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

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By ProgBlog, May 8 2016 06:52PM

The past ten years or so have been taken up to a worrying degree with expanding my collection of progressivo Italiano, such that family holidays to Italy always include time for seeking out record stores to scour for releases that remain on my ever decreasing list.

Aided to a large extent by Andrea Parentin’s excellent Rock Progressivo Italiano: A guide to Italian Progressive Rock (CreateSpace Independent Publishing, 2011) and the handy-sized Progressive Italiano by Alessandro Gaboli and Giovanni Ottone (Giunti, 2007), the former for the translation of the lyrics and a sense of social setting and the latter for the depiction of album sleeves and a rating system that broadly matches my opinion of the albums by the most recognised acts Premiata Forneria Marconi (PFM), Banco del Mutuo Soccorso and Le Orme, I've explored cities and towns for any signs of record stores. I can even make out some of what is written about the groups in Italian but it’s opportune that Parentin’s book is in English.


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My first full foray into Italian record shops was on a trip to the Veneto in 2005 when there were two stores in Venice and another a short train ride away in Treviso. In those days I was aided by Jerry Lucky’s Progressive Rock Files (Collector’s Guide Publishing, 2000) when I’d scour entries for remarks like “if you’re a fan of PFM then you’ll like this” and, following up a reference to Celeste that described them as “...influenced by early King Crimson but their sound is very original. You’ll hear elements of Genesis circa Trespass and even bits of PFM’s Per un Amico. A very beautiful, symphonic pastoral result. Lots of Mellotron. One of the genre’s highly rated bands” I began to seek out their 1976 release Principe di un giorno and looked for references to Celeste in the listings. One of these was Finisterre, described as “Symphonic progressive rock with long tracks containing restrained hints of bands like Celeste or Banco. They’ve chosen to create a moody and atmospheric sound that relies more on the classical style than neo-prog. Long passages of dissonant harmonies and jazzy chord voicings”. It wasn’t until I updated to Lucky’s The Progressive Rock Handbook (Collector’s Guide Publishing, 2008), that I heard of Höstsonaten and La Maschera di Cera and was able to fathom out the relationship between them. I began to collect Maschera di Cera CDs in 2009 and Finisterre CDs some time later but it wasn’t until 2014 that I bought my first Höstsonaten release, the CD and DVD of the live performance of The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. It was experiencing a live version of Rainsuite by the Z Band that really turned me on to Höstsonaten, revealing a very symphonic progressive rock style that Fabio Zuffanti himself equated with The Enid. Zuffanti’s projects are all essential listening for fans of the original progressivo Italiano movement and though I really enjoy Maschera di Cera’s albums for their modern take on the original genre, remaining true to the spirit of the work of bands like PFM and Banco, the instrumental work by Höstsonaten comes closest to symphonic rock and the Enid comparison is well founded

I pre-ordered a copy of Symphony N. 1 – Cupid & Psyche in early April and after negotiating a redelivery to my local post office, having been out at work when the postman attempted to deliver the item, I finally got hold of the LP on Friday and listened to it for the first time yesterday. I was not disappointed.

The music was conceived by Zuffanti but he has stepped away from the limelight and is only responsible for bass pedals ‘treatments and devices’, leaving Luca Scherani from La Coscienza di Zeno and a collaborator on Zuffanti’s 2015 project La Curva di Lesmo, to handle the arrangements and orchestrations in addition to playing keyboards; guitar, bass and drums are provided by long-term Zuffanti collaborators Laura Marano, Daniele Sollo and Paolo Tixi respectively.


