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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, Apr 9 2018 10:38PM

Z-Fest 2018, Legend Club, Milan 23 March



Next stop: Milan. I attended the 2017 Z-Fest and apart from choosing a hotel miles from the club so that the taxi driver was unhappy to let me out of his cab because he wasn’t convinced that there was actually an event being held there and then not being able to communicate with a taxi firm to get me back to the hotel after it had finished, it was a successful venture. 2017 had something of an ‘experimental’ vibe, with the jazzy Zaal (standing in for Christadoro, a Zuffanti co-venture who released an album in February that year) and headliners Finisterre, who of all the Zuffanti projects seem to me the group who best represent boundary-pushing. That show also featured the Zuffanti-produced Cellar Noise, playing through their excellent symphonic prog debut Alight (2017) and wowing the crowd with an excellent rendition of Genesis’ The Knife as an encore. The whole band was present for this year’s Z-Fest, getting ready to embark upon their first concert outside of Europe, in Canada, and they told me the material they were writing for their forthcoming album was going to be a bit heavier than on Alight but still recognisably Cellar Noise. Z-Fest 2018 was dubbed ‘the symphonic edition’ headlined by Höstsonaten, who are without doubt the most symphonic of Zuffanti’s many sidelines and compared by the man himself to The Enid, so it was quite appropriate that former Enid vocalist Joe Payne had been invited to open proceedings, with the other slots allotted to Isproject, a prog/post rock duo augmented by Zuffanti associates, taking their place in the proceedings by virtue of releasing a fine, symphonic concept album The Archinauts (2017) produced by Zuffanti, and to Heather Findlay, the vocalist for Mostly Autumn from 1996 until 2010.



This year my wife and I were based in a different hotel, the NH Milano Machiavelli close to Repubblica, handy for Metro Line 3 to facilitate an effortless trip to Affori Centro for the Legend Club, but after a relatively relaxed flight to Milan Malpensa, we discovered that Trenitalia staff were on strike so we had to catch a coach to Milano Centrale. Not that I minded, because I’m happy to show solidarity with rail workers, but it would have been nice to have known before we got to the airport station ticket hall. Every visit to Italy since Rome last September has included some form of industrial action!
This year my wife and I were based in a different hotel, the NH Milano Machiavelli close to Repubblica, handy for Metro Line 3 to facilitate an effortless trip to Affori Centro for the Legend Club, but after a relatively relaxed flight to Milan Malpensa, we discovered that Trenitalia staff were on strike so we had to catch a coach to Milano Centrale. Not that I minded, because I’m happy to show solidarity with rail workers, but it would have been nice to have known before we got to the airport station ticket hall. Every visit to Italy since Rome last September has included some form of industrial action!

I’d last seen Joe Payne performing with The Enid at HRH 4 in North Wales and before that at the Resonance Festival at the Bedford Arms in Balham. On both occasions it was clear that he had an excellent voice but in my opinion the theatrical presentation came across as West End musical rather than rock, and certainly not progressive rock. I got to the club as the man reinvented as 'That Joe Payne' was finishing his sound check, thanks to a combination of the efficiency of the Milan metro and the performer not realising that the doors had actually opened. Following a short interlude during which the sound engineers played a selection of classic prog, including Siberian Khatru, Easy Money and Free Hand, Payne took to the stage again and explained that he would only be conversing in English and that this was his first ever solo performance, though it wasn’t his first post-Enid show; earlier in March he’d performed at The Picturedome in Northampton with a select backing group.

His performance was relatively brief, consisting of two (long-form) songs he’d contributed to from The Enid’s Invicta (2012) One and the Many and Who Created Me? plus both sides of his new single I need a Change/Moonlit Love. Confiding in the audience that he was a bit rusty and Who Created Me? was the most challenging thing he’d had to play on piano, he also admitted, mid song, that he’d forgotten how the piece went, then courageously continued. I thought he excelled in this format, solo voice and piano and, without the full bombast of his former band to compete with for kitsch, it completely changed my opinion of his singing; that he’s got a great voice is beyond question – he proved that it works in a rock context.


