A tour of Brescia
By ProgBlog, Jan 30 2018 05:04PM
The announcement that one of the most highly regarded Italian prog bands was playing a gig in a relatively accessible city came as a bit of a surprise. Having just flown back from skiing in Chamonix the day before a Facebook post indicated that Banco del Mutuo Soccorso were performing in Brescia in seven days time, I needed to get my act together, pronto.
I delayed booking until I’d had confirmation that I could take annual leave but still managed to put together a decent hotel and flight bundle with only four days before we were due to leave. We flew to Milan (there was an alternative but early flight to Verona) and had just enough time to kill to grab a coffee and a browse through the Feltrinelli shop at the station before getting a slow train to Brescia from Milano Centrale. This particular branch of La Feltrinelli has a dedicated Progressive Italiana section where I found Giro di Valzer per Domani (1975) by Arti & Mestieri on CD and, being a fan of Tilt (1974) and their more recent release Universi Paralleli (2015) (the latter acquired on vinyl in Como last spring), I really couldn’t resist buying it, along with Prog Italia no.16. Giro di Valzer per Domani leans more towards jazz-rock than prog and there are times when they play tunes you could imagine were written by the Mahavishnu Orchestra; it’s genuinely impressive stuff.
Brescia doesn’t have such impressive prog credentials as somewhere like Genoa, Milan or Rome although PFM’s Mauro Pagani was born in the city; Pagani was also, for a brief time, a member of classic progressivo Italiano group Dalton (from Bergamo, 53km west of Brescia) but left before their well-regarded debut album Riflessioni: Idea d'infinito (1973). Convenor of a number of musical projects, drummer and composer Gustavo Pasini used to run the Canterbury Café in the San Polo district, south east of the city centre.
Temporarily resident in the Novotel a 10 minute walk south east of Brescia railway station, we arrived on Friday evening and spent the next day exploring the city before I had to set out to the Sant’Eufemia district where BMS were playing at Circolo Colony, a club on an industrial estate or retail park. The first band on, La Stanza di Iris (Valeria Di Domenicantonio, voice and synth; Antonio Di Girolamo, guitar; and Valentino Piacentini, drums) were a bit noisy for my taste and lacked sufficient variation to really hold my interest; they describe themselves rather accurately as a ‘rock bomb that hits and stuns those who listen to us’. Second up were Hamnesia (Lorenzo Diana, guitar; Livia Montalesi, vocal, violin; Giovanni Tarantino, drums; Matteo Bartolo, keyboards; and Andrea Manno, bass guitar) who were premiering their first album Metamorphosis, available at the merchandise stand. Metamorphosis is a concept piece about a journey into human consciousness through the fears and uncertainties that paralyze it, yet at the same time provide us with an opportunity to overcome them and change ourselves through metamorphosis. This was much more to my liking, where the individual influences of the band members which appeared to include symphonic prog, classical and metal, combined to form a modern prog that included some riffing, some great soloing, some authentic analogue keyboard patches and some memorable melodic lines. The lyrics were all in English, something which may have been influenced by the English-speaking bands they profess to admire like Dream Theater and Porcupine Tree, but I prefer my Italian bands singing in their native language. Montalesi may have had monitor problems because there were a couple of occasions where I thought she drifted out of key, whereas her singing on the CD – I thought I ought to buy a copy – is assured and problem free. Hamnesia are another young Italian progressive rock band to look out for.
The actual reason I’d organised the trip was to see Banco but when the first track Metamorfosi kicked in the link between the veterans and the newcomers was eloquently spelled out. Having stood around at the back of the hall for La Stanza di Iris, then moved near to the mixing desk for Hamnesia, I stood with most of the rest of the crowd close to the stage for Banco. Without Gianni Nocenza or any of the other members from the 70s apart from Vittorio Nocenza, the sextet which now consists of Vittorio Nocenzi, keyboards, vocals; Nicola Di Già, guitar; Tony D’Alessio, vocals; Marco Capozi, bass guitar; Fabio Moresco, drums; and Filippo Marcheggiani, guitar, released a re-imagined version of Io Sono Nato Librero, titled La Libertà Difficile along with the original, as a legacy edition CD in the autumn of 2017.
La Libertà Difficile is well played and well thought out but lacks the raw energy of the 1973 release and, however good D’Alessio is, he’s not going to fill the shoes of Francesco Di Giacomo. This had been one of my concerns when I booked my ticket but to his credit, he didn’t try to emulate Di Giacomo and accompanied by Nocenzi, the singing worked very well. Unfortunately, I’d been forced to book a taxi for 11.50pm because the taxi firm couldn’t provide the service that I’d originally requested at half-past midnight, or my compromise at 00.15am so I didn’t get to hear the full set. Following Metamorfosi (from their eponymous debut in 1972) they played Cento Mani e Cento Occhi (from Darwin! 1972), Il Ragno (from Come in un'Ultima Cena, 1976), La Conquista della Posizione Eretta (from Darwin!), Canto Nomade per un Prigioniero Politico (from Io Sono Nato Librero) and then a couple of tracks I don’t have in my collection which I believe were Canto di primavera (from the 1979 album of the same name) and Paolo Pa’ (from Urgentissimo, 1980). I had to leave the club as the excellent L'Evoluzione (from Darwin!) was ending.
Though I’d been a little disconcerted by the songs I didn’t know, the playing throughout was exceptional and Nocenzi, fairly close to the beginning of the set related a tale of how much Brescia meant to the band. So, despite only getting half a set, I was glad I attended. I don’t think I can make up my mind whether I prefer the music of PFM or Banco and, having seen PFM live for the first time last year, I’ve now ticked off Banco del Mutuo Soccorso from the list. I suppose my only gripe is that the club was some way out of the city centre and even public transport, which I had been informed shut down at 1am on a Saturday, was not an easy option to take because of the nature of the journey from the club to the station. This is becoming a bit of a recurring theme: the gigs start late and at gigs in both Milan and Rome last year, the journey back to my hotel was pretty fraught unless I left early and missed part of the performance.
The city has a couple of decent second-hand record stores, Music Box and Brescia Dischi which are round the corner from each other and appear to be owned by the same person. I was tempted to buy a live BMS album from 1974 but I thought €40 was a bit too much to pay. Opposite Music Box there’s a branch of bookstore Punto Einaudi which sells classical and jazz music on CD and vinyl, and there’s also a reasonably-sized branch of La Feltrinelli on Corso Giuseppe Zanardelli where I bought three PFM-related LPs: L’Isola di Niente, Amore e non Amore (1971) by Lucio Battisti where his backing band is the original PFM line-up, and Acqua Fragile’s second album Mass-Media Stars from 1974 which features Bernardo Lanzetti, the vocalist with PFM from Chocolate Kings to Passpartù, and was produced by PFM and Claudio Fabi. Marva Jan Morrow who contributed lyrics to Jet Lag also wrote lyrics for Mass-Media Stars.
In between bouts of seeking out Italian prog, we discovered Brescia boasts some of the most impressive Roman remains I’ve ever seen, located in a UNESCO World Heritage Site complex made up from the Brixia Archaeological area and the Museo di Santa Giulia. The city was also under the control of Venice during La Serenissima, making the architectural history from Roman, through medieval to the Rationalist redevelopment of the Piazza della Vittoria to the postmodern reinvention of the Courts of Justice and the Brescia 2 district where our Novotel was situated, a fabulous eclectic mix of styles. It’s a clean, pleasant and friendly city. I’d visit it again.