Anekdoten. When we sat down for their set (which started somewhat late on schedule), my head was almost drooping with weariness, and I feared I would be forced to sit it out. However, things changed rather quickly once the band started playing.  An extremely tight unit performing exclusively instrumental music, they often bordered on Avant territory, and their new material sounded angular and occasionally menacing. In spite of their reputation as a “retro-symphonic” act, Änglagård were anything but a nostalgia-fest, and easily transcended any attempts at pigeonholing – even if the two Mellotrons gracing the stage were enough to send hardcore proggers into fits of delight. After the three talented ladies in Aranis, it was great to see more female talent in the guise of Anna Holmgren, who effortlessly switched from flute to sax to Mellotron. The band performed all but one track from their forthcoming new album, plus two from Epilog and the iconic “Jordrök” – the manifesto of the Swedish prog renaissance of the early Nineties. Although all of the five band members delivered impressive performances, the true star of the set was drummer Mattias Olsson, a pint-sized concentrate of flawless technique, inventiveness and humour – the real engine at the heart of the band’s intricate yet seamless sound, duly assisted by Johan Brand’s booming, muscular bass lines. All in all, it was a truly riveting set by a band that amply deserves its near-legendary status.

My habitual readers, who are used to reviews of rather left-field material, will probably be surprised to learn that I thoroughly enjoyed Renaissance’s set. While many prog fans love their output, others (including many of my fellow attendees) consider it terminally cheesy. In my case, though I do tend towards more challenging  material, I have also been exposed from a young age to all kinds of music, including opera and musicals, and will readily admit to having a soft spot for Renaissance’s classic Seventies albums. Though my favourite female vocalists tend to be assertive rather than angelic, I find Annie Haslam – the voice who launched a thousand  imitators – a delightful listen, and their lush melodies appeal to what you might call my typically feminine side (as well as my Italian heritage). Having missed last year’s tour, we were happy to see the band perform Turn of the Cards and Scheherazade and Other Stories in their entirety. At the beginning Annie’s voice may not have been as smooth or self-assured as it was in the second half of the set, but then it became an effortless thing of beauty. In my view, Renaissance were the perfect choice to follow the demanding complexity of Änglagård – a very relaxing, enjoyable listen, made even more pleasing by Annie’s gracious manner and positive aura (even if her reference to God fell a bit flat). As much as I love the edgier stuff, sometimes it is nice to kick back and sing along to gorgeous tunes such as “A Trip to the Fair” or “Carpet of the Sun” (performed by Haslam and Michael Dunford as an acoustic duo, and dedicated to the organizers). The set ended with new track “The Mystic and the Muse” – an interesting composition with some breathtaking vocal acrobatics.

After all the praise I had heaped on their third album, Glue Works, Gösta Berlings Saga were the act I was most looking forward to – and that in a festival that featured much higher-profile names. My rave review had turned some of my friends on to the band’s music, while my husband had so far remained impervious to their charms. However, last Sunday he walked out of Baker Hall as a convert, as did most of the 1,000-odd people that witnessed that career-defining performance. Simply dressed in black, the four fresh-faced Swedes, in spite of a grueling trip (they missed their connecting flight, and arrived in Bethlehem in the middle of the night between Friday and Saturday), put up a show that summed up everything great music should be about. Although some people are desperately trying to put a label on them (are they post-rock, avant-prog, Zeuhl, or what?), they are one of those rare outfits who manage to sound like no one else. Fuelled by genuine passion, they literally brought the house down, eliciting standing ovation after standing ovation, and transmitted their passion to the audience, affecting many of us on a physical level. The powerfully exhilarating swell of the music was interspersed by pauses of gentle quiet, like the calm before (or after) the storm, and their use of repeated build-up patterns created an uncannily mesmerizing effect. Einar Baldursson’s guitar sliced through the dense web of sound emanating from David Lundberg’s bank of keyboards (employed for texture rather than as the main event, as in so much “traditional” prog); while Gabriel Tapper’s deep-toned Rickenbacker bass, together with Alexander Skepp’s electrifying drumming – a veritable tumultuous waterfall of sound – drove the music along relentlessly. In a set of astonishing perfection, two tracks stood out: the jaw-droppingly beautiful modified blues of “Västerbron 5.30” (with a haunting vibraphone passage that brought me close to tears), and the sensational rendition of “Island” at the close of the set – a sonic poem dedicated to the land of ice and fire, a “Starless” for the 21st century, further enhanced by a supercharged guest appearance by Mattias Olsson on assorted sound effects.