That Joe Payne, Z-Fest 2018, Legend Club, Milano
That Joe Payne, Z-Fest 2018, Legend Club, Milano

Isproject were next up, Ivan Santovito (who had a slight problem with the keyboard patches on his Mac before they got going) and Ilenia Salvemini, who after a couple of tracks as a duo were joined on stage by core members of Höstsonaten: Paolo Tixi; Marcella Arganese; Daniele Sollo; and Martin Grice.

Their inclusion at this symphonic Z-Fest was fully warranted. The music alternates between a post-Waters Floydian sweeping cinematic sound, melodies and instrumentation that recall classic 70s Italian prog, and a few guitar-driven moments that hint of prog-metal. The proggiest moments were the lead synthesizer lines over full band backing where a relative lack of layers evoked the early 70s sound; there was also plenty of delicate piano which contributed to the symphonic feel. Apart from playing the keyboards, Santovito handled a good portion of the vocals, sung in English, while most of the time Salvemini was responsible for providing harmony vocals or singing as a duet. The performance wasn’t quite faultless, with Salvemini occasionally demonstrating an unfortunate lack of stagecraft, generating low-level feedback by exposing her mic, held by her side when she wasn’t singing, to her monitor. This slightly naive behaviour didn’t affect the way I thought about the music and I visited the merchandise stand following their slot and bought a copy of The Archinauts on CD; I’m pleased I did, because Zuffanti’s production is beautifully clear and the symphonic nature of the music shines through.


Isproject: Ilenia Salvemini and Ivan Santovito
Isproject: Ilenia Salvemini and Ivan Santovito

I don’t own any Mostly Autumn or Heather Findlay music other than a live version of Evergreen that featured on the free CD that came with one of the early Prog magazines concentrating on prog-folk. Her time in Mostly Autumn has helped her amass a good following and since leaving them in 2010 she’s fronted her own band, collaborated with some of the biggest names in the prog world (including Ian Anderson and John Wetton) and, in 2016 formed Mantra Vega with Dave Kerzner, pulling in a number of Mostly Autumn alumni, creating what many branded a ‘supergroup’. However, this set was just Findlay accompanying herself singing with acoustic guitar, delving into a rich past of folk/symphonic tunes of which I recognised only one: Evergreen. Her voice on some of the recordings I’ve heard has a frail, ethereal quality, like a Yorkshire Stevie Nicks but live she had a good strong voice that reminded me of Sonja Kristina on some of the more song-based Curved Air material. She also communicated entirely in English and told the crowd that, like Joe Payne, this was her first ever solo gig.


Heather Findlay - her first solo gig!
Heather Findlay - her first solo gig!

I’d just missed out seeing Höstsonaten performing Symphony No.1 Cupid and Psyche in 2016 so I wasn’t going to miss the 2018 Z-Fest; this was the band I’d really come to see and they did not disappoint. I may have originally heard about them in 2007-8 when I first bought Jerry Lucky’s The Progressive Rock Files but my first exposure to their music was at the 2014 Prog Résiste festival where the Z Band performed an array of pieces from a variety of projects including the superb Rainsuite from Winterthrough, a sumptuous example of modern symphonic prog, prompting me to visit their merchandise stand following the performance to buy the CD/DVD of The Rime of the Ancient Mariner Alive in Theatre (2013). It was on a visit to Galleria del Disco, Firenze, in the subway passages underneath the main station later in 2014 that I got my hands on an AMS CD reissue of Winterthrough, and in 2016 I pre-ordered my copy of Symphony N.1 Cupid & Psyche (on pink vinyl) through Bandcamp.



The current Höstsonaten line-up of Zuffanti (bass, acoustic guitar and bass pedals), Luca Scherani (keyboards), Marcella Arganese (electric guitar), Daniele Sollo (bass) and Paolo Tixi (drums) was supplemented for the occasion by Martin Grice on sax and flute, Joanne Roan on flute, Alice Nappi on violin, and Gaetano Galli on oboe, providing a genuine symphonic dimension; Grice was part of the Z Band and Roan has appeared on a number of Höstsonaten records.

