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Posts Tagged ‘Italian’

First of all, a little background information. Although I am a native speaker of Italian, the English language has been a constant presence in my life since I was 7 years old. Languages are not only a passion for me, but also my main professional expertise (I am a language teacher with experience as a translator), and probably my biggest talent, though I have not been able to learn as many as I would have liked. Having learned English at such an early age (something I will never thank my parents enough for), as well as a few other languages along the way, has not only allowed me to meet and communicate with people from every corner of the world, but also shaped the kind of person I am today, and my whole worldview. Therefore, whenever I happen upon people singing the praises of monolingualism, or stating that they do not need to learn any foreign languages because “everyone speaks English”, my hackles rise, and I tend to lose at least some respect for those who utter such nonsense.

While the original progressive rock movement originated in England, and extremely influential bands such as Yes and Genesis are as English as afternoon tea, that same movement put deep-seated roots in other countries whose first language is not English – first and foremost my native Italy, but also places as far removed from Europe as Japan, Brazil and Argentina. Nowadays the practice of English lyrics may have become widespread, especially out of commercial considerations, but in the early Seventies most bands and artists from non-English-speaking countries (with some notable exceptions such as many German bands) chose to use their native languages. Though lack of proficiency was undoubtedly  one of the main reasons (since foreign language teaching was not as widespread or methodologically advanced at the time as it is today), this choice was also closely connected to a desire to adapt the new musical trend to the musical and cultural roots of the artists. As any treatise on Italian prog (or RPI, as it is now commonly called in prog circles) worth its salt will clearly illustrate, the whole scene cannot be divorced by its use of Italian – a language that has been often labelled as “the most beautiful in the world”, and which has proved its worth time and again in the history of music, regardless of genre.

Obviously, there is also a school of thought maintaining that English is the only language suited to rock music –  which seems to hold more or less true for heavy metal, though not necessarily for other rock genres. In particular, the distinctive features of prog make it an ideal vehicle for just about any language, and not just because it contains extended instrumental breaks that make vocals almost an afterthought. No one who has ever listened to Banco del Mutuo Soccorso, Los Jaivas or Ange (to mention three bands from different countries and cultural environments) will regret their choice to use Italian, Spanish or French instead of English, on account of the perfect fit between those languages and the band’s musical direction. Not surprisingly, real devotees of Italian prog are not particularly keen on “translated” albums such as PFM’s Photos of Ghosts or Banco’s As in a Last Supper, and even albums that were originally recorded in English, such as Cherry Five’s self-titled debut or New Trolls’ Searching for a Land, tend not to evoke as much enthusiasm as their Italian-language counterparts.

Indeed, the use of Italian is as much a part of RPI as the passionate, quasi-operatic vocal style or the incorporation of folk and classical elements – and the same holds true for Spanish or French prog. Even an impenetrable (at least for us Westerners) language like Japanese complements the music of Japanese prog bands much better than the often poor attempts at English lyrics – equally often marred by a less than stellar pronunciation (a common problem for speakers of languages with vastly different phonetic systems than English). Conversely, the choice to use English may come at the price of error-riddled lyrics and liner notes, with often laughable results that inevitably end up hurting the band’s credibility on the international scene. The misguided idea that English is a much easier language to master than, say, Italian or Spanish – coupled with the utterly deplorable trend of resorting to those terrifying language manglers, online translators – is the main culprit behind song titles containing visible blunders, or positively ridiculous lyrics which do a band or artist no favours.

In spite of all the arguments in favour of using one’s native tongue, there is still quite a lot of prejudice about progressive rock with lyrics in languages other than English – mostly on the part of people from English-speaking countries, though not always necessarily so. Many native English speakers are not used to hearing other languages spoken on TV or at the movies, due to the prevalence of English in the entertainment industry; some people may even feel threatened by what they cannot understand, while others are hampered by a kind of mental laziness, so to speak. This is especially true in a country like the USA, where English has always been instrumental to the assimilation of newcomers into American society – to the extent that most second-generation Americans do not speak their parents’ language. In general terms, Europeans are more used to hearing different languages, in some cases within their own country, and learning one or more foreign languages  (even as a hobby)  is definitely more common in Europe than in the US.