There are many precedents of full orchestration in progressive rock and progressivo Italiano has some very notable examples including the New Trolls’ Concerto Grosso (1971, 1976, 2007) and Contaminazione by Il Rovescio della Medaglia (1973) but enhancing the symphonic scope of Höstsonaten seems like a logical step, one that is true to the principles of progressive rock as it attempted to bridge the gap between high and popular culture. The melange of influences that inform their output, their RPI predecessors, jazz and Mediterranean folk are enhanced with inspiration from Stravinsky and Tchaikovsky. I’ve thought quite hard about other orchestrated prog albums and there aren’t many that genuinely seamlessly blend the rock and the orchestral moments; the pieces by Keith Emerson with the Nice were predominantly divided into distinct sections, band then orchestra then band. There are times when Yes’ Magnification (2001) works well but this mostly comes across as orchestra instead of keyboards and has hints of Tony Cox’s imperfect arrangements on Time and a Word (1970). There are long passages of orchestral music on Chris Squire’s Fish out of Water (1975) but the most satisfying orchestrated pieces of progressive rock are Camel’s Music Inspired by the Snow Goose (1975) and Mike Oldfield’s Hergest Ridge (1974). In terms of orchestration in progressivo Italiano, Passio Secondum Mattheum by Latte e Miele (1972) impresses, but I think that Höstsonaten have come up with one of the most balanced mixes of rock and orchestra that at times reminds me of Pink Floyd’s Atom Heart Mother (1970) and the eponymous 1972 release by Il Paese dei Balocchi, both of which, like Cupid & Psyche, are predominantly instrumental; Laura Marano provides some epic, melodic Gilmour-like guitar lines but it’s the inclusion of classic prog keyboards, Moog, Mellotron, organ and piano which fit in so neatly with the strings and brass that bestow a sense of harmonious union between the classical and the rock instrumentation. Not surprisingly, there are refrains that hint of Höstsonaten’s previous output and it goes without saying that the execution is highly consummate.

Another important link with the foundation of the genre is the appropriation of literary myth in a manner similar to Genesis writing The Fountain of Salmacis, with Zuffanti utilising the Apuleius story Metamorphoses. A translation by author, columnist and philosopher Pee Gee Daniel, providing a synopsis of the chapters that make up the ten tracks, is included in the gatefold sleeve.

Maschera di Cera produced one of my all time favourite albums Lux Ade (2006) based on the Orpheus story but that was an entirely rock affair. With Cupid & Psyche, Zuffanti has realised his dream of creating a symphonic suite with group and orchestra that is also able to serve as the soundtrack for a ballet, in the manner of Stravinsky or Tchaikovsky. Beginning with an array of musical ideas suitable for the project, enlisting Luca Scherani to create a score for string, wind and brass instruments, the album easily succeeds in presenting a coherent piece of symphonic progressive rock and the ballet based on the music of the album is expected to debut in theatres later this year under the direction of the Genoese choreographer Paola Grazz. October 22nd is already reserved in my diary.












By ProgBlog, Apr 21 2015 07:53PM

It’s indisputable that progressive rock was a genre of grand concepts from the straightforward interpretation of classic novels (Camel’s Music Inspired by The Snow Goose, which celebrates its 40th anniversary this month for example, based on Paul Gallico’s novella); the search for enlightenment (that’s my personal take on Tales from Topographic Oceans); the stresses of everyday life (Dark Side of the Moon); or allegory (The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway.) Though The Gift released Awake and Dreaming in 2006, a project that began in 2003 following the invasion of Iraq by a US-led coalition and which features a multi-part suite concerning the savagery of war, I find it somewhat surprising that during the golden era of prog there wasn’t an entire concept album about the horrors of warfare. I witnessed The Gift perform at the Resonance Festival in Balham last year and was impressed by Mike Morton’s musical depiction of the madness and futility of global conflict – I resigned as a member of the Labour Party because of Iraq.

Folk music was one of the keystones that enabled prog to form but in the UK, it seemed to be folk associated with tradition that informed prog, and this often tended to be dark; it was US folk that evolved into protest music because of both the inequality suffered by large numbers of the country’s own citizens and the prevailing American foreign policy from the 50s onwards. The Peace movement and the counter-culture were directly opposed to the American Dream, its imperialistic tendencies and its consumerism, and the ideals of these dissidents were imported to England when musicians, who acted as agents for change, crossed back and forth across the Atlantic. In this way John Lennon’s Give Peace a Chance became an anthem of the American anti-war movement following the release of the single in 1969 by the Plastic Ono Band.

The Nice used America as a form of protest, getting banned from the Royal Albert Hall in the process, though this wasn’t about combat on foreign soil; they also included the track War and Peace on their first album, The Thoughts of Emerlist Davjack but this had started out as a tune called Silver Meter, played when Emerson was a member of the T-Bones. A live show staple, War and Peace was described by one critic as an ‘instrumental which seems to run like a hell-bound train through war inflicted landscapes.’ I sympathise with that view – the song is fairly raw and features some serious Hammond abuse and Davy O’List guitar histrionics.