Zuffanti’s introduction was interrupted by remedial work on Scherani’s laptop (after Scherani had helped Ivan Santovito at the start of the Isproject set) but this was swiftly resolved and they began with a medley of Season Cycle tracks, Entering the Halls of Winter, The Edge of Summer and Toward the Sea. We were also treated to a large slice of 2016’s Symphony N.1, an album where Zuffanti had written the music but took a step back from much of the playing and allowed the partnership with Scherani, who arranged the piece for orchestra, to shine. I thought the evening couldn’t get any better but they next embarked upon Ancient Mariner in all its dramatic glory. I’d notice Joe Payne move a mic stand to the front of the stage between the Heather Findlay and Höstsonaten sets, so I had a pretty good idea that he’d be joining them for something, and he took on the role of the mariner really well. Sadly I had to leave to catch a bus back to my hotel during Part 3, but there’s a YouTube video https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=61N3h2qCPfk that goes some way to compensating for me missing out on Part 4 which features outstanding vocals from both Payne and Findlay.



Though the crowd was really supportive of all the acts, the club wasn’t full and with tickets at only €10, it’s something of a surprise that Zuffanti persists in hosting the event each year. However he does it, promoting his protégés, revisiting some exquisite music of his own and this year bringing UK artists to Milan, I’m glad he does. This was my second year and, like last year, it was really special. La Maschera di Cera next year?














By ProgBlog, Jun 5 2017 07:31PM



Genovese prog rockers Il Tempio Delle Clessidre (The Temple of the Hourglass) released their third studio album last month, four years on from AlieNatura. The new album, Il Ludere is another excellent piece of music that fits nicely in the progressivo Italiano canon. I’ve followed them since 2014 but their journey began in 2006, when keyboard player Elisa Montaldo met former Museo Rosenbach vocalist Stefano ‘Lupo’ Galifi in the Black Widow record store in the heart of Genoa. They assembled the group Il Tempio delle Clessidre, named after a subsection of the 1973 Museo Rosenbach classic Zarathustra with the notion to perform that album live – with the inclusion of Giulio Canepa on guitar, Fabio Gremo on bass, and the 19-year old Paolo Tixi on drums. There’s a DVD of a 2011 performance in Seoul with extras including footage of their 2009 debut performance from Genoa’s Teatro della Gioventu, which acts as a documentary of the Galifi era (Black Widow Records BWR168). Part of the Seoul gig was the modern recreation of Zarathustra in its entirety which, though technically challenging was hailed as a resounding success.


My introduction to the band was at the Fiera Internazionale della Musica in Genoa in May 2014. I’d specifically gone to see La Maschera di Cera but was struck by the stellar range of the line-up, a testament to the healthy state of Italian progressive rock in general and the importance of the host city in particular. Il Tempio delle Clessidre played on the first day and, because I had seen drummer Paolo Tixi play with Fabio Zuffanti’s Z-Band a few weeks before, I was intrigued by their inclusion on the bill. I’d looked up references to them before seeing them and was delighted to hear their style of melodic symphonic prog. Afterwards, I could fully appreciate their tag as a successor to Museo Rosenbach.




Il Tempio delle Clessidre  Genoa May 2014
Il Tempio delle Clessidre Genoa May 2014

Il Tempio delle Clessidre  Genoa May 2014
Il Tempio delle Clessidre Genoa May 2014

Il Tempio delle Clessidre  Genoa May 2014
Il Tempio delle Clessidre Genoa May 2014

Vocalist Francesco Ciapica replaced Galifi for the second album, AlieNatura (2013) and his voice has a similar quality to Galifi, full and rich with a good range. The entire performance was very assured and impressed me sufficiently to visit the Black Widow stand and buy a copy of their first CD; I also bought an ITDC T-shirt from the dedicated merchandise stall. I bought my copy of AlieNatura in Black Widow in 2015 (the shop had been temporarily closed in 2014, though it was specially convened at the Fiera) and it has proved difficult to decide which of these first two albums I like better; both are of an amazing quality, best exemplified by Il Centro Sottile from the first album and the multi-part suite Il Cacciatore from AlieNatura.

