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With themes ranging from the occult to murder cases, I'd never heard of 'dark prog' until I got chatting to the staff at Genoa's Black Widow Records.

Another early import from the UK, the Genovese record store and label are named after the original protagonists of the genre and are nuturing many of the important bands from the scene...

By ProgBlog, Jul 22 2018 05:05PM

Taking their name from the 1971 film Una Stagione all’Inferno, a French-Italian drama directed by Nelo Risi which tells the life and death of the poet Arthur 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, Necromancer from The Aerosol Grey Machine (1969) and White Hammer from The Least we can do is Wave to Each Other (1970) spring to mind.



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.



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







By ProgBlog, Oct 29 2017 11:16PM

Something strange is going on in my local area. I’ve been around at home most evenings for the past two weeks and the fireworks associated with Diwali or the approaching Guy Fawkes Night have not featured at all. I wouldn’t discourage anyone from my neighbourhood, the Peoples’ Socialist Republic of Addiscombe, from celebrating the victory of knowledge over ignorance but I wonder if burning money on brief flashes of coloured light and a banging noise has been abandoned this year, along with a misplaced acceptance of austerity as the Bank of England strongly hints of a rise in the interest rate.


A witch hunt is never a good idea
A witch hunt is never a good idea

Maybe I’m just going around with my eyes closed but it seems there’s also less visible evidence of US-style Halloween advertising. I’d like to think that this is a rejection of commercialisation and whereas encouraging the purchase of pumpkins is quite acceptable, it would be best if they were consumed as a seasonal fruit rather than discarding perfectly edible portions and turning them into Jack-o’-lanterns. Our local Co-op doesn’t appear to be stocking them this year but whether that’s because the harvest has been affected by adverse weather conditions in Suffolk or the store has finally employed someone who understands that there’s an unacceptable level of food wastage at the beginning of November (from either an economic or moral point of view), I’ll never know. The store is selling a limited range of Halloween-themed confectionary but even this involves some self-assembly, with scary monster forming components included with a packet of gingerbread biscuits. Perhaps because it’s expected or easy, my Saturday edition of The Guardian included a couple of Halloween items, the most interesting of which was in the Review section where a handful of writers were invited to put a spin on the traditional ghost story with tales set in English Heritage properties and Mark Haddon set his in the York cold war bunker; cold war bunkers were the theme of my son’s MSc thesis for his Historic Conservation course and as a youth I used to illicitly visit the civil defence bunker at Abbot’s Wood in Barrow-in-Furness.


Civil Defence bunker, Abbot's Wood Hill
Civil Defence bunker, Abbot's Wood Hill

Thinking back to my youth, Halloween wasn’t really an important fixture on the calendar and when you were old enough to look as though you were old enough to buy fireworks you could visit the local newsagent for an array of items which, if used incorrectly, could (and did) result in life-changing injuries; our fireworks were utilised on Halloween for some ridiculous purposes which we deluded ourselves into thinking were scientific investigation, like attaching bangers to rocks and dropping them in drains to produce a plume of water. Bonfire night used to be more of a social fixture, though after university (my hall of residence used to put on a party and firework display with professional pyrotechnics and I was responsible for the advertising posters which hung from the balcony of the refectory at Goldsmiths’) it became clear that subscribing to these things was not only uninteresting but an unnecessary expense.


Bonfire Night, Loring Hall 1978
Bonfire Night, Loring Hall 1978

Halloween customs have been influenced by Celtic folklore and beliefs and some are likely to have pagan roots, linked to the Roman feast of Pomona, the goddess of fruits and seeds, or Parentalia, the festival of the dead. Its origins are most typically associated with the Celtic festivals of Samhain (Old Irish for ‘summer's end’), Calan Gaeaf (‘first day of winter’) in Wales, Kalan Gwav in Cornwall and Kalan Goañv in Brittany, celebrated on 31st October and 1st November to mark the end of the harvest season and the beginning of the darker half of the year. It was believed that the boundary between the world of the living and the spirits overlapped at this time, allowing the Aos Sí (spirits or fairies) to enter our world. Respected and feared, the Aos Sí were appeased with offerings of food and drink or part of the crop at Samhain to ensure that the people and their livestock survived the winter. The souls of the dead were also said to revisit their homes seeking hospitality, a belief of ancient origins common to many cultures; throughout Ireland and Britain, the household festivities included rituals and fortune-telling games incorporating seasonal fare, apple bobbing and roasting nuts. Bonfires were also part of the rituals where flames, smoke and ashes were deemed to have cleansing or protective powers.


