1. Devoto (5:54)
2. Sotterfugio (1:24)
3. Multiverso (5:46)
4. Distratto da Me (7:28)
5. Eterno Ritorno (3:24)
6. Più Uguale (10:09)
7. Transizione (7:05)
8. Autore del Futuro (7:01)
9. Figli (6:59)
10. Quattro Piccole Mani (4:37)
Alessandro Bonetti – violin, mandolin
Mauro Collina – guitars, bouzouki, dobro
Alberto Piras – vocals
Alessandro Porreca – bass
Luigi Ricciardiello – organ, piano, synth
Claudio Trotta – Maurus drums
Luigi Savino – synth, contrabass
Alessandro Meroli – baritone saxophone
Marco Matteuzzi – alto saxophone
Massimo Greco – trumpet
Odd as it may sound, I had never heard of Deus Ex Machina before I moved to the US. When their first album, Gladium Caeli, was released in 1991, I was taking one of my many breaks from intensive music listening, and, by the time I got back into progressive rock, they had already gone into hiatus. After settling in the New World, as I was getting into the local prog scene, attending concerts and festivals and meeting people, I heard frequent reports of the Bologna-based outfit’s great music and stage presence – not to mention their rather unique use of Latin in their lyrics. Unfortunately, it seemed Deus Ex Machina’s lengthy break from recording and performing was at risk of turning into a permanent state of affairs – as it is much too often the case with non-mainstream bands.
Fast forward to October 2015, and the announcement of Deus Ex Machina’s reappearance on stage in Milan – the prelude to the almost unexpected release of a new album, their sixth (the third for Cuneiform Records), with the added bonus of original keyboardist Luigi Ricciardiello’s return after two decades. Devoto dropped at the end of June, about a month after the band’s participation in the 22th edition of ProgDay was announced – to ecstatic reactions from those who had witnessed their previous US appearances.
In the past, Deus Ex Machina have often elicited comparisons to Area, one of the defining bands of the original RPI scene. Their previous albums, especially the ambitious De Republica, did indeed channel the seminal Milan outfit, and not only because of Alberto Piras’ remarkable vocal acrobatics. However, the band members have always emphasized their rock roots, which (as they are keen on pointing out) are clearly given pride of place on Devoto.
After an eight-year break, a band can move forward, or continue as if nothing had happened. Deus Ex Machina have inequivocably chosen the former path with Devoto – abandoning their trademark Latin lyrics for one thing (a process that had already started in the early 2000’s). Their wholehearted embrace of Italian connects the album to the long-standing Italian prog tradition, a link strengthened by violinist Alessandro Bonetti’s association with PFM, whose timeless influence often surfaces in his elegant yet soulful playing.
When compared to the band’s previous output, Devoto might come across as more straightforward: this, however, is true only up to a point. In fact, the album’s multiple layers will unfold upon repeated in-depth listens. Deus Ex Machina have also outdone themselves in terms of producing memorable melodies, which obviously works wonders for the album’s accessibility – as proved right from the start by the title-track, whose chorus can get stuck in your head for days. The deceptive quality of the album’s supposedly streamlined nature emerges in songs such as “Distratto da Me”, whose appealingly melodic, mid-paced intro suddenly turns into an almost free-form instrumental section sounding like Area jamming with Deep Purple. Indeed, Ricciardiello’s gritty Hammond organ puts its stamp all over the album, while his sweeping synth soundscapes (supplemented by arranger Luigi Savino’s contribution) lend a spacey note to the short mood piece “Sotterfugio”, as well as the final section of the 10-minute “Più Uguale”. As witnessed by the funky swagger of a number of songs, such as the energetic “Transizione”, drummer Claudio Trotta – aided and abetted by Alessandro Porreca’s nimble bass lines – is firing on all cylinders, fueled by his love for soul music.
While Alberto Piras’ charismatic vocals tend to capture the listener’s attention, his co-composer Mauro Collina’s performance on guitar is one of Devoto’s strengths – fully in evidence not only in fierce electric solos, but also in the folksy, all-acoustic “Eterno Ritorno” and in the lovely instrumental closer “Quattro Piccole Mani”, where he shines on slide guitar. Piras bends the structure of the Italian language to fit the energy and complexity of the music, with surprising results (as in the intense, almost brooding “Multiverso”), or behaves like an additional instrument (as in the second half of the bluesy “Autore del Futuro”). Two saxophones and a trumpet (courtesy of guest musicians Alessandro Merola, Marco Matteuzzi and Massimo Greco) beef up the already lush instrumental fabric of the songs, enhancing the dynamic, jazzy vibe of “Figli” (also a showcase for Bonetti’s fiery violin) and the already-mentioned “Distratto da Me”.
Though not claiming in any way to reinvent the wheel (which these days I find highly refreshing), Devoto is pure class from start to finish, With its admirable balance of dazzling instrumental flights and riveting vocals, permeated by a strong sense of melody, it packs a lot in just one hour. Fans of both Italian prog and classic jazz-rock should not miss this album, and try to catch Deus Ex Machina live if possible, as their music – made with passion as well as impeccable technical skill – really comes alive on stage, conveying the joy of playing together. A special mention is deserved by the album’s intriguing artwork and detailed liner notes – which include English translations of the lyrics for the benefit of international audiences.