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Is there rivaly between progressive rock bands or is the genre like an extended happy family?

ProgBlog investigates...

By ProgBlog, Aug 20 2018 03:25PM

I met up with an old school friend last week. Though we have always exchanged Christmas cards and occasional emails, usually around the time his band is about to release some new music which he will dutifully send me, I’d not seen Bill or his wife, Anna, for thirty years, the last time being at their wedding. Bill lived two doors away from me in Barrow, was in the same year at school and, as part of a tight-knit group of adolescents, we grew up liking the same music, the direction of which was set by my older brother.

I played bass and Bill played drums in a band influenced by early Pink Floyd and King Crimson until we departed for separate universities; we listened to records, analysed and discussed music and last Monday, in the Royal Oak, Borough, a pub without any form of electronic amusements where even the contactless payment facility failed to work, began making up for lost time in conversation about music over well-kept beer from Harvey’s of Lewes.



Having not long before returned from a trip to Italy, talk naturally turned to PFM, who’s Photos of Ghosts, Cook and Chocolate Kings were first obtained by Bill. I hadn’t realised that he wasn’t so much a fan of Jet Lag, despite its jazz rock leanings and his proclivity for jazz and jazz rock, or Chocolate Kings, because of Bernardo Lanzetti’s English vocals and what he suggested was a move away from the earlier band sound, with its distinctive Mediterranean feel. Favouring their post-millennium output, he also thought that Emotional Tattoos was the best thing they’d done since Photos of Ghosts. For my part, I agree that Emotional Tattoos is a step in the right direction, with a couple of tracks that do hint at their 70s prime, but I think the Mediterranean warmth that pervades their early work is largely absent. There’s less use of change in amplitude and other devices to add contrast to an individual piece of music than there used to be, less contrapuntal interplay and no flute; as much as I like Lucio Fabbri’s playing, I miss the flute when the current band play the old material. Still, based on Bill’s recommendation, I’ve just invested in a copy of Dracula from a seller on ebay, a CD I saw when I was in Rome in 2006 but failed to buy, but I’ve never seen it anywhere since.



I tend to play the English version of Emotional Tattoos because that’s the version I own on vinyl, but I listened to the Italian version (which came on CD with the 2LP) before going to see them in Genova last year. Bill and I agreed that the Italian version was better, like their 70’s material that was available in both Italian and English. I’m not trying to suggest that I don’t like PFM’s English language work as Photos of Ghosts and The World Became the World include faithful re-workings of songs from Storia di un Minuto and Per un Amico and I’m not too put out by Lanzetti’s singing; unfortunately, Peter Sinfield’s words required a more nuanced delivery than the band were capable of, though I found it pleasing, not understanding the social situation in Italy at the time, that they accepted his environmentalism and his compassionate lyrics.



The topic of Italian bands singing in English was also raised when I was talking to Melting Clock at the Porto Antico Prog Fest, who employ their native language for their original material. They also play one or two progressive rock classics during their live set, where vocalist Emanuela Vedana sings with confidence when they perform accurate renditions of Genesis’ Firth of Fifth, Time by Pink Floyd or Soon, the coda to Gates of Delirium by Yes; this not only demonstrates their understanding of prog history, but it’s also a clever device to ingratiate themselves with members of an audience who may not have heard their self-penned music. We were unanimous in agreement that it was preferable for a rock progressivo Italiano bands to sing in Italian, but they also understood that overcoming the language barrier was likely to make their music accessible to the wider public and were considering, at least on one of the formats for their forthcoming debut, to include a bonus track of original music with lyrics translated and sung in English to expand their appeal but also, like veteran local group and Black Widow Records stable mate Il Cerchio d’Oro on their 2008 album Il Viaggio di Columbo, include English translations of the Italian lyrics.



It could be argued that world-wide appreciation for the entire sub-genre of RPI was facilitated by Greg Lake, Keith Emerson and Manticore Records. PFM manager Franco Mamone passed on a tape of the group to Greg Lake who, to the surprise of the Italians, listened to and liked what he heard, and invited them to Fulham to see and hear them play. Peter Sinfield was working with ELP at the time and compared their musicianship to King Crimson (PFM performed cover versions of 21st Century Schizoid Man and Pictures of a City on their first Italian tours in 1971 and 72) and suggested that English language lyrics would make their music universally appealing, and the band agreed. Banco del Mutuo Soccorso were also signed to Manticore after Emerson had heard them play and became a huge fan. Banco (1975) was their first release for Manticore, containing one original track (in Italian) and re-workings of material from Banco del Mutuo Soccorso and Io Sono Nato Libero in Italian and English, followed in 1976 by a concept album Come in un’ultima cena / As in a Last Supper released in both Italian and English.



