The art is a big deal
By ProgBlog, Aug 12 2018 09:30PM
There was relatively short notice for this year’s Porto Antico Prog Fest and it was only held on one day, Friday 3rd August, so the event was made up with two bands performing original music, Ancient Veil and Sophya Baccini’s Aradia, plus two bands contributing towards a ‘tribute night’, Get ‘em Out from Milan playing Gabriel-era Genesis, and Outside the Wall playing Pink Floyd from 1973-1980.
Ancient Veil began proceedings with a really enjoyable 45 minute set that included pieces from their three studio albums, Rings of Earthly Light (as Eris Pluvia), Ancient Veil and last year’s I am Changing, reflecting their live album Rings of Earthly... Live, with performances taken from two 2017 appearances at Genova’s La Claque club, released this year. Their music is predominately prog-folk, largely due to the variety of wind instruments played by Edmondo Romano which are sometimes used to give a Celtic feel, but Alessandro Serri adds some jazzy acoustic guitar and, during the epic 17 minute Rings of Earthly Light suite, played guitar parts with the Steve Hackett-invented finger tapping technique. The scope of this song, which at times invokes Genesis and Focus, is the reason it’s my personal favourite.
I took a break for almost an hour to have dinner with my wife and came back to witness Get 'em Out embark upon their last number of the evening, Supper’s Ready. It’s impossible to underestimate the affection that Italian prog fans hold for early Genesis but there are a couple of explanations for the appeal, one offered by long-time band associate Richard MacPhail who thought the appreciation came from the emotional content of Genesis’ music, presented as long-form, romantic, almost operatic suites which form an important part of the country’s musical heritage. Steve Hackett linked their success to the theological association of the storylines in many of the songs which, as well as in Italy, seemed to strike a chord in fans from other catholic countries, and also thought that the Italians especially, picked up on the Greco-Roman myth told in The Fountain Of Salmacis.
Enhanced by back projections and the costume changes of vocalist Franco Giaffreda, decent reproductions of Gabriel’s Narcissus flower and Magog head, Get ‘em Out proved to be an excellent act providing an accurate interpretation of the classic 1972 Genesis song, including the set design and instrumentation and, much as MacPhail describes in his book, even for a tribute act each section was cheered because so many of the audience knew every note and nuance of the song, singing along or mouthing the words.
I’d been looking forward to Sophya Baccini, even considering buying one of her albums from the pop-up Black Widow Records stall but on reflection I maybe should have gone for dinner an hour later so I'd not have missed Get 'em Out. Hailing from Naples, Baccini is a flamboyant vocalist with involvement in a number of musical collaborations including her heavy rock band Presence and her work with some of the most recognisable names in Italian prog, like Banco del Mutuo Soccorso’s Vittorio Nocenzi, Lino Vairetti of Osanna, and appearing as a guest on Delirium’s 2009 album Il Nome del Vento. Sophya Baccini’s Aradia is her current project and the band focused on their second album Big Red Dragon (William Blake’s Visions) from 2013.
Intrigued by the ‘dark prog’ tag and her ability to combine operatic vocal and experimental electronic elements, I was immediately disappointed with the quality of the sound, muddied by the use of delay on the vocals so that it was difficult to determine whether her vocals were in Italian or English (she sings in both); the only track I could fully discern was Satan from Big Red Dragon. Keyboard player Marilena Striano was also plagued with monitor problems at the beginning of their set but she did go on to provide some of the most interesting moments in a performance that conformed to ‘dark’ but was lacking in prog. The rhythm section of Isa Dido (bass) and Francesca Colaps (drums) was solid enough but lacked invention and the guitar lines provided by Peppe Gianfredo, despite the nice tone, were fairly predictable, devoid of the creativity and experimentation I was expecting.