A couple of months ago, a shockingly mean-spirited attack on prog with non-English vocals was delivered in a review published on the only mainstream magazine currently dedicated to prog.  In his account of Il Tempio delle Clessidre’s excellent debut album, the reviewer stated that “ […] no matter how hard they might try to build it up, the majority of Italian prog bands have made little impact on the world stage”, and then proceeded to make matters worse by adding that “the blunt, politically incorrect truth is that, in spite of occasional flashes of musical magic,with all the lyrics being delivered in Italian, it’s still an album most would never listen to more than once.” Though it was not the first time that the magazine had taken a swipe at non-English prog, the virulence of the attack was unprecedented.

Obviously, the author of the review was unaware, or maybe intentionally oblivious, of the sizable number of people worldwide whose appreciation of Italian prog drives them to invest large amounts of money in the purchase of both vintage and modern releases. The same might be said for French or Spanish prog, or even for Eastern European acts, all of whom have a dedicated following in English-speaking countries. In fact, the news that Greg Walker, one of the foremost online prog sellers,  is organizing a festival for 2012 which will feature bands from Italy and other European countries (most of them singing in their respective languages) has already created a lot of anticipation in the prog community, proving that particular writer’s statement dead wrong, as well as unnecessarily chauvinistic. While people have every right to dislike music sung in foreign languages (and, in my years of frequentation of prog discussion boards, I have come across quite a few that fit this description), the line should be drawn at blatantly untrue statements, especially when informed by a sense of condescension and barely concealed xenophobia.

Personally, I find it rather sad that, in the second decade of the 21st century, there are still people who feel out of their depth when confronted with something even slightly unfamiliar. The aversion to foreign-language vocals might be compared to many people’s unwillingness to taste any “exotic” foods, even relatively tame ones, and it is definitely rooted in a reluctance to step out of one’s comfort zone. However, one would expect a bit more open-mindedness from fans of a genre that proudly bears the “progressive” tag, and the suspicion that there may be some ulterior motives behind statements such as the ones featured in that review leaves a bitter taste in one’s mouth. Thankfully, in the far-flung community of progressive rock lovers there are enough people who recognize that understanding lyrical content is nowhere as important as being captivated by the music, and that vocals can often be considered as an additional instrument – regardless of what a singer is singing about.  Petty, spiteful comments such as “no one would listen more than once to an album not sung in English” paint their author as a narrow-minded person who is stuck in a sort of late-colonial frame of mind, basically viewing anyone who does not adopt their language as inferior and unworthy of attention. Progressive rock deserves better than so-called journalists supporting such bigoted views.

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I recently received this press release from Black Widow Records –  the Genoa-based label whose roster includes a number of historic Italian progressive rock acts, as well as many newer ones – which I am glad to share with my readers, especially the many fans of Italian prog.

On Friday, April 8, 2011, Delirium,  one of the seminal bands of the original Rock Progressivo Italiano movement, will be performing at Genova’s Teatro Govi.  The concert will be opened by gifted Neapolitan singer Sophya Baccini (whose excellent solo debut, Aradia, was released in 2009), with legendary Osanna vocalist Lino Vairetti as a special guest.

In the course of the evening, Delirium will present their new DVD, Il Viaggio Continua: La Storia 1970-2010 (recently released by Black Widow), which features original live footage from the Seventies, plus a recording of the band’s concert at the Teatro Politeama (also in Genoa) in 2008. Their setlist will include material from both  their ’70s albums and their critically acclaimed 2009 CD Il Nome del Vento – as well as semi-acoustic arrangements of some of their best-known songs.

Though I am aware that for most of my readers it will not be possible to attend this event, if any of you happen to be in the area, this is definitely an opportunity not to be missed. In the next couple of weeks Genoa will host a number of  events that will further strengthen its status as a hotbed for great progressive rock.

The concert will start at 9 p.m. Tickets are € 15.

Teatro Govi – Via P. Pastorino 23-25 R – Genoa, Italy.

