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Posts Tagged ‘Middle East’

Tracklist:
1. Northern Hemisphere (5:03)
2. Isadora (4:19)
3. Waterways (7:00)
4. Centaur Woman (7:09)
5. Bathers (4:57)
6. Communion (4:02)
7. Moth (4:03)
8. In The Stable Of The Sphinx (8:20)

Bonus tracks  (Eclectic re-issue, 2004):
1. Waterways (demo) (6:40)
2. In the Stable of the Sphinx (demo recorded in July 1968) (11:10)
3. Eight Miles High (recorded at Tangerine Studios, London, 3rd September 1969) (6:51)

Lineup:
Dave Arbus – electric violin, flute, bagpipe, recorders, two saxophones
Ron Caines – soprano & alto saxophones (acoustic & amplified), organ, vocals (4)
Dave Dufont – percussion
Geoff Nicholson –  guitars, vocals
Steve York – bass guitar, harmonica, Indian thumb piano

Though I have neglected my blog for some time, I have definitely not forgotten about it (and hopefully neither have you, my dear readers!). Unfortunately, my other reviewing commitments sometimes have to take precedence – unless I want to find myself even more backlogged than I already am.

Anyway, for the first update for almost three weeks, here is another 1969 album, and one of the lost gems of the earliest years of progressive rock. As a matter of fact, having been released a few months before In the Court of the Crimson King, Mercator Projected might very well be considered as the first prog album – though, sadly, nowhere as well-known as King Crimson’s iconic debut.

Mercator Projected marks the debut of East of Eden, one of the most exciting, authentically progressive acts of  those golden years, now unfairly overlooked by most.  Drenched in exoticism, from its stunning, surprisingly modern cover (depicting a heavily tattooed woman’s back) to its evocative title (a Mercator projection is a cylindrical map projection that distorts the shape and size of large objects),  the album is a thoroughly exhilarating listen, blending Eastern sounds with jazz, blues, heavy rock and psychedelia in a heady brew that might at first sound dated, but still holds a deep fascination for the  discerning music fan.

One of East of Eden’s strengths lies in their use of an impressive array of instruments that, at the time, were not yet common currency in rock music. Dave Arbus’ electric violin (which, incidentally, also graces The Who’s “Baba O’ Riley”) dominates the proceedings, weaving ethereal melodies or bringing a strident note to the compositions, while saxes and flute add their distinctive character to the band’s sound. In the best tradition of the original progressive rock movement, and not unlike the mighty Crims’  seminal debut, the songs on this album are at the same time accessible and experimental, harsh and gently soothing. While the band do not reject their rock and blues roots, they also push the envelope with their richly textured soundscapes, which evoke many different moods.

Closing track “In the Stable of the Sphinx”, a jazzy, sprawling instrumental (also present in a longer version in the 2004 remastered edition), is possibly the album’s masterpiece: mainly guitar-driven, unlike most of the other tracks, it features some brilliant sax and violin work. Flutes take centre stage in the dreamy, hippyish “Isadora”; while “Waterways” and “Bathers” conjure images of Eastern-style languor and sensuality, with lashings of sumptuous violin and keyboard melodies. On the other hand, the bluesy, harmonica-driven “Centaur Woman” sounds somewhat grating, and is in my view the weakest offering on the album, even though the slightly distorted, dramatic vocals add some spice to the song.

As even a cursory listen will make it clear, Mercator Projected is not the accomplished work of a seasoned band. However,  even in  its undeniable rawness,  it shows the promise than East of Eden would fulfill in their sophomore effort, Snafu. It is a great pity that they did not achieve the fame they would have deserved for their highly individual, creative approach to music-making – they could have become as big as Yes or King Crimson, but now they are forgotten by almost everyone but the real aficionados of the ‘golden era’  of the genre.

On any account, Mercator Projected is highly recommended to anyone who likes their prog to be eclectic and challenging, even if a bit rough around the edges. This is an album that every self-respecting prog fan should  try at least once.

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Tracklisting:

1. Sequenze e frequenze (16:22)
2. Aries (5:26)
3. Aria di rivoluzione (5:01)
4. Da Oriente ad Occidente (6:32)

Lineup:

Franco Battiato – lead vocals, VCS 3, guitar, piano, calimba
Gianfranco D’Adda – percussion
Gianni Bedori –  tenor sax (2)
Jane Robertson – violoncello (3)
Daniele Cavallanti – clarinet, soprano sax (3)
Gaetano Galli – oboe (4)
Rossella Conz – soprano (1)
Jutta Nienhaus – recitative vocals (3), soprano (1, 4)

After two reviews of English-language albums, I thought it was time for me to introduce one of the greatest artists on the Italian scene – a musician that, while still relatively obscure in English-speaking countries,  has quite a strong following all over Europe.