Though for completely different reasons, Il Tempio delle Clessidre were high on my list of bands to see at NEARfest. I had been in contact with them for some time after their participation was announced, and a touch of patriotic pride in me wanted them to be a great success. Even if Gösta Berlings Saga would have been a tough act to follow for everyone, the five-piece from Genoa more than proved their worth. Led by the lovely and talented Elisa Montaldo – a young Siouxsie Sioux dressed in a black Victorian-style outfit – and featuring the warm, rugged vocals of former Museo Rosenbach vocalist Stefano “Lupo” Galifi, they owned the stage for 90 minutes. Blending the feel of vintage Italian prog with harder-edged vibes (provided by bassist Fabio Gremo and guitarist Giulio Canepa’s energetic, metal-inspired stage presence, as well as Paolo Tixi’s rock-solid drumming), their music was powerful, flawlessly executed yet rich in emotional content. Galifi’s voice owes more to blues and soul (he cited James Brown and Wilson Pickett as major influences) than to opera, in spite of the common misconception that any music coming out of Italy has to be “operatic” to some degree. Many in the audience were expecting to be treated to the whole of Zarathustra, Museo Rosenbach’s renowned 1973 album, though they had to content themselves with an extract of stunning intensity. Together with most of their self-titled debut album, the band performed three excellent new songs, as well as a cover of Kansas’ “Paradox” that segued into “L’Attesa”. One of the highlights of the set was the mostly instrumental “Danza Esoterica di Datura/Faldistorum”, which saw the band don masks and Elisa perform a sort of esoteric ritual that included a quote from Shakespeare’s Macbeth. Those who (probably forgetting about Peter Gabriel and his fox mask) indicted them of cheesiness were clearly not familiar with the ancient Greek and Roman tradition of wearing masks on stage, nor with the rich body of witch-related lore of the band’s home region of Liguria. Visibly moved by the experience of playing before such a crowd in a state-of-the-art venue, the band members brought to bear the skills acquired in their extensive live activity, and their performance was full of the sheer joy of sharing such a career-defining moment.

Alongside Twelfth Night, Mike Keneally Band were the only other act on the lineup I was not familiar with, though I had listened to a couple of songs on YouTube prior to the event. Like Änglågard on the previous day, they took to the stage somewhat late on schedule (around 5 p.m.), and finished equally late. Like the English band, they have their dedicated following, but left a sizable number of attendees rather cold, though for completely different reasons. An extremely talented outfit, led by guitarist/composer Mike Keneally (known for his stint with Frank Zappa, as well as a solo career) and featuring, among others, bassist Bryan Beller and (in a touch of exquisite irony) Umphrey McGee’s drummer Kris Myers, they play the kind of music that is undeniably progressive, but not in the way that will usually appeal to the average traditional prog fan. On a personal level, I was quite drained after the one-two punch of the first two sets, and had to leave after the first hour or so because of prior commitments. Moreover, in spite of its evidently high quality, I found that I could not relate to the music – even though liking the band’s eclectic, mainly song-based approach, with its emphasis on guitar rather than keyboards and warm jazz and blues influences. Mike Keneally proved a genial frontman, though his vocals were a bit of an acquired taste, as well as an outstanding guitarist. The band played some of the songs written by Keneally together with one of the most respected songwriters on the modern music scene, Andy Partridge of XTC fame; while Chris Buzby of Echolyn joined them on stage  for “Dolphins Medley”. Unfortunately, the billing did somewhat hurt an otherwise excellent band, as people were tired and hungry at that time of the day. I hope to have the opportunity to see them again when I am in better shape to appreciate their considerable talent.

Unlike many other attendees, my husband and I had not been particularly looking forward to Eloy as a headliner, and their almost last-minute replacement with UK was more to our taste (though we were obviously very sorry about Frank Bornemann’s health issues). As the Washington DC date had been cancelled due to poor ticket sales, we were glad to be able to see the band in such a historic occasion. Unfortunately, what happened on Sunday night gave new meaning to the saying “careful what you wish for”.  Due to technical issues, the band appeared on stage nearly 2 hours late (it was close to 11 p.m.), and then,  when everyone was seated and the lights went down, nothing happened for about 10 minutes – so that the crowd got restless, and some boos were heard. At that point, I was exhausted, and my husband even more so, and so annoyed that I contemplated leaving even before the start of the set (which was preceded by the obligatory round of credits to everyone involved in the making of the festival). Though we ended up staying for the first half an hour or so, I found myself completely unable to enjoy anything – even when the band played “Starless”, one of my favourite pieces of music ever – and started finding fault with almost everything. The very loud volume did not help to relieve our sense of exhaustion, so – even if  I knew I was going to miss some songs I have always adored – there was no choice for us but to leave and try to get some rest before heading back home the following day. It was deeply saddening, but in some ways also quite cathartic. To me, it felt as if that performance (which, in any case, most of the audience seemed to love) signaled the end of an era, and showed that it was time for the prog community to shed its Seventies obsession and move forward.