Links:
http://www.blackwidow.it

http://www.sophyabaccini.com

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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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TRACKLISTING:
1. Baltasaurus (14:18)
2. Flying Trip (7:51)
3. Vietato Generalizzare (6:38)
4. Mosoq Runa (18:58)
5. The Mirror (10:16)
6. La Ballata de s’Isposa ‘e Mannorri (10:16)

LINEUP:
Alberto De Grandis – drums, percussion, vocals (5)
Alberto Bonomi – Hammond A-100 organ with Leslie 760, Fender Rhodes electric piano, Steinway acoustic piano, synthesizers, flute
Silvio Minella – electric guitars
Luca Baldassari – bass guitar

With:
Andhira (Elena Nulchis, Cristina Lanzi, Egidiana Carta) –  vocals (6)
Zoltan Szabo – cello (4, 6)
Maria Vicentini – violin, viola (4, 6)

Hailing from Shakespeare’s own ‘fair Verona’ (one of the most beautiful cities in Italy), where they formed in the mid-Nineties, D.F.A. (acronym of Duty Free Area) are living proof of the old Latin saying that a prophet has no honour in his own country. Hailed as one of the best progressive rock bands of the past decade, they took the NEARfest audience by storm in 2000, and offered a stunning repeat performance in 2009 – when I first saw them, and was floored right from the opening strains of  their set. However, as seems to happen all too frequently, they are barely known in their home country, where their extremely elegant yet punchy brand of Canterbury-tinged jazz-rock starkly contrasts with worship of all things Genesis that is still widespread in Italy. That historic first NEARfest performance was captured on the band’s 2001 live album, Work in Progress, which for over seven years remained the last testimony of the band’s activity.

D.F.A. are nothing but pure class. A quartet reproducing the configuration of bands such as Hatfield and the North and National Health – with both keyboards and guitar in a prominent role,  and the occasional contribution of other instruments – they are one of those rare outfits where each member’s contribution is essential to the band’s overall sound. Even if drummer Alberto De Grandis –  a drummer that, like Christian Vander or Daniel Denis, is much more than a simple timekeeper – gets most of the composing credits, all of the instruments get their chance to shine and create a tightly woven mesh of sound. Alberto Bonomi’s multilayered keyboards lay a lush tapestry for Silvio Minella’s brilliantly expressive guitar work; while Luca Baldassarri’s bass provides ever-reliable bottom end, adding fullness and texture to De Grandis’ propulsive drumming. D.F.A.’s music is effortlessly fluid, yet complex enough to please the most demanding jazz-rock fans – striking a perfect balance between technical skill and genuine emotion, breathless dynamics and captivating atmospheres.

Taking a leaf out of Soft Machine’s book, the album’s title is a simple numeral – not surprising, in the light of their affiliation with Leonardo Pavkovic’s far-sighted MoonJune label. Though it runs at almost 70 minutes, unlike the majority of albums running at over an hour it never outstays its welcome, and always manages to hold the listener’s attention. Most of the six tracks are instrumental, with one notable exception (on which more later). Interestingly, though D.F.A. do not sound as typically ‘Italian’ as those bands who opt for a more traditionally symphonic sound, they possess the inimitable flair for melody that seems to be ingrained in most Italian musicians. Their music is never harsh or needlessly convoluted, yet it also manages to eschew that somewhat overblown theatricality that can turn people off Italian progressive rock. It would be unfair to the band, however, to imply that they are mere Canterbury imitators. While D.F.A have a definitely international appeal (as proved by their choice of giving their composition titles both in Italian and in English), their Mediterranean inspiration – even if thankfully untainted by the overly sentimental excesses of Italian melodic pop – can be often keenly felt. This is one aspect that D.F.A. share with historic jazz-rock outfits such as Area, Il Baricentro and Napoli Centrale.

Chosen to accompany the opening images of the documentary film Romantic Warriors, “Baltasaurus” introduces the album in charmingly subdued mode, a feature shared by most of the tracks. Elegant guitar licks and flawless rhythm section lead the way for a splendid, mid-paced development, in which keyboards and guitar seamlessly interact, bolstered by De Grandis’ stunning drum work – never overwhelming, but very much a protagonist. Gently atmospheric sections alternate with more energetic ones, and the many tempo changes do not break up the smooth flow of the music. The following number, “Flying Trip”,  picks up the Canterbury references with a wistful mid-tempo spiced up by occasional jazzy, Latin-flavoured passages, and featuring some stunningly beautiful organ passages and delicate flute; while the barnstorming “Vietato Generalizzare” (It Is Forbidden to Generalize – the track with which D.F.A. opened their set at NEARfest 2009) barges in, propelled by a vertiginous synth riff and high-energy drumming. Very much guitar-driven, it allows Silvio Minella to display his considerable chops in an intense, expressive solo reminiscent of Gary Moore during his Colosseum II tenure. “The Mirror”, on the other hand, is a classic jazz-rock workout, with the instruments creating a keen, somewhat darker-hued sense of tension – though eased by snippets of muted singing at the beginning and in the middle of the track – and climaxing with an arresting, yet subtle drum ‘solo’.