Le Orme, another of the most successful RPI bands, also experimented with an English version of one of their highly regarded LPs with the aim of conquering the UK and US. Released on the Charisma label, Felona and Sorona had lyrics written by Peter Hammill (who was signed to Charisma), based on the concept provided by Tagliapietra, Pagliuca and Dei Rossi so that his words closely followed the original story.



In a modern twist, when La Maschera di Cera released their continuation of the Felona e Sorona story Le Porte del Domani in 2013, they also released a version in English, The Gates of Tomorrow, with a very subtle alternative mix and a less subtle variation of the album sleeve, painted by Lanfranco who had provided the original art work for Le Orme. In addition to Italian groups releasing an alternative version of an album for the English-speaking market, which spreads beyond the four acts listed above, there are examples found in my collection of groups who only sing in English (The Trip, Cellar Noise, Hollowscene); those like Banco, PFM and Osanna who have released albums with a mixture of Italian and English lyrics; and those who have released both all-Italian and all-English albums (Nuova Era with Dopo L’Infinito and Return to the Castle respectively).



The phenomenon of non-native English speakers singing in English isn’t restricted to Italy; plucking a few more examples from my collection are Tasavallan Presidentti from Finland (Wigwam don’t count because they were Anglo-Finnish); Pulsar from France (both French and English are used on Strands of the Future, 1976); Germany’s Eloy and Triumvirat; Aphrodite’s Child from Greece; Earth and Fire, Focus and Supersister from the Netherlands; Norway's Wobbler; Albion from Poland (Broken Hopes, 2007); Spain’s Iceberg (Tutankhamon, 1975, a mixture of Spanish and English); and Sweden’s Anekdoten. So what influenced these choices? Was it simply the likelihood that the music would be more universally accepted, with concomitant success, if they used English lyrics? I’m not so sure it’s that straightforward; there’s a theory that in Italy during the 70s in there was something of a backlash against groups singing in anything other than Italian when the political tension is well documented. It’s strange then that PFM should release their anti-American opus, Chocolate Kings as an English language LP but that album might give a hint why there’s a melange of native- and English languages used throughout progressive rock in mainland Europe.

The title track on Chocolate Kings spells out that the US army, an occupying force in Italy following the Second World War, became unwelcome when fascism was defeated and bribing the local populace with candy and consumer items was insufficient for them to gain the goodwill of the locals; it could even have been seen as a potential source of friction, especially with the polarisation of political viewpoints in the late 60s and 70s. American and British music arrived in Italy through major ports like Genova and with further influx from a mixture of cultures it’s not surprising that Genova has played an important role in the development of musical styles, though a crucial element was retaining some of their own heritage and identity, including a desire to sing in their own language. It could be argued that the adherence to a ‘romantic style’ also helps to explain the attraction of UK progressive rock in Italy.

A similar situation occurred in Germany, though there was a greater concentration of American armed forces. The counter-culture generation, born after the war, largely rejected Anglicised music but also opted to break from their own traditions to create their own music scene, disrespectfully dubbed Krautrock by the English-speaking media, which has since become massively influential in its own right. The more mainstream prog bands tended to develop along the lines of the space rock of early Pink Floyd although Triumvirat became something of an ELP-clone.


Progressive rock started as an British phenomenon and was absorbed an integrated by many European countries putting their own stamp on the movement, including choosing whether or not to adopt English as its official language. The eclectic mix of influences that helped to form progressive rock indicates that there was no manifesto for the genre to remain 'English', and many bands stuck to their native tongue; this enriched the scene and made it a joy for the UK and US audiences to discover something new. Sadly, globalisation means that the music industry, which once thrived on creativity, now treats artists as commodity, fulfilling the fears aired in Chocolate Kings. The trend for an increasing number of mainland European prog bands to sing in English may reflect the attitudes of the market but would anyone dispute that most fans prefer Italian bands to sing in Italian?


I personally like all non-UK bands to sing in their mother tongue because it sounds more fluent, more poetic, more passionate and more believable but it all boils down to whether or not a band feels that English lyrics best serve the purposes of their music.











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.