When Greg Lake joined up with Keith Emerson in ELP, he brought with him some of the hippy ideals of Peter Sinfield. Though In The Court of the Crimson King isn’t an anti-war album, it comes across as anti-totalitarian and in 21st Century Schizoid Man Sinfield’s lyrics clearly point out the evils of contemporary warfare: “Innocents raped with napalm fire”. Though Lake had left Crimson before 1970’s In the Wake of Poseidon he did provide the vocals for the three-part Peace, the ultimate part of which follows The Devil’s Triangle, an instrumental track based on Gustav Holst’s Mars, the Bringer of War; despite a lack of an explicit condemnation of warfare, the final words on the album are “Peace is the end, like death / Of the war.” One of Lake’s defining contributions to the eponymous first Emerson, Lake & Palmer album was the acoustic ballad Lucky Man that though he claimed was written when he was 12 years old, contains imagery that can only have been forged later in his life, painting a picture not just of the futility of acquiring possessions but also the stupidity of war. There are a number of oblique references to war throughout the early ELP albums; one interpretation of Tarkus is that the animal-machine hybrid represents totalitarianism, crushing culture, spirituality and freedom, and technology that has gone out of control (a subject revisited on Karn Evil 9 from Brain Salad Surgery, where Sinfield had been reunited with Lake to provide lyrical ideas.) According to William Neal, who provided the cover artwork, the name ‘Tarkus’ is an amalgamation of Tartarus (gloomy pits of darkness used for punishing angels that sinned, mentioned in 2 Peter 2:4 from the bible) and carcass, indicated by the album title written in bones on the cover. Consequently, he suggests the title track refers to the "futility of war, a man made mess with symbols of mutated destruction" but I think his explanation has been fitted in retrospect; it may reflect his painting but the music and lyrics can be interpreted in a number of ways.

Jon Anderson reprised John Lennon on I’ve Seen All Good People from The Yes Album (1971.) I’m almost ashamed to admit that it wasn’t until I saw Yes playing live that I picked up the words “All we are saying is give peace a chance” during the Anderson-penned Your Move section, some three years after I’d bought the album. My only excuse is that despite the track being a favourite of most fans, it doesn’t actually move me at all; it’s too simplistic, especially the All Good People part. I even prefer A Venture where the bass line is far from conventional. The Yes Album does in fact contain one of the most explicit anti-war songs in the progressive rock canon: Yours is no Disgrace. Jon Anderson has said that the meaning of the song is recognition that those fighting in the Vietnam war had no choice other than to fight, in effect carrying out the orders of a government with policy based on dogma. As the first track on the album it gains added importance for being the first of the long-form Yes songs.

Yes returned to the theme of war with The Gates of Delirium, the side long track from Relayer (1974). It has been said to have been inspired by Tolstoy’s War and Peace which both Anderson and Patrick Moraz had been reading but Anderson has simplified the concept to a battle scene with a prelude, a charge, a victory tune and a peaceful resolution leading to hope for the future; he has further suggested that it wasn’t an explanation of war or a denunciation which makes the piece more descriptive than protest. I love the aggressive feel of the composition, the crashing scrap metal and the strident guitar and keyboards which give the piece a jazz rock edge.

Maybe I’d been looking for the war concept album in the wrong place. Given the political state of Italy in the early 70s and the alignment of most progressivo Italiano with left-wing ideology, it can come as no surprise that there are a number of anti-war songs in the sub-genre, music that I’ve only recently discovered. The first Banco del Mutuo Soccorso album contains the track R.I.P Requiescant In Pace where the music and words conjure a battlefield scene, aptly summed up by author and prog reviewer Andrea Parentin as a bitter reflection of the inhumanity and uselessness of war and glory. Another feature of Italian prog is the number of bands who only ever produced one album. Tuscany based Campo di Marte took their name from a suburb of Firenze and, according to band leader, composer and guitarist Enrico Rosa that name, Field of Mars, allowed them to write lyrics about the stupidity of wars. Their only, self-titled album features a cover depicting Turkish mercenaries inflicting wounds on themselves to demonstrate their strength; the sleeve notes of the 2006 AMS remastered version inform us that the entire composition was arranged with specific purpose of pointing out ‘the absurdity of war and people’s complete impotence at the mercy of violence’. Another one-album group (another self-titled album, too!) was Alphataurus, with a release from 1973 that relates a disturbing dream of the threat of nuclear war but is balanced by the hope that we don’t have to follow that path and we can start over again. The incredible cover painting, a triple gatefold, appears to include a small homage to William Neal – a stegosaurus on caterpillar tracks.



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