In a tradition that goes back at least to the 16th century, the festivities of the Celtic communities of the British Isles included mumming and guising, dressing up as the Aos Sí, going from house-to-house in costume, reciting verses or songs in exchange for food. Also believed to be a protection from the souls of the dead, it’s likely that this behaviour is responsible for dressing up and trick-or-treating, the term ‘trick or treat’ first emerging in 1927. Throughout the centuries the power of the Church has enabled it to subvert and appropriate festivals from other, older customs and though we might sneer at a culture which believes that there are times during the year when the boundary between the spirit world and our world is less fixed, is it much different from the belief that there’s a powerful spiritual bond between those in heaven (the Church Triumphant) and the living (the Church militant)? The difference is that the Church has used faith and superstition to impose a doctrine designed to preserve its own power.


Halloween fits into this narrative as an illustration of the monsters subsequently subdued by an adherence to the liturgy of All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day; a story designed to frighten us should we stray from the path of righteousness. In his Guardian piece, Haddon suggests that much of literary fiction, not only ghost stories, explores a deep anxiety about how we come to terms with our own mortality. So do we like to be scared, and does this translate into other art forms? I used to watch Hammer horror films after returning from an evening in the pub when I was a student (The Devil Rides Out from 1968 was a favourite) but that was because they were ridiculous; Hollywood horror was very big in the early 80s but it became derivative and it wasn’t until The Blair Witch Project (1999) where fear of the unknown was used to generate heightened tension, reinvented the horror genre.

A recent Twitter thread and an older Progressive Archives forum topic concerned ‘frightening’ music and though we might class King Crimson’s The Devil’s Triangle or some early Van der Graaf Generator (White Hammer, Man-Erg, Lemmings) as disturbing, I think the crux of both discussion points was horror. The rise of the Fundamentalist Right in the USA makes heavy metal the genre easiest to associate with horror, because of their insistence that pro-Satanic subliminal messages were revealed when Slayer and Judas Priest records were played backwards. Backmasking, as it is known, was popularised by The Beatles on Revolver and even Pink Floyd didn’t escape accusations of inappropriately brainwashing youths through the technique. More likely, the satanic imagery used by Slayer was simply adopted for commercial reasons, and the Iron Maiden mascot Eddie, depicted as controlling the devil like a marionette on the cover of The Number of the Beast may have caused outrage amongst the Moral Majority but the resultant public burning of Iron Maiden’s back catalogue generated huge publicity.


The first prog-horror link I came across was the use of the Tubular Bells overture in The Exorcist (1974) which I watched at a screening in Leeds long before I was 18, visiting my brother who was studying medicine at the University. What I missed out on for many years, not actively researching Italian prog until 2005, were the cult classic gialli films of Dario Argento, with Profundo Rosso (1975) considered to be the best giallo film ever made. I’ve now seen Claudio Simonetti’s Goblin twice, the first time at the beginning of 2014 where they performed tracks from all their classic soundtracks: Profundo Rosso; Suspiria; Roller; Zombi; Il Fantastico Viaggio Del Bagarozzo Mark; Tenebrae; and Non Ho Sonno. A year later I saw them perform the Profundo Rosso soundtrack live to a screening of the film at the Barbican and though the film itself may be critically acclaimed, it’s too psychedelic to be frightening, however good the music. It was hard to work out whether the audience at either of these performances was predominantly there for the cinematic or the prog- association. I was there for the latter but I think I may have been in a minority.



With roots in folklore, ghost stories and the supernatural should suit progressive rock but I can’t think of too many examples where this has been the case. Psychedelic prog-folk band Comus (named after Milton’s pagan sorcerer-king) channel a pagan vibe on First Utterance (1971) with material covering rape, murder, mental illness and sacrifice, and the music itself which varies from conveying primal malevolence to quiet, pastoral beauty, recalls the spirit of a independent horror film. I suspect that the best ghost-story album is Steven Wilson’s The Raven that Refused to Sing and Other Stories from 2013. You’d think the excellent Gustav Mahler-inspired Halloween by Pulsar (1977) should feature but the title was used because the band liked the beauty of the word and the way it evoked childhood, magic, fairy-tales and the imaginary, themes which are suggested in the music and lyrics.