Ancient Veil - Porto Antico Prog Fest 2018
Ancient Veil - Porto Antico Prog Fest 2018

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.




Get 'em Out - Porto Antico Prog Fest 2018
Get 'em Out - Porto Antico Prog Fest 2018

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.

By ProgBlog, Jul 30 2018 01:52PM

My wife and I habitually visit flea markets and bric-a-brac shops on our tours of London and the south east, where I’m specifically seeking out vinyl bargains. Last week we were prompted to visit a shop closer to home, Atomica, in a business park off Croydon’s Purley Way, thanks to an article posted by Bygone Croydon which indicated along with the retro homeware, fashion and general relics, they had a selection of 50s – 80s vinyl. Despite being more of a showroom for their self-designed gifts which sell all over the world, the records didn’t disappoint because co-owners David and Nicky turned out to be late 60s, early 70s psyche and prog aficionados so after a good browse through a selection weighted towards prog and prog-related (choosing to buy Jethro Tull’s Live – Bursting Out and Tangerine Dream’s Cyclone, both from 1978 and both at a very reasonable price) I had lengthy chat about music with the couple, when I should have been packing my bag for the following day’s short break in Italy.



Displaying an indecision worthy of my notable family trait but in fact attempting to ensure that friends and family were all able to attend one or the other of King Crimson’s Palladium gigs in November before booking the tickets, the London shows sold out before I’d got answers from everyone. Fortunately, tickets were still available for the first 2018 UK performance in Bournemouth, so my friend Jim bagged a couple. A couple of weeks later during a trip to Milan, I saw a rather large advert for the Lucca summer festival pasted on a wall inside Milano Centrale railway station and, after I’d taken in the Roger Waters Us and Them tour date, I noticed King Crimson were due to play the festival on July 25th. On my return to the UK I touted the idea to Jim, who was very much interested, and tickets, flights and accommodation were all booked.



Strangely, my Tuscany guidebook has a slightly larger section on Lucca than on Pisa; the first Tuscan family holiday in 2013 was based in Pisa and we used the train to travel around the region, but never visited Lucca. This was rectified on the subsequent Tuscan holiday in 2014, having been told that the smaller city was probably nicer to visit than Pisa. I do like Pisa, which has two very good record stores, GAP in Via San Martino and La Galleria del Disco in Via San Francesco, and is well connected on the railway network but, apart from the obvious and spectacular Campo dei Miracoli and the museums in the Piazza del Duomo, there’s little else to do. Lucca, on the other hand, is really compact and contains a number of points of interest: Roman remains in the crypt of the church of San Giovanni and the shops and piazza marking the former Roman amphitheatre; the medieval Torre Guinigi crowned with holm-oak and the Torre delle Ore, the tallest of the towers in the city; the details on the west facade of both the Duomo San Martino and San Michele in Foro; Puccini’s birthplace museum; the art deco shop fronts in the Via Fillungo; all enclosed in broad Renaissance city walls. Lucca also has a fine record store, Sky Stone and Songs located on the Piazza Napoleone and which, on the current visit, had a window display replete with King Crimson recordings.


The festival auditorium was set up in Piazza Napoleone, covering a far greater area than I remember from my previous visits. The huge stage was to the west of the square, up against the Palazzo Ducale and, until a few hours before the event started, it was possible to amble in and out of the area. I was picking up the tickets when the soundcheck started at around 5pm and went to join a number of fans at the back of the seating area listen in as the band ran through a couple of numbers; it was obvious that the evening’s performance was going to be special.



Soundcheck
Soundcheck

By the time we went out to eat, the piazza had been emptied and a rather intimidating security cordon comprised of barriers erected in strategic places had been set up to prevent non-ticket holders from wandering in; more reassuringly in the early evening heat and humidity, there were plenty of paramedics around to cope with anyone suffering from dehydration and/or intoxication – it had been suggested that this was the biggest crowd of the European leg of the tour. After a visit to the merchandise stall for a tour programme and 10” limited edition Uncertain Times double EP we made our way to our seats in block I, row 18, where I was a little disappointed that our mid-price range tickets didn’t afford the view of the band I’d been hoping for, although we had a very good view of the giant screen just to the right of the stage.