That leaves the album’s epic, the almost 19-minute “Mosoq Runa” (Quechua for “new human being”), which, not surprisingly, displays a definitely more symphonic bent – thanks also to the presence of strings, as well as a recurring main theme. The amazing interplay between the instruments is nowhere more evident than here, and – in spite of its running time – the track never once feels overlong or overdone; as usual, both the guitar and the keyboards get their chance to shine, with Minella’s soloing at its most soulful. However, 4th’s most distinctive track is strategically placed at the close of the disc. Sung entirely in the ancient Sardinian language (the most archaic of Romance languages) by the heavenly voices of the folk trio Andhira, “La Ballata de s’Isposa ‘e Mannorri” (The Ballad of the Bride of Mannorri) is a tale of love, betrayal and vengeance that would be perfectly at home on a Pentangle album – in spite of the frequent comparisons between Andhira and Canterbury’s own trio of female vocalists, The Northettes. The three Sardinian vocalists, though, are less operatic and more emotional; the resonant contralto timbre of one of them lends even more depth to their performance. The minimalistic instrumental accompaniment does not divert the attention from the sheer beauty of the vocal interplay – though the bridge features a lovely, touching guitar solo that seems to echo the profound sadness of the story.

At the time of writing, D.F.A. are reported to be on indefinite hiatus, due to the all too familiar pressures of ‘real life’ (i.e. family and work) on any non-professional musician. It may even be that the band has reached the end of the road – which would obviously result in a great loss for the whole progressive rock scene. However, even if they indeed decide to call it a day, they will have left a lasting legacy in the history of progressive rock, both for the beauty and power of their music and their genuinely down-to-earth attitude – as captured in the aforementioned Romantic Warriors.. Needless to say, 4th is a must-listen for devotees of the Canterbury scene and classic jazz-rock, and very highly recommended to prog fans of every persuasion. This is one of the landmark albums of the first decade of the 21st century, and one of the very best productions to ever come out of the Italian progressive music scene.

Links:
http://www.myspace.com/dutyfreearea
http://www.moonjune.com/MJR021.htm
http://www.andhira.com

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TRACKLISTING:
1. Fame (3:53)
2. Fiaba (6:57)
3. Claustrofilia (5:27)
4. Malamore e la Luna (8:59)
5. Amanti in Guerra (5:56)
6. Ombre Cinesi (5:38)
7. Apnea (7:15)
8. Il Giardino degli Altri (8:16)
9. La Corsa dei Trattori (ghost track) (1:44)
10. Se (7:59)
11. Lana di Vetro (7:55)
12. Ciò Che Rimane (8:59)

LINEUP:
Francesco Chiapperini –  alto and soprano sax, clarinet, flute, EWI
Andrea Illuminati – piano, melodica, bombarda
Claudio Milano – vocals
Andrea Murada – percussion, didjeridoo, noise effects, flute, rhythmic vocals
Max Pierini – electric upright bass, ocarina
Luca Pissavini – electrified viola, synth, toy instruments, “Matilda” noise machinery, field recordings, no-input mixer, duduk, theremin
Lorenzo Sempio – electric guitar, baritone guitar, guitar synth and effects

With:
Carola Caruso – backing vocals (6), vocals (2)
Stefano Delle Monache – electronics and laptop (6)
Estibaliz Igea – opera soprano singer (5)
Luciano Margorani – electric guitar, noises (4)
Luca Olivieri – synth, noises (3), glockenspiel (11)
Claudio Pirro – classical guitar (1, 2)
Antonello Raggi – electronics, laptop (10)
Marco Tuppo – synth (11)

For all the prejudice held by some so-called experts against Italian progressive rock outfits – seen as purveyors of sickly sweet melodies and bombastic, often overdone compositions – the Italian scene offers quite a surprising range of options for those who like their progressive music to have something of an edge. While not as plentiful or high-profile as those hailing from other European countries (Belgium comes to mind), avant-garde bands and solo artists have been a prominent feature on the Italian scene since the golden days of the Seventies, with names such as Picchio dal Pozzo, Opus Avantra and even Area (often too hastily labelled as a jazz-rock band). In the first decade of the 21st century, Italy has produced a number of very interesting outfits on the more left-field fringe of progressive rock – even if some of them really have very few rock elements in their musical output.

