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Album review: La Maschera di Cera - S.E.I. (2020)

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I’ve been a fan of La Maschera di Cera since 2008 when I chanced upon a copy of LUX ADE in a second hand record store in Croydon. Tempted by the list of 70’s keyboards and production courtesy of PFM’s Franz di Cioccio, not to mention the fact I had a 50% discount as a ‘member’ of the store, I handed over £5 to complete the best ever speculative buy I’ve ever made, on a CD that opened up the mid 90s re-emergent Italian progressive rock scene for me. I’ve followed the band studiously since then, and even managed to get to see them at the FIM in Genoa in 2014. 2020 Sees the release of their sixth studio album, S.E.I., an acronym for “Separazione / Egolatria / Inganno” (Separation / Self-worship / Deception), which strikes me as a piece of topical commentary on some of our world leaders.

The first thing to note is that the album is comprised of three tracks, replicating the formula of 70’s progressive rock giants Yes with CLOSE TO THE EDGE and RELAYER, here handily acting as a vehicle for the writing talents of each of the three core members: bassist Fabio Zuffanti, vocalist Alessandro Corvaglia and keyboard player Agostino Macor. In the seven years that have elapsed since La Maschera di Cera’s LE PORTE DEL DOMANI / THE GATES OF TOMORROW, drummer Maurizio di Tollo and flautist Andrea Monetti have moved on and their respective roles taken up in a ‘guest’ capacity by two other long-term associates from the Genoa prog scene, Paolo Tixi and Martin Grice. While Grice has been part of this scene since 1972, Zuffanti first saw a young Paolo Tixi drumming for Il Tempio delle Clessidre and asked him to play on his 2014 solo album LA QUARTA VITTIMA where both his precision and his rhythmic suggestions impressed the bassist.

It’s as though no time at all has passed since the last studio album; there's no hanging around as the album kicks off with the Zuffanti-penned multi-part, side long IL TEMPO MILLENARIO. As much as I loved their continuation of Le Orme's FELONA E SORONA concept which, like Le Orme’s masterpiece was released in both Italian and English, I think this created self-imposed constraints which perhaps limited the potential of the music; that’s not intended as a criticism but it’s certainly an observation that can’t be applied to the new album.

Part 1 of IL TEMPO MILLENARIO, L' ANIMA IN ROVINA immediately puts the band back in LUX ADE territory, a full-on symphonic suite with Zuffanti's trademark distorted bass and Macor's full range of keyboards, including more Mellotron than you could possibly hope for. The track might utilise the classic  instrumental sounds of progressivo italiano from the 70s but it’s not at all derivative – even Zuffanti’s different projects sound distinct from each other – and this uniqueness is down to a number of factors, not least of which is Corvaglia’s voice as he delivers each line with dramatic intensity. If Höstsonaten is the hyper-melodic symphonic band along the lines of The Enid and Finisterre is experimental post-rock, La Maschera di Cera is an updated version of Italian progressive bands from the 70s, incorporating multiple styles and flavours, eschewing the repetition that creeps into much of the modern prog genre, and comes across in an almost operatic form.

La Maschera di Cera might seem unusual for not featuring lead guitar but Corvaglia plays acoustic guitar and Macor plays some Mandolin, enabling the instrumentation to successfully convey a full symphonic palette. Martin Grice, a long-term collaborator, has a woodwind style which is very suited to the project but we also get to hear good slices of his sax in parts 2 (NUVOLE GONFIE) and 4 (SEPARAZIONE).

The Corvaglia-penned IL CERCHIO DEL COMANDO has strong hints of early Delirium, a band that Martin Grice has been playing with since appearing on 1972’s LO SCEMO E IL VILLAGGIO, and which Corvaglia himself joined in 2015 for L’ERA DELLA MENZOGNA, or perhaps closer still, like a cross between the outright prog of Jethro Tull’s THICK AS A BRICK and the prog-folk of SONGS FROM THE WOOD, thanks to the flute and organ sound, the placing of Zuffanti's bass, strummed guitar and a melody line that is quite riff-like and catchy. There’s a lovely Mellotron break after the vocal section, and the song, which really sounds like very early 70s rock progressivo, ends with a reprise of Tull-like riff.

VACUO SENSO, written by Macor is a 14-minute suite in a style more associated with the band’s earlier material. Part 1 PROLOGO is a dramatic instrumental straight out of the 70s heavy prog mould, complete with distorted bass, which cedes to jazzy blow, stately Mellotron, and back to dramatic motifs. An acoustic guitar break heralds part 2, DIALOGO which features reflective vocals over quiet a backing of piano, strummed guitar and clean bass. Part 3, the instrumental NELLA RETE DELL' INGANNO moves along at a decent pace with jazz piano before Grice quotes Rodgers and Hammerstein’s MY FAVOURITE THINGS on sax (covered by John Coltrane in 1961). A distorted bass and organ riff announces part 4, IL RISVEGLIONDI which is in part Canterbury-like but also includes moments which remind me of Keith Emerson. Part 5 ASCENSIONE begins with reverbed acoustic piano and leads to a slower paced symphonic melody line played on Mellotron with bass accompaniment prior to the introduction of choral Mellotron, and ends with a melody reminiscent of the fade out piano motif from Genesis’ FIRTH OF FIFTH.

It’s a really satisfying album, nicely presented with artwork by Eric Adrian Lee, who has created the artwork for a number of releases on the Giallo Disco label, a term associated with the Italian horror genre. I’ve previously described IL GRANDE LABIRINTO as bearing the same relationship to LUX ADE as FRAGILE does to CLOSE TO THE EDGE but I’m now finding it difficult to decide which I like better, LUX ADE or the new release. That debate will go on for some time but for now, despite some fierce competition, I believe that S.E.I. has confirmed La Maschera di Cera’s place at the pinnacle of prog.

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