The performance started on the stroke of 9pm following an announcement in Italian about not recording the event and not taking photographs; this was succeeded by a recording of Robert Fripp emphasising that to ensure we all had a great party we shouldn’t take photos during the concert but, because bassist Tony Levin wanted to take a photo of the crowd when they’d finished playing, we could take photos when Levin took out his camera. He added that at the request of his fellow band members, there would be two halves to the set separated by a 20 minute intermission. Remarkably, following my experiences in Genoa and Brescia for PFM and Le Orme respectively where a sea of 10” tablets and cases obscured my sight line to the bands playing on stage, Fripp’s ‘no photography’ request was heeded by most of the crowd and the use of smartphones and cameras was restrained.

The set list wasn’t too far removed from the last time I saw them, at London’s Hackney Empire in September 2015, though in the intervening period Bill Rieflin had taken a sabbatical and was replaced by Jeremy Stacey on drums and keyboards, then returned in the role of keyboard player, creating an octet. There was a distinct bias towards material written for early incarnations of the group, where the only song missing from In the Court of the Crimson King was I Talk to the Wind and every studio album up to Beat, with the exception of Starless and Bible Black, was represented by at least one track. The most recent studio album music was Level Five/Larks’ Tongues in Aspic part 5 (from 2003’s The Power to Believe) but they played parts of Radical Action (To Unseat the Hold of Monkey Mind) written specifically for the three-drummer line-up, and the three drummers opened each half of the set with a remarkable percussive display, called for that evening A Tapestry of Drumsons and Drumsons of Psychokinesis. I was pleasantly surprised how much keyboard Fripp played, and how easy it was to distinguish the guitar of Fripp and Jakko Jakszyk when it had proved difficult for me to work out which line belonged to which guitarist in every version of the band including Adrian Belew; it was more difficult to work out who was playing which keyboard part when Stacey retreated to the back of his drum kit and the big screen showed Rieflin. The role of each drummer was fairly well delineated, with Pat Mastelotto adding a huge variety of colour with some novel bits of percussion and some non-percussion, much like Bill Bruford following the departure of Jamie Muir in 1973, Stacey’s keyboard responsibilities, and Gavin Harrison acting as the rhythmic anchor, even adding an impressive solo on encore 21st Century Schizoid Man. However, it was when the three operated as a unit that they most impressed, exemplified by their discipline and precision on Indiscipline.


Though Mel Collins had appeared on many of the originals played that evening (Pictures of a City, Cirkus, the Lizard suite, Islands) he didn’t simply stick to the written lines but was given plenty of room to extemporise, blowing jazz and quoting operatic flute. This free rein with well trodden pieces seemed to add to the enjoyment of the ensemble while also allowing the audience to experience the music in new ways; we were even treated to a new set of lyrics on Easy Money.


The performance, including the break, lasted over three hours. Though loud, the sound was really well balanced, making up for the slightly awkward seating position where it was easier but less desirable to watch close-ups on the big screen than get the big picture. I thoroughly enjoyed it, as did the rest of the audience who not only showed their appreciation at the end of each piece of music but responded to mid-song solos and key moments with enthusiastic applause. I was a bit surprised by the clarity of the subtleties and, strangely for a King Crimson gig, did not feel overpowered by the volume. I really hope that there’s going to be a DVD release of the concert at some stage in the near future because along with the quality of the audio, the camerawork for the big screens was also rather good.



Another successful trip to see a band in Italy completed, but I’m now looking forward to seeing Crimson in Bournemouth at the end of October...









By ProgBlog, Jul 22 2018 05:05PM

Taking their name from the 1873 extended poem Une Saison en Enfer by Arthur Rimbaud, dramatised in the 1971 film Una Stagione all’Inferno, a French-Italian production directed by Nelo Risi which tells the life and death of Rimbaud and his troubled relationship with the poet Paul Verlaine, Una Stagione all'Inferno were formed in 1997 by Fabio Nicolazzo, a guitarist from Genoa's gothic rock scene and the classically trained pianist Laura Menighetti. Augmented by bassist Diego Banchero from Genovese prog band Il Segno del Comando, original Il Segno del Comando drummer Carlo Opisso and Francesco Scariti, they released their interpretation of the theme tune to 70s Italian TV mini-series L'amaro caso della Baronessa di Carini, renaming it La ballata di Carini, which was included on the soundtrack compilation E tu vivrai nel terrore released on the Black Widow Records label in 1998. The band had originally intended to write a concept album based on the show but disagreements within the band led to a rejection of the idea, and put the group on hold.