Hailing from Milan, the current incarnation Nichelodeon is a seven-piece, almost a mini-orchestra, augmented by a number of guest musicians. Originally born as a project by composer/singer Claudio Milano – a highly qualified musician and visual artist with extensive international experience – with Francesco Zago and Maurizio Fasoli of Yugen (the band that made waves in 2007 with their debut release, Labirinto d’Acqua), unlike the latter and other outfits loosely placed under the RIO/Avant umbrella, Nichelodeon are a vocal-based act rather than an instrumental one. As a matter of fact, the term ‘band’ might be seen as somewhat restrictive when referring to Nichelodeon, who see themselves as a workshop open to the contribution of any artist willing to experiment. Consequently, very much unlike many modern acts whose activity is generally limited to the studio, a marked emphasis is placed on their live performances – as witnessed by Come Sta Annie?, the DVD released as a companion effort to Il Gioco del Silenzio, recorded in the spring of 2010 as a tribute to the 20th anniversary of ground-breaking TV series Twin Peaks.

It should be obvious from this short introduction that Nichelodeon are not purveyors of ‘conventional’ progressive rock. In the very thorough liner notes of the album, they describe themselves as ‘a chemical laboratory, engaged in performing audio-visual crafts’ – a description that, for once, does not ring like idle boasting.  Running at almost 80 minutes, Il Gioco del Silenzio (whose title refers to a very popular children’s game) is anything but an easy listen, occasionally even slightly uncomfortable, but always compelling. On account of its strong vocal orientation, it reminded me of the work of another Italian avant-garde outfit, S.A.D.O. –  Claudio Milano could indeed compete with S.A.D.O. vocalist Boris Savoldelli for the title of heir of the late, great Demetrio Stratos. However, while Savoldelli’s approach tends to be more ironical  (if not exactly light-hearted), Milano’s compositions are definitely intense, demanding a lot of attention on the part of the listener, and graced by highly literate, thought-provoking lyrics that are presented both in Italian and English.

Recorded live in the studio, Il Gioco del Silenzio is a dark, angular effort with a subtly subversive vein – chamber music for the 21st century, conceived as a homage to the European song tradition and unabashedly intellectual in its appeal. Fearlessly blending different musical influences – from folk to tango, from electronica to opera – with the support of a rich, inventive instrumentation, the 12 songs challenge the mind and the ear, creating intriguingly bleak landscapes of existentialist malaise and moral decadence reminiscent of the cultural climate of the early 20th century. Needless to say, reviewing such an album can uncommonly challenging. At times the mere listening experience can feel somewhat frustrating, since the music almost begs to be rendered in visual terms. As can be expected, Il Gioco del Silenzio is not always a comfortable listening experience – on the contrary, the sudden bouts of dissonance breaking up the melodic flow of a song, and the distinct creepiness of some sound effects create disquieting atmospheres that are very likely to put off those seeking more conventional, reassuring fare.

The band cite a wide range of very diverse influences, from contemporary academic music icons such as Luciano Berio and Luigi Nono to monuments of highbrow European songwriting like Kurt Weill and Jacques Brel. On the other hand, the names of Red-era King Crimson, as well as seminal RIO/Avant outfits Henry Cow, Art Bears and Univers Zéro will ring most familiar to progressive rock fans; indeed, something of the darkly mesmerizing textures of Daniel Denis’ outfit circa Heresie can be detected while listening to Il Gioco del Silenzio. However, here the instrumental component, while not by any means secondary, is put at the service of Claudio Milano’s commanding vocal exertions. Milano’s extensive training and experience of vocal styles often quite far removed from the Western tradition  (“Il Giardino degli Altri” offers a taste of his love for ethnic chants, as well as hypnotic tribal percussion patterns) fits the moods and atmospheres evoked by the musical background like a glove. His voice, lyrical, aggressive and manic in turns, sets the pace and almost bends the instruments to its will – as shown most clearly by the positively arduous “Ombre Cinesi”.