Halloween by Pulsar
Halloween by Pulsar

According to a 2006 survey, the British hate Halloween and over half of British homeowners turn off their lights and pretend not to be home. 2017 looks like being a great deal worse for advocates of this celebration sponsored by confectioners and I know I won’t be answering the door to anyone on Tuesday evening. However, much more memorable than Halloween or the gunpowder plot is that Saturday 28th October is the anniversary of me seeing Yes for the first time, having been in London for less than a month....









By ProgBlog, Nov 30 2014 09:04PM

Bassoon player and oboist Lindsay Cooper died last year from complications associated with Multiple Sclerosis. I’m most familiar with her work with Henry Cow and other, like-minded bands that made up the Canterbury scene, notably Hatfield and the North and Egg. She was briefly in progressive-folk band Comus before they split in 1972 (I have a copy of To Keep from Crying which features Cooper’s bassoon on the title track) and it may have been this that got her a job with Henry Cow – To Keep from Crying was released on Virgin in 1974 and Leg End was also a Virgin release, recorded at their Manor Studios in 1973.) Her collaborations were multitudinous and I saw her perform at the Actual 84 Festival in London with combinations of David Thomas (Pere Ubu), Chris Cutler, Sally Potter, Phil Minton, Georgie Born and Dagmar Krause.

The performance at the Barbican on November 21st was a celebration of the music of Cooper in chronological order of the ensembles she had performed with: Henry Cow, Music for Films, News from Babel and Oh Moscow. I’d gone because it was in effect the first Henry Cow gig since their split in 1978, with the reunion of Fred Frith (guitar and bass), John Greaves (bass, vocals), Tim Hodgkinson (alto sax, organ), Chris Cutler (drums) and Dagmar Krause (vocals). The bassoon parts were covered by Michel Berckmans from Univers Zero.

The music almost defies categorisation, but the closest I can get is experimental chamber music. There’s Canterbury progressive in the mix, most audible on the first number they played, Falling Away from Western Culture which I found reassuringly familiar. There were no song introductions but Sally Potter, before she took her place on the stage, made a general announcement about only being able to present a tiny proportion of Cooper’s oeuvre and the appropriateness of the venue for Cooper’s music. The audience was fully aware of the complexity of the song writing but it was the first time I’ve ever seen a band have to stop and restart on three different tunes, Falling Away being the first. This prompted Jim Knipe, in attendance with me, to comment that the performance was along the lines of ‘genially shambolic.’ This opinion may have gained some currency from observing Cutler’s expansive drum technique and the fact that both Cutler and Frith played barefoot. The inclusion of the 36 second long Slice proved to be a bit of a test for the audience; its sudden conclusion could easily have been a pause between sections of a lengthier piece but we did applaud after a brief, awkward silence.

The band weren’t over amplified and the layers of music were quite clear, illustrating Cooper’s ability to write for a number of instruments simultaneously. Her compositional skills reflected her excellent improvisation which was based on her ability to pick out the different lines. With an (up to) 12 piece ensemble playing, her dense, complex and startlingly original compositions were given an almost fun airing, contradicting the popular image of the deeply studious and serious musicians. I was previously a bit wary of Dagmar Krause’s singing but I found her much more melodic than I remember; she came across with a controlled intensity that added to the haunting beauty of the compositions. If anything, the one musician I was slightly disappointed with was Fred Frith, who may have had some problems with his effects pedals. The performance of the Oh Moscow song-cycle (featuring Sally Potter) was joyous and theatrical; that the piece explores the cold war as political fact and emotional metaphor was given new relevance by recent events in the Caucus. This best demonstrated Cooper’s melodic side in contrast to the rhythmically complex material she wrote for Henry Cow.

The review in The Guardian described the audience as a mixture of ‘ageing revolutionaries, prog aficionados and Italian communists’ and though the hall wasn’t full, it was a very respectable turn out for a performance packaged as jazz festival event; there may even have been a few others not fitting The Guardian’s stereotype making up the numbers, just not very many. However, a few of the adjectives have been applied to me at some time or other.

Lindsay Cooper was an articulate political activist and outstanding musician and composer, bringing the bassoon from the orchestral shadows to front-stage in a rock context. This was an extraordinary evening: extraordinary musicians playing extraordinary music. Henry Cow had said they’d never reform but Chris Cutler managed to bring together an incredible number of musicians closely associated with the music of Cooper. It doesn’t matter what you call it: avant-rock, avant-jazz, or experimental chamber music, it was certainly an evening to remember.


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