Nicolazzo and Menighetti reformed the band with new members in 2011 and, undeterred by the difficulties posed by complex concepts, decided to write a piece of music based on Il Mostro di Firenze (The Monster of Florence) which was eventually released in spring 2018 on Black Widow Records (BWRDIST 676). Il Mostro di Firenze is the name commonly applied by the Italian media for a series of eight double murders that took place between 1968 and 1985 in the province of Florence. Law enforcement departments conducted a number of investigations into the cases over the course of several years; the victims were young couples who parked or camped in countryside areas in the vicinity of Florence during the new moon, killed using a variety of weapons including a .22 calibre gun and a knife. There appeared to be a sexual element to the murders because the sex organs were cut out from the bodies of some of the female victims. After an innocent man was convicted, the killer struck again and eventually the authorities concluded that the murders were not committed by a single person but by a group of at least four perpetrators the so-called ‘Picnic Comrades’ who were later caught and convicted.

This release falls very neatly into the category of dark prog, something I didn’t know existed until I got chatting to the proprietors of Genova’s Black Widow Records shop. The shop itself is named after the original purveyors of dark prog, the UK’s Black Widow, a favourite of Massimo Gasperini. Black Widow’s debut Sacrifice from 1970 is considered a prog classic, possibly due to the controversy stoked by the media surrounding the inclusion of occult themes, absent on subsequent releases, although they were quite innovative for a band with heavy rock leanings (c.f. Black Sabbath) with flute, sax and clarinet supplementing the usual rock instrumentation. Massimo explained that they ticked all the right boxes for a rock band: a powerful and hypnotic sound; gothic in nature; a spectacular live show. I think that the flute and clarinet add a folk element, so perhaps it’s not surprising that Massimo also adds Comus to his list of dark prog bands, along with Atomic Rooster, Audience, Beggars Opera, Bram Stoker, Dr. Z, High Tide, Indian Summer, Kingdom Come (and other Arthur Brown projects) and Quatermass. These groups represent the early period of progressive rock and, as far as the British incarnation goes, that might be part of the defining feature as there are often psychedelic and more blues-based influences; he’s even willing to suggest that some Hawkwind, the first two King Crimson albums and the 68-76 incarnations of Van der Graaf Generator are dark enough to fit the description. The inclusion of flute is considered an important instrument in the genre, along with up-front guitar and Mellotron but the demonic band name King Crimson and some of the dark themes of Crimson and Van der Graaf Generator, like Necromancer from The Aerosol Grey Machine (1969) and White Hammer from The Least we can do is Wave to Each Other (1970) are surely sufficient to warrant an inclusion.



The ProgBlog selection of UK dark prog
The ProgBlog selection of UK dark prog

Though there are worldwide examples like Akasha (Norway), some material by Amon Düül (Germany), some Ange (France), Coven (USA), some Magma (France), Morte Macabre (Sweden), Univers Zero (Belgium), the examples that are most true to form are Italian, from both the classic period in the 70s and the present, and this is where Black Widow Records excel; not only do they have a great reputation for seeking out classics for re-issue, involving getting approval from the bands themselves for a re-release and working out who owns the phonographic rights, but also nurturing new talent.


Turin-based Abiogenesi released their self-titled debut in 1995, incorporating a blend of 70’s hard rock and a more melodic, modern symphonic prog sound. The main songwriter of the quartet, which has undergone a few personnel changes over the years, is guitarist and vocalist Toni d'Urso, who was influenced by groups as diverse as Black Widow and Camel and who drafted in guest musicians (including Clive Jones from Black Widow) to help create their particular brand of dark prog.

Jacula (possibly from the Latin word meaning ‘short, fervent prayer’) were formed in Milan 1968 by the charismatic singer and guitarist Antonio Bartoccetti along with electronic music pioneer Doris Norton (as Fiamma dello Spirito) and keyboard player Charles Tiring. They recorded their debut album In cauda semper stat venenum in 1969 which had a private pressing of only 310 copies but was never distributed, remaining unpublished until the updated 2001 edition on Black Widow Records; their first record to appear on the shelves was 1972’s Tardo pede in magiam versus. The songs featured Norton’s ethereal voice and Latin texts, funereal organ and dark, disturbing sounds conveying esoteric themes and though classed as prog, they were considered apart from the mainstream. Adding drummer Albert Goodman to the line-up, they became Antonius Rex in 1974 and released the album Zora in 1977 which was closer to other Italian prog bands around at that time. The gothic album sleeve imagery adds to the dark prog tag.