With only a couple of exceptions, the tracks tend to be rather long (though not in an ‘epic’ sense); four of them (“Fame”, “Malamore e la Luna”, “Amanti in Guerra” e “Ciò Che Rimane”) were previously featured on Nichelodeon’s debut album, Cinemanemico (2008). Combining traditional song forms with all-out experimentation, they showcase Milano’s maddeningly versatile vocals over a rarefied, occasionally strident instrumental background of unremitting intensity. On any account, describing any of the songs in detail would be a difficult and thankless task – by and large, it might be stated that they are quite similar to each other, even without actually sounding alike. The red thread of tension running through the songs keeps listeners on their toes, enhanced by the dramatic use of hammering piano chords, sound effects and vaguely sinister reeds. Milano’s voice dips and soars in the space of a few minutes, as shown immediately by the first couple of songs, “Fame” and “Fiaba”, as well as the dramatic “Claustrofilia”, highlighted by snippets of guitar soloing in true rock style. Closing track “Ciò Che Rimane” (together with “Malamore e la Luna” the longest number on the album, clocking in at almost 9 minutes) also features some noteworthy guitar work, as well as a vocal performance that made me think of Demetrio Stratos and Area.

Though definitely a tad too long for my standards, and certainly anything but an easy or relaxing proposition,  Il Gioco del Silenzio is one of the most interesting releases of the past year. It also provides further proof that – in spite of the many practical hurdles facing musicians that do not subscribe to a mainstream view of things – the progressive scene is very much alive in Italy, and has a lot to offer to devotees of genuinely challenging music. A particular mention should also be made for the austerely elegant packaging, including some stunning photography of the band and distinctive cover artwork by painter Valentina Campagni.

Links:
http://www.myspace.com/nichelodeonband
http://www.claudiomilano.it

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TRACKLISTING:
1. Epilogo  (2:41)
2. Giù nella Forra  (1:47)
3. Casa di Blu  (0:58)
4. La Guida  (1:28)
5. Cosa Dice Quella Porta Chiusa  (0:53)
6. Dimmi Chi Sei  (2:30)
7. Cosa Dice Quella Porta Schiusa  (0:53)
8. Fame Che Ride  (1:18)
9. Ladri e Stranieri  (4:49)
10. Soldati  (2:01)
11. Un Lupo  (3:29)
12. Canto Antico  (2:38)
13. Casa Non Mai Vista  (2:23)
14. Cristo Guarito  (3:10)
15. La Lettera  (1:52)
16. Gli Scantinati  (3:56)
17. Requiem  (2:29)
18. Nessuno Muore Mai  (1:37)
19. Non Sono Morto  (2:21)

LINEUP:
Leonardo Bonetti – vocals, bass, acoustic guitar, keyboards
Paola Feraiorni – vocals
Fabio Brait – acoustic guitar
Aldo Orazi – drums

Racconto d’Inverno (A Winter Tale), the third album by Rome-based outfit Arpia,  was released in early 2009 together with band mastermind Leonardo Bonetti’s critically acclaimed novel of the same title.  Like Arpia’s previous two albums, Liberazione (1995) and Terramare (2006), Racconto d’Inverno is a concept album,  a musical rendition of a book that in turn is based on two other works, Andrei Tarkovsky’s film Stalker and Italian writer Tommaso Landolfi’s short story Racconto d’Autunno (An Autumn Story). It is also one of those albums that are extremely difficult to define. It is progressive rock, but not as we commonly know it –  indeed, if taken superficially, it can even come across as remarkably accessible in a ‘sophisticated pop-rock’  kind of way.  Moreover, it  is almost completely acoustic, with keyboards used as a complement rather than as a main ingredient.

Though they have been active for over 25 years with the same core line-up, Arpia are anything but a prolific band. Racconto d’Inverno, however, is the effort that really raises the bar in terms of the development and maturation of their individual style, and not just any old, tired variation on the ‘rock opera’ theme. The concise, yet supremely elegant lyrics, perfectly suited to the dual vocal approach adopted by the band, emphasize the aura of mingled fear and fascination pervading the whole disc. In a way, though musically quite different, it could be compared to another similarly structured album released in the first months of 2009, The Decemberists’ The Hazards of Love.

The story (which follows a circular narrative pattern) is told from the point of view of its protagonist, a drifter roaming in the mountains near the border during World War Two. While trying to escape from the war zone, he meets a mysterious young man who guides him to an equally mysterious, derelict house deep in a forested gorge, haunted by the presence of a woman. Though those familiar with Italian literature will immediately notice the link with the rich tradition of fiction set against the background of those terrible years, Racconto d’Inverno is not a realistic account of the horrors of war, but rather a hauntingly Gothic tale that may also be read metaphorically.

