By ProgBlog, Dec 5 2017 09:22PM
The Italian Riviera, stretching from the border with France to the west, down to through the Cinque Terre to La Spezia is a beautiful and often dramatic coast packed full of interesting places with well-preserved medieval quarters and fascinating histories. Genova is the regional capital and is close to the geographic centre; it’s also at the heart of the progressivo Italiano movement having been responsible for a good number of the original 70s acts and also, since the early 90s, producing a quite amazing crop of the current (and future) standard bearers.
Savona, west of Genova, was responsible for Delirium, one of the first Italian acts to adopt progressive traits. Originally a beat group called Sagittari, they changed their name when Ivano Fossati replaced the original vocalist in 1970 and released their favourably-regarded debut, Dolce Acqua (Sweet Water) in 1971. This turned out to be their only album with Fossati, though the televised appearance at the Sanremo pop festival (100km west of Savona along the coast) in February 1972 was responsible for the huge success of their single Jesahel where it finished sixth, which many regard as being the best-known pop song in Italy; I think it’s quite interesting that there’s a picturesque Ligurian town called Dolceacqua with an old, elegant single arch bridge and a 12th Century castle roughly 25km inland from Sanremo. Fossati was subsequently replaced with Briton Martin Grice on sax and flute and, after a disappointment with the jazz influenced prog of their second album, Lo Scemo E Il Villaggio (1972), they produced their symphonic prog masterpiece Delirium III - Viaggio Negli Arcipelaghi del Tempo in 1974 but split up following personnel changes in 1975.
I own a budget price ‘2LP in 1CD’ release of Dolce Acqua (with Jesahel as a bonus track) plus Delirium III - Viaggio Negli Arcipelaghi del Tempo, bought from Piccadilly Sound in Livorno on a day trip out from Pisa in August 2014, and managed to get to see the reformed Delirium (Martin Grice, Fabio Chigini on bass, Alessandro Corvaglia on vocals, Michele Cusato on guitar, Alfredo Vandresi on drums and original member Ettore Vigo on keyboards); the very enjoyable set contained a number of songs from the prog-folk Dolce Acqua but there was also good slices of 2015’s L’Era della Menzogna and 2009 comeback release Il Nome del Vento.
On my second trip to Savona I wandered into the Jocks Team record store (it was closed for lunch on my first visit) I picked up a Yes T-shirt depicting the cover of Fragile and the CD Il Viaggio di Colombo (2008) by Il Cerchio d’Oro who also hail from the city; this was me fulfilling my desire to acquire music from the home city of a group. Though they’d been around in the 70s, Il Cerchio d’Oro never managed to release an album of original material until reforming in the 00s, although they did produce some non-prog singles in the late 70s which emerged on a Mellow Records compilation in 1999 and La Quadratura del Cerchio, an album of rehearsal tracks from the mid 70s, including cover versions of songs by The Trip, Le Orme and New Trolls was released by Psych-Out Records in 2006.
Christopher Columbus lived in both Genova and Savona and provided the inspiration for Il Viaggio di Colombo, a well-presented CD and the first collaboration between the band and Black Widow Records. The sound is crisp and clear with Giuseppe Terribile‘s Rickenbacker bass high in the mix, providing the driving force for some 70’s sounding progressivo Italiano. It’s almost as though the 33 years between the snippets from La Quadratura del Cerchio and Il Viaggio di Colombo never existed. The use of sound effects such as the creaking of the wooden ship show a welcome attention to detail, though the concept, the writing and the playing are all first-class. There’s a bit of a Floyd feel to the production but the music is very much Italian prog; at times I’m reminded of Alphataurus.
I completed my Il Cerchio d’Oro collection in the Black Widow Shop, with 2013’s Dedalo e Icaro on vinyl and the most recent release Il Fuoco sotto la Cenere on CD. The former is stylistically similar to Colombo, a concept album in classic Italian prog style, nicely presented in its gatefold sleeve and I haven’t yet made up my mind which is better, Colombo or Dedalo e Icaro.