Devil Doll, made up of band members from Venice and Ljubljana, Slovenia were influenced by Jacula and old silent horror films. They released five studio albums between 1989 and 1996 but disbanded in 1997; reviewers use adjectives like ‘stark’ and ‘challenging’ to describe their music.


Malombra were one of the first of the new wave of Italian dark prog bands, hailing from Genoa and releasing their eponymous debut on the Black Widow Records label in 1993, only a year after the record label was founded. Described by one critic as ‘a baroque Devil Doll’, they took their name from a book subsequently made into a film, the debut gothic novel by Antonio Fogazzaro from 1881, set close to Lake Como. It was first turned into a 1917 silent movie and remade in 1942 by Mario Soldati. Around the time of their second album Our Lady of the Bones (released 1996), vocalist Mercy teamed up with Diego Banchero, a friend from her former band Zess, to form Il Segno del Comando whose name is another literary reference from the Giuseppe D’Agata book which became a highly regarded Italian TV giallo-fantasy mini-series in 1971.

Possibly the most well-known and successful dark prog protagonists are Goblin, who rose to fame on the back of the critically acclaimed 1975 giallo film Profundo Rosso. The soundtrack, originally put together in ten days after Claudio Simonetti’s band Cherry Five was asked to step in following a disagreement between director Dario Argento and original composer Giorgio Gaslini, has sold over a million copies. Cherry Five were influenced by King Crimson and Genesis and played extended compositions on the jazzy side of prog, though their underrated eponymous debut included tracks called Country Grave-Yard [sic] and The Swan is a Murderer; they changed their name to Goblin to fit in with the horror genre, in keeping with the material they were providing music for and went on to provide the score for other Argento films, Suspiria, Phenomena, Zombi and Tenebre. It’s interesting that Death Dies from Profundo Rosso sounds as though it was inspired by the bass guitar figure leading up to Vivian Stanshall listing the instruments used on Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells, and that the overture of Tubular Bells was used in classic horror film The Exorcist.



Il Mostro di Firenze is a worthy addition to this sub-genre. With a line up comprising Nicolazzo on guitars and vocals, Menighetti on keyboards and vocals, Roberto Tiranti and Pier Gonella from Italian prog metal band Labÿrinth playing bass and guitar respectively, Marco Biggi on drums, Paolo Firpo on sax, Kim Schiffo on cello, Laura Sillitti on violin and Daniele Guerci on viola, the band have created a dark symphonic soundtrack to the story, telling the tale from the new moon when the murders took place, to the full moon, linked by clever pieces of musique concrete like checking the action of a handgun and placing it in a zipped bag.

The use of the chamber ensemble adds to the cinematic sweep of the songs but the mood switches to oppression and terror with a simple device originally employed by Goblin, the nursery-rhyme like melody picked out on percussive instruments and taken up in wordless song by the ‘murderer’. The 10 minute instrumental Plenilunio with its false ending is the highlight, quoting from Chopin, nicely structured with emotive piano and plaintive guitar, but the album abounds with great instrumentation and playing. The one track that I’m not convinced about is Serial Killer Rock which, though brief, is stylistically at odds with the other material but, on balance, the album is a really good piece of work.



Il Mostro di Firenze by Una Stagioneall'Inferno, Black Widow Records (BWRDIST 676)







By ProgBlog, Jul 9 2018 04:58PM

Britain’s National Health Service celebrated its 70th anniversary last week, having come into effect on July 5th 1948. Despite a relatively limited personal use of the Service with only one hospital stay for overnight observation following a head injury sustained during a mountaineering accident in the Lake District in 1976, and continued checks in the ophthalmology department to monitor for trauma-induced glaucoma after being hit by a squash ball in the eye in 2007, it’s good to know that a comprehensive health service, free at the point of delivery for everyone, exists in the UK. Sadly, free universal and comprehensive healthcare in the UK has been under attack for much of the last 40 years, even when Blair’s New Labour was increasing health spending by an average 5.4% per year, selling the public the idea of new hospitals (and other major projects) but actually committing the coffers in the public purse to fatally flawed PPI ventures from which hospitals in particular continue to suffer.

It’s widely remarked that the NHS has a special place in the hearts of British citizens although it’s always been highly politicised. Conceived by health minister Aneurin Bevan and introduced by Clement Attlee’s post-war Labour government, there was considerable opposition to the scheme amongst those with vested interests. Many doctors did not want to become employees of the government; hospital consultants wanted to continue to charge private patients for treatment and 64% of GPs opposed the NHS, preferring to treat patients privately, leading to the BMA to organise a campaign to ‘boot out Bevan’. Even nurses were against the plan, as it threatened their income from private family visits. Bevan finally won round doctors with the promise of new hospitals and badly needed equipment but significantly also agreed to allow doctors to continue to treat private patients in addition to their NHS work.