Possibly the most eclectic, innovative artist on the Italian pop/rock scene, Sicilian-born Franco Battiato, like many of his contemporaries, started his long career in the early Seventies, when Italy was swept by a wave of musical creativity inspired by the British progressive rock movement, though only partly rooted in it. The ancient island of Sicily possesses a rich cultural tradition, where north and south, east and west comfortably meet and influence each other, and Battiato’s music is the living embodiment of this archetypal ‘melting pot’. Even his poppier Eighties songs are brimming with references to the heady exoticism of the Middle East and India, or the melancholy, decadent milieu of Central Europe before WWI. Similarly, he is not averse to using foreign languages in his lyrics, or even his native Sicilian dialect (which, like every other Italian dialect, was once a full-fledged language). His erudite, thought-provoking lyrics draw upon a vast body of knowledge, not solely limited to the western world. Philosophy, mythology, religion, literature, art, all is fair game for Battiato, the man who brought multiculturalism to Italy way before  the current wave of immigration had even begun.

Released in 1973, at the height of the popularity of progressive rock in Italy and elsewhere, Sulle corde di Aries is in every way a quantum leap from Battiato’s first two albums, the still rather immature Fetus and the more accomplished Pollution. Even if for today’s standards it is a very short recording (a bit over 30 minutes in length), its four tracks pack an aural and emotional wallop that most of the much longer offerings released nowadays can only dream of achieving. The 16-minute-plus, electronic tour-de-force  Sequenze e frequenze opens with haunting strains of synths and wind instruments, which only hint at what is to come. Then Battiato’s filtered voice kicks in, a voice miles away from the big, dramatic vocals often associated with Italian prog. Somewhat thin and reedy, with a heavy Sicilian accent, it is however perfectly, exquisitely modulated, and strongly redolent of the Middle East – almost reminiscent of a muezzin’s call. The short lyrics are incredibly evocative in a visual sense, so that when he sings “ogni tanto passava una nave” (every now and then a ship passed), in my mind’s eye I can almost see a ship slowly moving over the horizon in a hazy summer’s day.  When the singing finally fades away, the track turns into an orgy of eerie, trippy sounds wrung out of a VC3 S, overlaid by the hypnotic, lilting beat of a kalimba – and almost nothing else. It is all very simple, even minimalistic, but at the same time extremely powerful, in a way that so much electronic music can rarely achieve.

Introducing what used to be the B-side of the album, Aries is a mostly instrumental track with a definite avant-garde vibe, featuring harsh saxophone and galloping percussion beats. An excellent piece of music indeed, but in my opinion not as successful as the remaining two tracks, where Battiato’s distinctive singing style is pushed to the fore. Aria di rivoluzione paints a picture of Europe in the years between the two world wars – the Italian lyrics reference the Abyssinian war, while the German ones  (courtesy of Wolf Biermann, spoken by Analogy’s Jutta Nienhaus in a tone that hovers between martial and sensual) mention Hitler and Stalin. The juxtaposition of two such different languages, of the singing and the spoken word (a strategy that Battiato would further pursue in his career), adds depth and interest to what is the most melodic offering on the album. Finally, Da Oriente a Occidente seems to foreshadow the increasing influence of  world music in more recent times, with Battiato’s chanting vocals skillfully backed by two sopranos, and a beautiful, mandolin-led coda.

I saw Battiato performing live in the early Eighties, when he was on his way to his major commercial breakthrough. I entered the theatre as a sceptic, and came out as a convert. This unique musician, who brought a genuine breath of fresh air to the staid Italian pop scene, showed that there was a whole musical world to be explored beyond the established traditions of the opera and the canzone. Years after, I introduced my all-American husband to Battiato’s music, and am happy to say that this album has become one of his desert island discs.

Sulle corde di Aries is undoubtedly one of the great masterpieces of Italian prog, and one of the still-undiscovered gems of progressive rock. Even if the album may not be easy to find for people outside Europe, I hope this review  will encourage more people to delve into the music of this amazing artist – as well as dispel any preconceived notions about the supposedly sickly-sweet, mock-classical nature of Italian progressive rock.

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