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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

http://www.zuffantiprojects.com/

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It is my pleasure to present the very first guest review to be featured on my blog – a wonderful account of Van der Graaf Generator’s Rome show written by my dear friend Victor Andrei Părău, a professional musician whom ProgArchives regulars will remember by his screen name of Ricochet. Enjoy!

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Such a great concert.” That was all I managed to write down, three days after returning home. Surely, a Van der Graaf Generator concert has to be more inspiring than that.

Well, my first impulse was to catch a flight to the nearest stop of their spring tour, since they did quite an arch throughout Europe after playing several times in England. It is perhaps strange for some, this express desire to finally see one of your favorite bands on stage, to make on your own all the right moves in order to accomplish that, to travel and make a special case out of it, or even to think of it as something to be done “at least once in your lifetime”. Yet, to be honest, most of the concerts I’ve attended were this emotional. While I do already have a strong backup of jazz or experimental concerts, should Jethro Tull’s progressiveness be up for debate (I think that’s the trend lately) and also not count a few less evoking names, then what Van der Graaf offered was quite the first fully ranked progressive rock concert for me, in all its details – from the atmosphere down to the trio’s own manifest.

Time affecting bands was never a hot topic for me, although many groups have embarrased themselves – some still do. Make no mistake, time is ticking loud enough for VdGG themselves. Peter Hammill looks the most dried up; even Guy Evans’ look isn’t as badass as it was a couple of years ago. In contrast, Hugh Banton’s appearance is elegant and humble, something further proved by how he looked so zen at the keyboards, playing his part, more so brilliantly.  But their reunion is truly one of the most successful. The first great sign of this concert was to witness these seniors’ instrumental skills, as good as ever, most of the times veraciously energetic, even with a tinge of crassness, with all their trademark accents and maddening difficult rhythms, something they’ve never let go of.

Of course, I did miss the best rides of their comeback, those up until 2007, highlighted by the live gem Real Time, if not by the work on Present as well, which I always considered to be a great album, with its clever duality. I’ve seen enough fans being a little more sceptical  when it comes to the new trio form and their recent acts. While preparing for the trip, I caught news of this tour’s first shows being heavily focused on the new material, while later mixing it with the heavily desired classics. Actually, if you check the Live List on their homepage, this is all pretty relative. Nevertheless, let’s just say the Rome concert was one of the odd-numbered ones or something, indeed promoting the new stuff, with the old tracks being the high points. Hammill even joked about it a bit when announcing they will move on to something “vecchioma non troppo vecchio”.

Oh right, Rome! Well, Prague would have initially been my pick, had it not taken me a total of two days just to travel by train back and forth. There was no window for me to go to the smaller town of Cesena, so it had to be the Eternal City, adding touristic pressure to the entire trip. By the end of a five-day experience, it was hard  to consider that I went there just to see the guys. The Auditorium Parco della Musica was a destination in itself, with exhibits taking place in the Luciano Berio Largo, with chatty and modish people at the coffeehouse making me look like a peasant, with Mahler’s Ninth playing at the same time in another concert hall. I was definitely split in many sides that evening: one completely burned out after seeing Ancient Rome the whole day, one being, of course, the eager music fan and a third moderating, as in trying to keep the first alive and the second from pretentiously picking the pulse, thus simply enjoy the whole thing. As I waited for the M bus to arrive and take me to the Auditorium, along with a rather impatient British old lady and a German couple of the same age, I feared I might actually be among the youngest spectators. Fortunately, the public proved to be mixed: genuine rock enthusiasts and Graaf fanboys, people who had forgotten to change their clothes since the ‘70s, young bloods equally interested.

The screechy “nearer and nearer” (constantly misheard by me as mirror, mirror) chorus, or even the keyboard polyphonic frolics from Interference Patterns could have proved annoying, but I felt it was a good opener. The chorus blasts were heavier than usual and the keyboard animation was also of great effect. As mentioned before, picking up the strange rhythms and intricate melodic patterns, all in heterogeneous time signatures, can be the first thing that connects you with the profoundly personal, however awkward, Van der Graaf spirit – something even Trisector, as shabby of an album as it is often credited, does manage. This, on the other hand, is the departure I regret on A Grounding in Numbers, an album I met with too great expectations, the positive reactions doing no good either. Actually, even without thinking about the past when listening to it  (which is indeed a rather bad viewpoint), I find very little substance in their new songs – or the slideshow itself. The trio picked the decent stuff from that album, avoiding, for instance, nutty songs on mathematics and such. First was Mr. Sands – a sort of odd character every band gives life to at some point (see R.E.M.’s Mr. Richards) – and the more halcyon Your Time Starts Now, with a first fully sonorous organ line from Banton. Hammill moved to electric guitar, acting clumsy between each piece to mask the seconds delayed by his preparations. The heavy instrumental verve returned with All That Before,  portions of an already towering intensity.

There was no greater enthusiasm than when the classics were played (a small sad side to it being  that it felt like they were the only thing the public was truly waiting for). Hammill did prepare us for them, yet, as the ovations interrupted the first line of Childlike Faith in Childhood’s End, it was clear the game would carry on. There was indeed more to it. When Hammill made his dramatic pause at “frightening in the silence”, someone from the audience jumped in, screaming the “sileeeeeeeeence” in perfect imitation. Hammill replied  faithfully. It was a bloody genius moment. Needless to say, at the end of the final triumphing choral of the piece, the audience jumped to its feet. It felt less great to follow up with irritating keyboard dialogues from All Over the Place, something matched on the new album only by the awful irregularities on Splink. I really enjoyed  Over the Hill next. It’s the most powerful separator between Trisector and A Grounding in Numbers, also linking closest to the old Van der Graaf, with its catchphrases, cold/pulsating transitions, lyrically & musically encompassing.

Finalmente there was Man-Erg, apparently a given in these concerts, proving even more what this band is all about. The sentimental, lyrical opening was never too comforting, while the thundering section was downright macabre and convulsive. At one point, Evans kicked the hell out of his small gong so much that he send it flying. People were shouting requests by the time of the encore, be it Sleepwalkers, Wondering or Necromancer (what!). However, it was Scorched Earth – probably my favorite VdGG of all time (but I could be biased to say that right now). I can’t think of a better encore that I’ve heard. Yes, it did lack Jaxxon’s crazy improvisations, but everything else was in place. It pierced through me entirely and it was mind-blowing. The lights were turned back on right after the trio left the stage, and the fans gave up too quickly.

So, going back to my first line, it was a great concert. Hammill’s vocals were slightly off, but I dare mention it again that all three of them were absolutely impressive at their instruments. Becoming their fan(boy) was a rough deal, so I’m pretty content with going all the way through this – except, perhaps, a couple more bits and pieces on their creation that aren’t quite put together, even now. Occasionally, it’s great to also hear others puzzle over what Van der Graaf were able to create, extending to how refined music sounded back in those days.

…okay, maybe it was my dad being so nostalgic. But my feelings persist.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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