NHS 60th anniversary edition of Bevan's In Place of Fear
NHS 60th anniversary edition of Bevan's In Place of Fear

The Principles of the NHS:

Universal Access: The NHS was for all

Comprehensive: The NHS would treat all medical conditions. Doctors, dentists, opticians and hospital treatments would all form part of the service

Free at the point of need: Patients would not pay for treatment

The new NHS was to be paid for out of National Insurance contributions and would provide free medical services for all

Ambulance services were set up to cope with emergencies


I’ve been involved the service since 1981, one of the behind-the-scenes staff in a laboratory. Initially employed by the National Blood Transfusion Service immediately after graduation, within five years I’d expressed a few hundred litres of plasma from whole blood, pooled platelets, washed blood, made clotting factors VIII and IX, provided reagents derived from blood donations to hospitals in the South East, screened ante natal blood for antibodies to prevent haemolytic disease of the newborn and selected and crossmatched units of blood for patients requiring transfusion. I was working there in 1983 the virus responsible for AIDS was independently discovered by Gallo in the US and Barré-Sinoussi/Montagnier in France, naming the novel retrovirus HTLV-III and LAV respectively, before it became known as HIV in 1986 and, to reflect the importance of that discovery, changed the name of the band I was in at that time to HTLV-III.

In 1984 I moved to the section that covered bone marrow transplantation but after a successful two years in that post, I was told I was to be moved to a different department. Fortunately my predecessor, who had left to join the kidney transplant team at Charing Cross Hospital, was moving on again to Scotland; I applied for and was appointed to fill that vacancy, delivering a leaving party speech that criticised the management of the Transfusion Centre for virtually forcing me out. It’s satisfying but disappointing that things got much worse there after I left, all due to poor strategic decisions, in search of ‘efficiencies’.

The lab at Charing Cross was small and friendly and though much of the work was for renal transplants, we were actually part of Rheumatology. It’s good to have a different perspective and meeting professionals from other disciplines helped me see healthcare from a holistic point of view. With rumours of a pathology reorganisation circulating in 1988, a post at Guy’s Hospital offering research potential and an annual international conference proved too good to resist.


The Guy’s lab had something of a mixed reputation when I joined but within a couple of years we started to make some astute personnel changes and began to build up one of the most successful renal transplant teams in the UK, no longer treated as just a laboratory but sharing expertise with the medical and nursing teams.

The Conservatives introduced the National Health Service and Community Care Act 1990 which created an ‘internal market’ for the supply of healthcare so that the state would no longer be the main provider, but act more as an enabler, forcing local authorities to assess people for social care and support to determine a patient’s requirements and to purchase the care from providers – the new NHS Trusts. Guy’s and Lewisham joined forces and became the Tories’ flagship Trust but hospital reorganisation in London, to make the service yet more efficient, meant that the Guy’s – Lewisham partnership was dissolved and Guy’s & St Thomas’ NHS Foundation Trust, complete with a level of autonomy from the Department of Health, was created in 1993. A few years before, Guy’s had been singled out for major improvement, what was to have been the £140m Philip Harris House, a state-of-the-art seven storey wing designed to be conducive to effective healthcare. However, the inexplicable transfer of acute services to St Thomas’ Hospital, considered by many to have been a political move disguised by that reorganisation (Tommies was in a parlous state before the formation of the Foundation Trust) led to Philip Harris, a carpet magnate and Conservative Party donor withholding his £6 million from the project; the building sat empty for some time before being reassigned for outpatient services and some research facilities under the name of Thomas Guy House.