Il Ludere includes another change of personnel, with former Änglagård drummer Mattias Olsson replacing Tixi. As with the preceding album, the title Il Ludere is a pun combining the Latin verb ludere (to play), with the article il generates a double meaning: the act of playing and, from the verb illudere, deception or illusion. The cover illustration continues this theme and the first track Le Regole del Gioco (The rules of the game) spells it out. What is immediately striking is that this is more conventional rock-sounding than the full-on symphonic prog of its two predecessors, although it remains firmly in the prog camp thanks to great playing, intelligent writing and, to a greater extent, a rejection of straightforward form.

Le Regole del Gioco owes something to musique concrète: an instruction to the listener how best to enjoy the stereo effect before segueing into the upbeat, jazzy La Parola Magica (The Magic Word) where the first hints at a different sound can be detected. The organ tends to follow the vocal melody, the guitar is distorted and the concluding electric piano seems to be influenced by the Canterbury scene. If that isn’t hint enough, Come Nella Favole (As in the Fables) begins like a heavy rock track and Ciapica even pulls off a high register vocal. What separates this track from a multitude of early 80s metal bands is a fiendishly tricky break, though I can imagine this being a new live favourite. There may be a hint of guitar hero about the soloing on next track Dentro la Mia Mente (Inside My Mind) but this is a fairly lengthy, more complex piece which reminds me of some of Finisterre’s experimentation featuring tape effects. As if triggered by this media manipulation; the rest of the album is undeniably proggy.

Spettro del Palco (Stage of the Spectrum) which has been selected as a single, is the tale of an unrequited love with a tragic ending. It’s set in a theatre and comes across as suitably dramatic, with themes picked out first by delicate acoustic and ending with a crescendo of passionate electric guitar. The coda provides a prelude to the theme running through the penultimate track La Spirale del Vento (The Wind Spiral.) Prospettive (Perspectives) opens with an acoustic guitar figure and builds slowly with piano and synthesizer before a Mellotron like break and some striking electric guitar. The vocals are full of feeling and most effective, producing some high quality prog. One of the most achingly beautiful moments on the whole release is the Gilmour-like guitar on Manitou where the percussion, similar to the recording of Peter Gabriel IV, is played out on the bottom kit, without cymbals. This provides an earthy, world music feel which is fitting for a song about a fundamental life force. Nuova Alchimia (New Alchemy) flows on almost seamlessly, initially with sparse percussion, though it’s very riff-driven. There’s an interlude with a sort of carnival atmosphere before Montaldo plays a fast synthesizer solo in classic RPI style; the vocals form an important part of the song, adding immediacy, but unfortunately it doesn’t really develop.

Perhaps it was the influence of their new drummer, but there are some distinctly angular lines that call to mind Olsson’s former band Änglagård or even Fragile-era Yes on La Spirale del Vento which, at 8’43 is the longest track on the album and closest to the material from the first two albums. This is my favourite track; there is plenty of space between the vocal passages to allow Montaldo to shine with some excellent lead synthesizer and the whole piece is well-constructed. One of the biggest surprises is Gnaffe, included as a bonus track. Based on the 14th Century Decameron by Giovanni Boccaccio, a collection of stories ranging from the tragic to the erotic, it includes tales of wit and practical jokes. The song, at times medieval and at others what I would regard as traditional Italian popular music (during the duet between Ciapica and Montaldo), offers the contrast between almost scholarly classical guitar and outright playfulness during the storytelling.

Despite being uncharacteristic of progressivo Italiano, this album has grown on me the more I’ve listened to it. Maybe I’m mellowing with age because I really enjoy another 2017 release, the eponymous Christadoro album which is also not true RPI. To be fair to Il Tempio delle Clessidre, they have produced a more homogeneous work because they’ve widened the pool of creative input. This may seem counterintuitive but it’s the distorted, riffing guitar that has pulled them towards rock. On the other hand, there’s still a huge variety of textures that would never get represented in the mainstream and the inclusion of Olsson has provided the impetus for utilising a variety of effects. It’s unfortunate that my grasp of the Italian language is so poor, because I’m sure that there are more musical and lyrical puns at play throughout the release.


Despite my inability to pick up nuances in the language I think that though it may be a little atypical of the genre, from the atmospheric to the dramatic, this is a great album.







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.












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