Album review: Il Cerchio d'Oro - Il Fuoco sotto la cenere (2017)
Il Fuoco sotto la cenere
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 may be the Ligurian capital and the city 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 standard bearers) but Savona, west of Genova, also boasts historic RPI links in Delirium, one of the first Italian acts to adopt progressive traits. I managed to get to see a reformed version of Delirium (Martin Grice on sax and flute, Fabio Chigini on bass, Alessandro Corvaglia on vocals, Michele Cusato on guitar, Alfredo Vandresi on drums and original member Ettore Vigo on keyboards) at the 2017 Porto Antico Prog Fest, organised by Genoa’s Black Widow Records. Preceding Delirium were another group from Savona, Il Cerchio d’Oro, who formed in the 70s but never released an album of original material until reforming in the 00s with the well-regarded Il Viaggio di Colombo from 2008 (3.78 stars on Progarchives) and 2013’s Dedalo e Icaro (3.94 stars.) The version of the band that day included original members Gino (drums) and Giuseppe Terribile (bass) and Franco Piccolini (keyboards), along with Massimo Spica (guitar), Piuccio Pradal (acoustic guitar, vocals) and Franco’s son Simone Piccolini (keyboards), and there were 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’m pretty sure the set list included pieces from Il Fuoco sotto la cenere which hadn’t been released at that time and recall thinking at the time that the compositions were well structured but there wasn’t the degree of complexity I was expecting. However, when I got my hands on the Il Fuoco sotto la cenere CD I thought it was equally as good as Colombo and Dedalo e Icaro, if not better. I was 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 the self-titled Biglietto per l’Inferno album.) It’s about the state of mind of a person who becomes unable to deal with everyday problems and can no longer suppress the rage which has been building up as their inner strength gets worn away, like 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 of 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 fully 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 for 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 though there are times where I agree, 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 in 2016, clearing the way for new possibilities.
For those interested, apart from a rich maritime history (Christopher Columbus lived in both Genova and Savona), striking architecture (from medieval to brutalist) and its RPI connections, Savona has a pretty good record store, Jocks Team (Via Pia 82/R, 17100 Savona SV, Italy) where I bought my copy of Il Viaggio di Colombo and where I would have bought a vinyl copy of Il Fuoco sotto la cenere but they only had the cover – the record itself was along the coast in Black Widow Records!
Il Cerchio d'Oro, Porto Antico ProgFest 2017