The creation of NHS Trusts immediately increased the running costs of a hospital because of the number of managers required to oversee the internal market and to control budgets. Cutting waste and making efficiencies has long been the mantra of officials but they failed to see the hypocrisy of paying management consultancies huge sums of money to produce reports to validate decisions made by hospital boards to circumvent discussion. This continued after Blair replaced John Major as PM in an attempt to show the public that New Labour was both a prudent manager of the public purse and that it was business-friendly. The machinations of GSTT managers or ministers in the Department of Health didn’t impact on me directly until 2008 when, encouraged by a government which delighted in ‘a third way’ but based on poor data collected pre-2006 for the Carter Report, it was proposed that pathology at Guy’s and St Thomas’ (also to include Bedford Hospital) should be part-privatised in a joint venture between the hospitals and outsourcing darlings Serco. Despite opposition from staff throughout the hospital and sympathy from the chair of the board of governors, the Joint Venture commenced operating under the title of GSTS Pathology on January 1st 2009 so, to ensure I couldn’t be singled out for my outspoken opposition to this development, I became a union representative and campaigned vigorously to stop all forms of NHS privatisation and the unfair treatment of staff.


Protesting against the privatisation of Pharmacy by Sainsbury's
Protesting against the privatisation of Pharmacy by Sainsbury's

GSTT was at the forefront of removing staff from its books through a series of privatisations; Pathology, the Post Room, Pharmacy, seemingly simultaneously oblivious to the wishes of staff and mounting evidence to show that in fact, privatisation was a contributory factor in declining standards of delivery of care. When the coalition government was formed in 2010 they quickly revealed a major shake-up in the provision of healthcare, Andrew Lansley’s Health and Social Care Bill (enacted in 2012), despite a Conservative manifesto pledge that there would be no NHS reorganisation. Now largely scrapped though still adversely affecting the NHS, other changes to public sector pensions and terms and conditions of work introduced by the coalition shortly after they came to power were part of a strategy to entice private sector providers to take over services; unfortunately the strategy worked, but not without seriously affecting provision of comprehensive, universal healthcare (according to a report by the NHS Support Federation, £7.1bn worth of NHS clinical contracts were awarded through an NHS tendering process in the year up to April 2017.) The changes were sold to the public as being necessary in an age of austerity but the government was defending its friends and the failed ideology that caused the collapse of the global financial system in 2008; George Osborne’s imposition of austerity measures to eradicate the budget deficit was really another strategy to break up any power remaining in the hands of the state and politicians and economists alike have criticised the approach, which is responsible for a continuing weak, low-growth economy.



On the occasion of the NHS’s 63rd birthday, I predicted that unless there was a change in administration, it would barely make it to 68. Fortunately I was wrong, though how it managed to survive the last three winter crises and a lengthy doctor’s strike is a miracle. It appears that the cuts to NHS funding have now been stopped but there’s still insufficient movement on the investment required for integrating health and social services. However much money we put into health is never going to be enough but it’s pleasing to see that the British public would accept a tax rise for the NHS. Bevan’s guiding principles for the service illustrate a willingness to eradicate inequality and what he founded may stand as the highest achievement for social democracy. To ensure his legacy continues to have a future we need to recognise the value of everyone who plays a role in healthcare provision, from the cleaners and the porters and post room staff and catering staff upwards. Jeremy Corbyn’s recent call to end the NHS internal market is also a key move, as competition between providers is likely to lead to unrealistic tenders, an uneven provision of care or a diminution of quality; the Lansley Act had the detrimental effect of splitting effective care pathways and raising costs through inefficiency.



I left Viapath (the re-branded GSTS Pathology) in 2015 to restart as an NHS employee in a different NHS Trust. Despite a national celebration of the service on its 70th birthday, I didn’t join in because the cheerleaders for the day, the higher managers who sanction privatisation of services and impose punitive sickness policies were handing out free muffins to all staff... The passion that many millions share for the NHS, despite its shortcomings, is the reason it’s still going and anyone who cares to can check that it ranks very highly on efficiency and social equity; the US with its private insurance-based system favoured by some of the more right-wing members of the Conservative party, spends far more on health per person with poorer and dreadfully inequitable outcomes.



So what’s the NHS got to do with progressive rock? Apart from the excellent band National Health (see ProgBlog’s February 2014 post National Health), it’s about the prevailing social conditions in the late 60s and the notion of equity of access; the founding of the NHS is one of the defining features of advanced social democracy, along with the provision of decent social housing, and opened the door for further democratising movements like access to higher education for students from all backgrounds. The prime movers in progressive rock appealed to the burgeoning student groups but also envisioned a better world and even attempted to challenge accepted norms through bridging the two worlds of high- and popular culture; I don’t believe that progressive rock would have developed in Britain in the same way if we’d not already made moves to make society more equal.


So the next challenge is to see how the NHS fares post-Brexit, but I agree with the words attributed to Bevan: the NHS will last as long as there’s folk with faith left to fight for it.








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