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Posts Tagged ‘La Maschera di Cera’

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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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. 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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