As we walked out of the venue, a few drops of rain were falling, and everything was quiet. On the way back to our hotel, we reflected that perhaps that was a fitting conclusion to a spectacular run of festivals, and in a way represented the current state of the progressive rock scene – torn between the glory days of the past and the fresh, irrepressible energy and creativity of the new guard. A band like Änglagård, in many ways, embodies the best of both worlds, and this is why they would have amply deserved that headliner spot that, unfortunately, seems to be denied to anyone not originating from the Seventies.

When we headed back home on Monday morning – still exhausted but happy – it was raining heavily, and the magnificent “Island” was playing in our car, reminding us of the moments of true glory of the past weekend. Even as relative newcomers to the festival scene, it was hard not to feel a pang of sadness for what had just ended; however, it was compounded by a sense of hope that something might soon be rising from the ashes.  Many thoughts have been running through my head in the past few days, but I will keep them for a separate article that will hopefully come some time in the next few weeks.

Anyway, it was encouraging to see many other women (even if there were no lines for the ladies’ restrooms), and also a few younger attendees, some of them barely out of their teens, and already so knowledgeable about progressive rock. As for myself, perhaps for the first time since I moved to the US, three and a half years ago, I felt as if I might finally feel at home in this country, especially when I saw so many people interested in my welfare after my recent immigration-related woes. I was also positively surprised to see my name mentioned at least twice in the programme (which I got Roger Dean to sign, as you can see from the photo above): it is always good to see your hard work pay off, even if not in monetary terms.

Before I wrap up my review, I would like to thank organizers Rob LaDuca, Chad Hutchinson and Kevin Feeley (as well as all their collaborators) for an unforgettable weekend, and for all the effort they put out to make the festival a reality, in spite of headaches such as having to find a suitable replacement for Eloy barely one month before the event, and having to deal with an occasionally troublesome bunch of “customers”. I understand why they are throwing in the towel, and hope that someone will be there to pick up from there. Kudos to them for the tribute to DFA’s keyboardist Alberto Bonomi (who tragically passed away one year ago) included in the programme.  Frank Bornemann’s touching video salute to the audience did not fail to move even those who were not Eloy fans, and the plugs for two forthcoming festivals – ProgDay and FarFest – were also a welcome touch that showed a commendable community spirit.

As usual, I also wish to mention all the great people I met during this amazing weekend: the collective members of Aranis, Gösta Berlings Saga and Helmet of Gnats, and of course my fellow Italians of Il Tempio delle Clessidre, as well as other great artists such as Raimundo Rodulfo, Dan Britton, Lynnette Shelley of The Red Masque with her gorgeous medieval-inspired art, Cyndee Lee Rule, the members of Echolyn, Matthew Parmenter and Matthew Kennedy of Discipline, and my friends Robert James Pashman and George Dobbs of 3RDegree, Phideaux Xavier, Ariel Farber and Linda Ruttan-Moldavsky of Phideaux, and Alan Benjamin (with his lovely wife Amy) and Joe D’Andrea of Advent. Then , Adele Schmidt and Jose Zegarra Holder – whose latest venture Romantic Warriors II – About RIO was a big hit with the crowd, MoonJune Records head honcho Leonardo Pavkovic and his friend Sasha, Cuneiform Records’ Steve Feigenbaum and his wife Joyce, Greg Walker and his treasure trove of music, my DC-SOAR cohorts Tom Hudon, Mark Chapman and Debi Byrd, Steven Berkin of Exposé magazine, Mike Potter of the Orion Studios, Jeff and Coralita Wilson, Laura A. Dent and her husband Noel Levan, David Gaines, Helaine Carson Burch, Terri Simmons, Ian Carss (with his daughter Alex), John Hagelbarger, Rick Dashiell, Buster Harvey, über Italian prog fan Leo Hadley Jr. and his wife, and everyone else I may have forgotten to mention. Thanks also to everyone who stopped by and complimented me on my writing, and a special mention to our friend H.T. Riekels. It was great to see him again after two years.

This review is dedicated to two friends who, while we were having such a great time, were experiencing the worst moment of their lives – The Muffins’ drummer Paul Sears, whose son Niall lost his life in Afghanistan last Friday, and his wife Deborah. There is nothing I can say that will comfort them in their loss, but I hope to meet them again when they have regained a measure of peace.