From a musical perspective, Racconto d’Inverno does not suggest ‘traditional’ Italian prog, but rather bands that merge folk and world music influences with darkly rarefied atmospheres, such  as Australian outfit Dead Can Dance –  to which I would add seminal British prog-folk band The Pentangle (especially as regards the use of dual male and female lead vocals). There is indeed a clear folk undercurrent in Arpia’s music, emphasized by the use of the acoustic guitar as the main instrument, and further reinforced by the expressive singing style of Leonardo Bonetti and Paola Feraiorni (already featured as a guest on Terramare, and now a full member of the band). Indeed, Paola’s voice is one of the main draws of the album – crystal-clear in tone, yet forceful, in the tradition of the great folk-rock female singers of the Seventies such as Maddy Prior or Sandy Denny. Her pristine, controlled delivery, far removed from the modern penchant for either saccharine sweetness or operatic grandiosity in female vocals, is the ideal vehicle for the often unsettling subject matter, dominated by the presence of death.

Arpia are also to be commended for having kept the album  at a very restrained 42 minutes, aware of the pitfalls of excessive length, especially on a project of this nature. The music, which favours the repetition of themes in selected episodes (as demonstrated, for instance, by the mirror-like melody of “Epilogo” and “Non Sono Morto”), may initially come across as somewhat monotonous, a bit like the shades of grey of the album cover and booklet –  though further listens will easily dispel this impression. Given the importance of the storyline, familiarity with the Italian language is definitely a bonus, though not indispensable in order to enjoy the album. Even without understanding the actual words, Leonardo and Paola’s stunning vocals  help the listener to connect with the story.

Racconto d’Inverno should be seen as a suite in 19 short movements (only the imperious, Middle Eastern-tinged “Ladri e Stranieri” approaches the 5-minute mark) rather than a standard collection of songs. As to be expected on an album of this nature, the music is very much at the service of the story, rather than the other way around. Though the acoustic guitars play by far the biggest role (together, obviously, with the vocals), the keyboards lurk in the background, introduced first in “Un Lupo”, and finally taking the lead in the climactic ending of the tale, the dual punch of  “Gli Scantinati” and “Requiem”. Here, combined with the mournful sound of strings and the almost unbearably intense vocals, the keyboards create a dirge-like melody that suggest some decidedly sinister goings-on in the vein of Edgar Allan Poe and its ilk.

By releasing an album of such peculiar nature, Arpia have made an extremely bold move, putting artistic integrity before any concerns of commercial success. Intensely original in its combination of mesmerizing music, intriguing storytelling and splendid vocal performances, minimalistic yet deeply moving, Racconto d’Inverno is a masterpiece of atmosphere and restraint,  an album that will appeal to all lovers of music relying on simplicity and purity rather than technical flash. Those who have a good knowledge of Italian might also want to check out the novel, and possibly its source, Tommaso Landolfi’s Racconto d’Autunno – as well as Bonetti’s latest literary effort,  Racconto di Primavera (A Spring Tale), released in October 2010.

Links:
http://www.arpia.info
http://www.leonardobonetti.it

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TRACKLISTING:
1. Intro/Dio del Silenzio (1:23)
2. Il Nome del Vento (6:01)
3. Verso il Naufragio (6:35)
4. L’Acquario delle Stelle (6:15)
5. Luci Lontane (4:14)
6. Profeta Senza Profezie (4:20)
7. Ogni Storia (5:02)
8. Note di Tempesta (4:29)
9. Dopo il Vento (9:40)
10. Cuore Sacro (8:49)
11. L’Aurora Boreale (4:26) (bonus track)

Bonus Video:
L’Acquario delle Stelle

LINEUP:
Ettore Vigo – keyboards
Martin Grice – sax, flute, keyboards
Pino Di Santo – drums, vocals
Roberto Solinas – guitars, vocals
Fabio Chighini – bass
Mimmo Di Martino – vocals (2)

String quartet:
Chiara Giacobbe Chiarilla – violin
Diana Tizzani – violin
Simona Merlano – viola
Daniela Caschetto Helmy – cello

With:
Stefano “Lupo” Galifi – vocals (6)
Sophya Baccini – backing vocals (2, 4, 7, 9), piano (9)

After having spent the past few months concentrating on albums from the English-speaking world, now it is time for me to to spotlight some  Italian bands and artists. Though many great albums (in some cases essential for a true prog fan) have come out of my native country from the Seventies onwards, only a part of this vast, exciting output has received the attention it deserves.  Here in the US most of the attention tends to be directed at the likes of  Le Orme, PFM and Banco (also owing to their relatively frequent visits to the New World), to the detriment of other acts who seem to be familiar only to a selected few.