Outside the Wall is a well known and acclaimed Italian Pink Floyd tribute band and, judging by the enthusiastic reaction of the crowd, easily met expectations. I thought they did a decent job if you ignored the frequently forgotten words, though they rhythm section of Mauro Vigo (drums) and Fabio Cecchini (bass) were, in common with the Waters-era Floyd, arguably the weakest link; Vigo’s timing was a little off and Cecchini added a few too many redundant funky frills. Performing most of The Dark Side of the Moon, including accurate sound effects, the title track and Shine On You Crazy Diamond from Wish You Were Here, plus Comfortably Numb, Another Brick in the Wall (part 2) and Run Like Hell from The Wall (even though the audience, when asked, appeared to want a selection from Animals), the most accomplished piece was The Great Gig in the Sky, with an outstanding vocal performance by Elisabetta Rondanina. Martin Grice from Delirium, a reliable presence at the prog fest (his band hail from Savona, a short distance west along the Riviera), added the Dick Parry saxophone parts on Money and Us and Them which he reproduced accurately and with feeling. I also enjoyed the film that they used to accompany them, made up mostly from genuine Floyd footage for Dark Side and The Wall interspersed with original cuts.
Although I would have preferred a bill of all original acts performing over two days, the size of the crowd, possibly reflecting the draw of the music of Genesis and Pink Floyd, seemed much bigger than at the 2017 Porto Antico Prog Fest. This is important because the event has to draw in punters to ensure it can continue. I had a great time, meeting up with the Black Widows Records team who organise the event, saying hello to Mauro Serpe from Panther & C. and watching proceedings with all the members of last year’s surprise star turn, Melting Clock.
I can exclusively reveal that Melting Clock is booked to begin recording their debut album later this month and, if everything goes smoothly, have a record ready for sale in November. Part of our conversation related to cover artwork and I was shown the design for the album sleeve, then asked what I thought about their proposed cover and about album artwork generally. It was something of an honour to preview the cover art (I like it a lot) but I didn’t back up my opinion with a full explanation why I think an appropriate album sleeve is an important part of the whole package, which I think should also take the music and (where possible) the live experience into account.
My preference for an album sleeve is a photographic image, because the medium, though both easily digitally manipulated and suitable for abstract work, best represents realism; I’m also an avid photographer with an inclination for scenery and architecture. I love much of the work of Hipgnosis but one of my favourite pieces is John Pasche’s design for Illusion by Isotope (1974) with a cover photo by Phil Jude - the depiction of headphones with a mercury-like fluid connecting the two ear-pieces was part of the reason I bought an Isotope LP and listen out for more jazz rock. However, I’m also partial to a good painting, graphic design or some other form of artwork, like Henry Cow’s iconic sock imagery.
The presentation of an album used to be one of the factors I took into account when I was first attempting to discover new music in the early 70s, a time when the 12 inch LP format offered the best possible option for displaying images, innocently believing that art direction was more the responsibility of the group than the label and hypothesised that a band that invested in decent artwork was likely to have taken equal care with their music. Pre-prog, The Beatles’ Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967) with a design by Peter Blake and Jann Howarth pioneered a new form of album presentation, opening the doors for cover art to reflect the musical and lyrical content of the release.
The presumption, good artwork equates to good music, didn’t always stand up. Examples I use to illustrate the failure of the theory are Gentle Giant’s Acquiring the Taste and the second Italian release by PFM, Per Un Amico, where the covers are awful but the music is excellent, and the alternative situation with a great Roger Dean cover but music not to my liking, Badger’s One Live Badger, but there are many other examples of good music wrapped in awful artwork and vice versa.
There are a number of artists and design teams who have a strong association with progressive rock but the most famous has to be Roger Dean, predominantly for his work with Yes. Whereas Hipgnosis images sometimes only obliquely refer to an album title or lyrical references, there is usually some allusion to the subject matter. On the other hand, Dean’s paintings have less of a concrete relationship with the subject matter because, on the two studio albums Close to the Edge and Tales from Topographic Oceans, Jon Anderson was utilising the sounds of words rather than their meaning when penning lyrics. Even though there is no concept linking Fragile and Close to the Edge, Dean constructed a coherent narrative thread, explained in the paintings adorning the triple gatefold of Yessongs and later revisited in a number of live releases from Yes and Anderson Bruford Wakeman Howe, that nevertheless formed an instantly recognisable visual brand.
I believe there are tangible benefits to a long-term partnership between a musical entity and a particular designer, where music, lyrics and visual motifs create a coherent artistic vision, a gesamtkuntswerk, readily recognisable to the record-buying public. For a band like Melting Clock embarking upon their debut album that have yet to build up such a relationship, it is essential to be comfortable with the trust placed in the artist to interpret their musical ideas to grace the album sleeve. Those of us who have heard their demo EP or seen them live know how good the music is; I think the cover artwork fits their vision.