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My regular readers may have noticed my frequent references to the lively progressive rock scene in the northwestern Italian region of Liguria, particularly as regards the great seaport of Genoa – supported by the activity of well-known independent labels based in the area (such as Mellow Records and Black Widow) in promoting a genre that has put firm and enduring roots in the Italian music scene since the early Seventies. Sadly, as some of my readers may know, at the end of October the whole region was affected by major flooding, which caused very serious damage and loss of life, especially in the beautiful area known as the Cinque Terre.

As a number of circumstances (such as the Japan earthquake) have proved, prog artists – in spite of the airy-fairy stereotype perpetuated by the media – do have a keen social conscience. In order to raise funds to help the local population to cope with the aftermath of the floods, a one-day festival called ProG Liguria will be hosted by the port city of La Spezia, the administrative centre of the area affected by the natural disaster, on January 21, 2012. The event, organized by Genoa-based architect and longtime prog fan Angelo De Negri and independent labels Black Widow, Ma.Ra.Cash and Distilleria Music Factory, will also involve the collaboration of the thriving, internationally renowned tourist and food industry of the La Spezia province.

ProG Liguria will last from noon to midnight, and feature a number of high-profile Italian prog bands and artists, many of whom have been featured on this blog: legendary Seventies acts such as Osanna (with special guest Gianni Leone), Delirium (with special guests Sophya Baccini and Franco Taulino), Arti e Mestieri (with special guest Gigi Venegoni), Nuova Idea (with special guests Joe Vescovi, Giorgio Piazza and Marco Zoccheddu), Locanda delle Fate and Maxophone; rising stars such as Il Tempio delle Clessidre (with special guest Max Manfredi), The Watch, La Maschera di Cera, La Torre dell’Alchimista, Moongarden and Altare Thotemico; Claudio Simonetti’s project Daemonia (familiar to those who attended ROSfest 2011); supergroup CCLR (Cavalli Cocchi, Lanzetti, Roversi, with special guest Aldo Tagliapietra), and New Trolls offshoot UT – Uno Tempore (featuring drummer Gianni Belleno).

Anyone who is planning to be in Italy in the month of January should not miss this once-in-a-lifetime event. Hopefully more details (such as ticket prices) will be forthcoming in the next few weeks.

Where: Spezia Expo ‘ – Via del Canaletto, La Spezia (Italy)
When: Saturday, January 2, 2012 – from noon to midnight
Information: (+39) 346 619 1593/ 010 246 1708

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TRACKLISTING:
1. Verso l’Alba (2:52)
2. Insolita Parte di Me  (7:20)
3. Boccadasse  (5:20)
4. Le Due Metà della Notte  (5:18)
5. La Stanza Nascosta  (5:10)
6. Danza Esoterica di Datura  (6.07)
7. Faldistorum  (6:06)
8. L’Attesa  (4:36)
9. Il Centro Sottile  (9:39)
10. Antidoto Mentale  (3:30)

LINEUP:
Stefano “Lupo” Galifi  – vocals
Elisa Montaldo – piano, keyboards, organ, concertina, vocals, sound effects
Fabio Gremo – bass
Giulio Canepa – guitars
Paolo Tixi – drums

With:
Max Manfredi – voice (7)
Antonio Fantinuoli – cello (5)

Known outside Italy as the hometown of Christopher Columbus, the bustling seaport of Genoa has had a long tradition as a hotbed of musical creativity – starting as far back as the late 18th century with legendary violinist Niccolò Paganini. Then, in the early 1960s came the ‘Genoese school of singer-songwriters’, whose foremost representative, Fabrizio De André, is known to prog fans for his collaboration with PFM. About ten years later, a number of influential progressive rock bands were formed,  such as Delirium and New Trolls – two outfits that are still producing great music in the early 21st century. In particular, Delirium’s comeback album of 2009, Il Nome del Vento (reviewed elsewhere on this blog) stood out among the plethora of prog releases for successfully marrying the glorious heritage of Italian prog with a thoroughly modern sound quality. The same accomplished nature is shared by this stunning debut by Delirium’s label mates (and fellow Genoese) Il Tempio delle Clessidre.

Named after the final section of the titular suite of Museo Rosenbach’s one-off Zarathustra – one of the most iconic albums of the Italian Seventies – Il Tempio delle Clessidre (“The Temple of Hourglasses”) have been around since the summer of 2006, when keyboardist Elisa Montaldo and bassist Gabriele Guidi Colombi met former Museo Rosenbach vocalist Stefano “Lupo” Galifi. The idea that brought the band together was to perform the whole of the Zarathustra album live on stage with Museo Rosenbach’s original singer, using vintage instruments, and subsequently start penning original compositions inspired by the spirit of the golden years of Italian prog. After some line-up changes, Il Tempio delle Clessidre’s self-titled debut album was released in September 2010 by Genoa-based label Black Widow Records.