Genoa-based band Delirium hold a special place in my heart, since their debut album, Dolce Acqua, was the first progressive rock album that I bought – at the ripe old age of 11. Among the founders of the original Italian progressive rock scene, in 1972 they experienced mainstream success with  the anthemic single “Jesahel”, which introduced the Italian public to the gritty, bluesy vocal talents of Ivano Fossati.  Soon afterwards Fossati  left the band  to embark on a successful career as  a singer-songwriter, to be replaced by British-born Martin Frederick Grice.  After the release of their third album, released in 1974, Delirium split up, but thankfully got back together in 2001 with most of the original members on board.

When listening to Il Nome del Vento, one might almost be tempted to feel that the 30-year hiatus between  Delirium III and this album has in some way been beneficial to the band – a lengthy yet necessary ‘recharging of the batteries’, so to speak. This is indeed a mature, finely-crafted album, very much in the way of  PFM’s  Stati di Immaginazione – a sumptuous, accomplished effort from seasoned prog veterans that had been forgotten or written off far too soon.

Although Il Nome Del Vento is a concept album of sorts (the wind symbolizing the energies that sweep negativity away and usher positive change), it does not feel as contrived as many similar efforts can be. Shunning the clichés than often plague concept albums, Mauro La Luce’s lyrics opt instead for simplicity and emotion, a perfect complement to the outstanding performances of all the vocalists involved. The latter are nicely balanced by the brilliance of the instrumental sections, where the background of each musician, their individual tastes and preferences, is put to effective use. While Martin Grice’s love of jazz and vintage English prog shines through his flute and sax  work, guitarist/vocalist Roberto Solinas (a true revelation) injects a welcome dose of classic rock energy in what is largely an acoustic effort. The presence of an all-female string quartet contributes an authentically symphonic feel to many of the compositions, infused by that uniquely Italian flair for melody and lyricism.

The continuity between the new and the old incarnation of Delirium is highlighted right from the start, as “Intro/Dio del Silenzio (Reprise)” references one of the songs featured on Delirium III. This brief, intense introduction (complete with sounds of rain and thunder at the beginning) sets the scene for what is to come. The title-track is a magnificent slice of complex yet melodic prog, soulfully interpreted by the band’s former guitarist Mimmo Di Martino, whose deep, bluesy tones find a perfect foil in Sophya Baccini’s ethereal soprano. The following track, “Verso il Naufragio” (one of two instrumentals featured on the album), is an exhilarating rollercoaster ride of slow, majestic keyboard washes and electrifying guitar riffs; it also incorporates a passage from George Martin’s “Theme One” (also covered by Van Der Graaf Generator, Cozy Powell and Osanna). The jaw-dropping duel between sax and organ in the second half of the track displays the band’s jazzier side, a constant of their sound since their debut album, Dolce Acqua.

More jazzy influences surface in the uptempo “Profeta Senza Profezie”, further enriched by a  commanding vocal performance by Stefano ‘Lupo’ Galifi (of Museo Rosenbach fame), somewhat reminiscent of the late Demetrio Stratos’ acrobatics; while the romantic “L’Acquario delle Stelle” (dedicated by Martin Grice to his first grandson) is a gorgeous slice of classic Italian prog, in which flute and keyboards emote over a lush background of strings. However, it is the double whammy of “Dopo il Vento” and “Cuore Sacro” that forms the album’s climactic point. The former alternates jazzy passages with calmer, more melodic ones, the string quartet holding the fabric of the song together; while the latter is markedly darker and rockier, enhanced by rippling piano, dynamic drumming, and assertive flute work that recalls early Jethro Tull.

A truly classy offering, and undoubtedly one of the top releases of 2009, Il Nome Del Vento is the ideal showcase for the unique talents of a band that seem to be finally about to get the recognition they highly deserve. It is also a textbook example of how classic progressive rock can sound modern without jettisoning its glorious past. Hopefully this stunning comeback disc will lead the way for more releases of the same high quality from a band that still has a lot to offer to the discerning prog fan.

Links:
http://www.idelirium.it
http://www.blackwidow.it

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