Il Cerchio d’Oro had played just before Delirium at the Porto Antico Prog Fest and I suspect that they were premiering parts of Il Fuoco sotto la Cenere which hadn’t been released at that time. For this version of the band, the original members Gino (drums) and Giuseppe Terribile (bass) and Franco Piccolini (keyboards) were joined by Massimo Spica (guitar), Piuccio Pradal (acoustic guitar, vocals) and Franco’s son Simone Piccolini (keyboards), plus special appearances from vocalist Pino Ballarini (ex-Il Rovescio della Medaglia) and drummer Paolo Siani (ex-Nuovo Idea), two guest musicians warmly appreciated by the crowd. I recall thinking that the compositions were well structured but there wasn’t the degree of complexity I was expecting though when I got my hands on the new release I thought it was equally as good as Colombo and Dedalo e Icaro, if not better. I was once again reminded of Alphataurus despite detecting a subtle shift towards a more conventional rock format, and where the concept is presented as a series of snapshots, rather than the linear narrative of the two preceding albums. In a move reminiscent of their 70’s performances, the final track on the album Fuoco sulla collina (Fire on the mountain) is a cover version of an Ivan Graziani song, which fits the overall concept, the idea that we live in a world where feelings smoulder under the ashes and from time-to-time, fire erupts, often violently.
Title track Il Fuoco sotto la cenere (Fire under the ashes) is a really good piece of prog which commences with a melodic figure and goes through multiple changes (including a section with a heavy, distorted guitar riff and some excellent organ which reminds me of Biglietto per l’Inferno.) It’s about the state of mind of a person who becomes unable to deal with everyday problems and suppress the rage which has been building up as their inner strength gets worn away, the fire that bursts from the smouldering ashes.
Thomas uses the Great Fire of London as an analogy for our ability to turn a bad situation into an opportunity; fire destroys but it clears the path for new opportunities and life can emerge phoenix-like from the ashes. The organ and guitar work really well together and the vocal melody is nicely underlined with synthesizer. The solo vocals aren’t particularly strong but there are some memorable melodies on the longest track of the album.
Per sempre qui (Forever here) relates the story of a character who spent much of his life away from his homeland in exchange for prosperity but in the end, the desire to return to his origins, the ‘fire under the ashes’ prevails over the materialistic urges. This is a relatively short number, sung with great emotion by special guest Pino Ballarini on the recommendation of Black Widow Records and who, it transpires was perfectly placed to narrate the song because the sentiment coincides with his personal story.
I due poli (The two poles) is about the conflict between two mental states, including the suppression either one of the aspects. There are obviously different degrees of this bipolar phenomenon which affect individuals to different extents. At its most extreme, there is perpetual conflict between the two sides with one dominant and one suppressed (under the ashes), instantaneously switched and transformed into ‘fire’ when the conflict switches. It begins with some almost Hackett-like acoustic guitar which resolves to melodic piano and Mellotron cello before commencing a short riff and getting a bit Floyd-y. It’s in this track where I find the greatest similarity to Alphataurus, in the vocals where they work as a chorus (and this is where the vocals are at their strongest.) There’s nice expressive guitar and some great organ work and even a trippy synth solo.
Il Fuoco nel bicchiere (Fire in the glass) is a story of alcohol addiction, where the protagonist never totally overcomes the need for drink though he’s fully aware of the consequences of his failure to do so. The melancholy which besets the character is reflected in the slow melody; the song was written by keyboard player Simone Piccolini who has been described by his father as possessing the appropriate DNA for penning Il Cerchio d’Oro songs. This is dominated by moderately heavy guitar riffs but has some nice piano and an interesting section which includes a theremin sound.
Il Rock e l’inferno (Rock and hell) plays on the idea that rock music is frequently though inappropriately associated with the devil, when it’s actually a means of communication, just transmitting a mood. It’s altogether heavier and the beat more simple than most of their other material, with the band stamping their melodies over distorted guitar riffs and classic Hammond sounding organ and wordless vocals which recall some classic early 70’s RPI moments.
Some critics have pointed out the weakness of some of the vocals and there are times where I’d agree, though I think the music more than makes up for these moments. The band acknowledged the difficulty producing a suitable follow-up to the critically acclaimed Dedalo e Icaro and the time spent attaining their trademark ‘vintage’ sound without compromising cleanliness and quality was obviously worthwhile; it’s a very good album. Though I’m not a great fan of the artwork on the cover, I do understand the links between the painting and the songs and I’m impressed that artist Pino Paolino, a former vocalist with the band, has used images set partly in a 17th century fortress located in Capo Vado, not far from Savona. By strange chance the area was devastated by one of the fires which raged in the hills along the Riviera last summer, clearing the way for new possibilities.
Il Fuoco sotto la Cenere by Il Cerchio d’Oro is on Black Widow Records BWRCD 204 (2017)