For all its cult status, Italian prog can be seen as very much of an acquired taste – mainly on account of its operatic, occasionally overblown nature, especially as regards the vocal department. In this respect, Galifi’s warm, bluesy vocals (also heard on one track of Delirium’s 2009 album), which add an emotional yet somehow informal note to the lush textures of the band’s music, are definitely Il Tempio delle Clessidre’s not-so-secret weapon. The tightly organized compositions, never gratuitously meandering, strike the right balance between melody and complexity, without a second wasted in pointless noodling, and with enough changes of pace to make the most demanding prog fan happy. Although the singing is strongly emphasized,  there is also a lot of room for the instrumentalists to display their considerable chops. Indeed, the pristine sound quality allows each of the musicians’ performances to shine, and captures every nuance of Galifi’s seasoned vocal delivery, honed in years of fronting blues-rock bands; while the pronounced melodic bent tempers the intensity of the lyrics and the dense esoteric symbolism of the cover art and booklet.

Interestingly, with the sole exception of the almost 10-minute “Il Centro Sottile”, the tracks on the album are all relatively short, with an average running time of 5 minutes. The album itself, at about 55 minutes, is markedly shorter than the majority of current prog releases, some of which skirt the 80-minute mark. Those who appreciate the instrumental aspect of progressive rock rather than the vocal one will be glad to learn that Il Tempio delle Clessidre manages to balance both sides quite admirably. Opener “Verso l’Alba”, the only completely instrumental track on the album, sets the scene with the deep, Gothic sound of the organ and wind-like effects, developing into a keyboard- and guitar-driven piece reminiscent of a heavier Genesis. “Insolita Parte di Me”, at 7 minutes the second longest track, alternating quieter passages with more dramatic ones, dominated by Elisa Montaldo’s magnificent keyboards, is a perfect example of how the band manage to achieve the structural complexity typical of prog without sacrificing the unique Italian attention to melody. Montaldo, who is the main composer together with bassist Fabio Gremo, handles her array of instruments with impressive skill and flair. “Le Due Metà della Notte”, interpreted with warmth and feeling by Galifi, is a splendid keyboard showcase that combines melody and intensity; while in the sedate “La Stanza Nascosta” the piano and Galifi’s stunning vocals conjure a melancholy, meditative atmosphere. On the other hand, the mid-paced “Boccadasse” (dedicated to a picturesque mariner’s neighbourhood of Genoa) is a more conventionally structured song, with a very catchy chorus and a beautiful, melodic guitar solo.

However, it is the two central numbers that prove to be the most distinctive, in keeping with Black Widow’s keen interest in the mystical and the esoteric. “Danza Esoterica di Datura”, as the title implies, opens with a brisk, dance-like pace, and culminates with an extract from Shakespeare’s Macbeth, chanted by Montaldo in tense, dramatic fashion; some of the keyboard inserts are appropriately reminiscent of Goblin’s Dario Argento soundtracks, such as the renowned Profondo Rosso. The cryptically-titled “Faldistorum” sees the Hammond organ take the lead in parallel with the drums, introducing a male voice reciting a short text in an emphatic, melodic yet slightly ominous manner, reinforced by the closing strains of a church organ. The following “L’Attesa”, a rich, energetic keyboard-fest, is very much in the vein of classic Italian heavy progressive acts such as Il Balletto di Bronzo and Biglietto per l’Inferno; while in the solemnly melodic “Il Centro Sottile” all the instruments strive to create a lush texture that can bring to mind Genesis or Banco del Mutuo Soccorso in their heyday. After a somewhat lengthy pause, the album is wrapped up by the poppy, rather undistinguished “Antidoto Mentale”, which in my view is the only track that smacks a bit of filler.

Blending the warmth and melodic flair of the Mediterranean musical tradition with the driving energy of rock and the artistic ambition of prog, Il Tempio delle Clessidre’s debut deserves to be hailed as one of the standout releases of 2010, and one of the most promising albums to have come out of Italy in a long while. While taking their cue from the music produced in the Seventies – and, thankfully, not pretending to reinvent the wheel – the band manage to sound fresh and up-to-date, and not a mere exercise in nostalgia. A flawlessly performed, lovingly presented effort, Il Tempio delle Clessidre will surely bring a lot of listening pleasure to the many fans of Italian progressive rock.

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

http://www.museo.it

http://www.blackwidow.it

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