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Z Fest - Legend Club, Milano (Höstsonaten/Heather Findlay/ISproject/That Joe Payne)

23rd March 2018

Z Fest - Legend Club, Milano (Höstsonaten/Heather Findlay/ISproject/That Joe Payne)

Having attended and really enjoyed the Z-Fest the previous year, I thought I’d sign up for the event in 2018, dubbed ‘the symphonic edition’. The headline act was Höstsonaten, the most symphonic of Zuffanti’s many side projects 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.
I’d last seen Joe Payne performing with The Enid at HRH 4 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 prog. I got to the club early as the man reinvented as That Joe Payne was finishing his sound check, then 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 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 that 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; he’s got a great voice and proved that it works in a rock context.

ISproject are Ivan Santovito and Ilenia Salvemini, who after a couple of tracks as a duo were joined on stage by core members of Höstsonaten: Paolo Tixi on drums; Marcella Arganese on guitar; Daniele Sollo on bass; and Martin Grice on flute.
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 as Santovito had a slight problem with the keyboard patches on his Mac before they got going at the start of the set and I thought that Salvemini occasionally demonstrated 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, though I should stress that their soundcheck was carried out before Höstsonaten finalised their levels and neither of these minor issues affected what I thought about the music as I visited the merchandise stand to buy a copy of The Archinauts after the set. The CD reveals Zuffanti’s beautifully clear production which allows the symphonic nature of the music to shine through.

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 the December 2009 edition of Prog magazine. 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.

I’d just missed out seeing Höstsonaten in 2016 when they performed Symphony No.1 Cupid and Psyche, so getting to see them was the main reason for my attendance at the 2018 Z-Fest. I originally read about the band in Jerry Lucky’s The Progressive Rock Files and 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 Zuffanti projects including the superb Rainsuite from Winterthrough, a sumptuous example of modern symphonic prog and where I was prompted to visit their merchandise stand to buy the CD/DVD of The Rime of the Ancient Mariner Alive in Theatre (2103). I bought an AMS CD reissue of Winterthrough in Galleria del Disco, underneath Firenze Santa Maria Novella station later in 2014, and in 2016 I bought my copy of Symphony N.1 Cupid & Psyche on pink vinyl through Bandcamp.
The current 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. 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 and just when I thought the evening couldn’t get any better but they embarked upon Ancient Mariner in all its dramatic glory. I’d notice Joe Payne had moved a mic stand to the front of the stage during the interval 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. Unfortunately I had to leave to catch a bus back to my hotel during Part 3, but there’s a YouTube video 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 enthusiastic and supportive, the club wasn’t full and with tickets at only €10 it’s something of a surprise that Zuffanti is able to host the event. 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 and like last year, it was really special.

This review was taken from the deleted blog ‘Gig Marathon part 2 – Z Fest’ posted on 9th April 2018

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