Album review: La Maschera di Cera - Il Grande Labirinto (2003)
I first came across La Maschera di Cera while trawling through the prog section of Beanos, Croydon’s now sadly defunct former best second-hand music shop in the world, and picked up their 2006 release Lux Ade for £5, probably the best speculative buy I’ve ever made. Lux Ade is an album of classic Italian progressive rock brought up-to-date with crisp production supplied courtesy of Franz di Cioccio, with an expansive scope and all the essential ingredients you’d expect from 70’s RPI: dominant fuzz bass; the whole gamut of authentic analogue keyboards; operatic vocals; lashings of flute; and well-crafted songs. The band formed in Genova in 2001, a city with an illustrious roster of prog acts and where the prog community is extensively interconnected – Zuffanti, Macor and Corvaglia share overlapping involvement in a number of other projects, such as Finisterre, Höstsonaten and Rohmer.
Il Grande Labirinto is the group’s second album. I originally bought a download of the album from Amazon, the only place I could find the music, where my review formed the basis of this more complete review. Fortunately, I managed to find a copy of the CD in Galleria del Disco in Firenze in 2014. Predating Lux Ade by three years, it was performed by a slightly different line-up. The 2003 version of the band consisted of Marco Cavani (drums, percussion), Alessandro Corvaglia (vocals and acoustic guitar), Agostino Macor (keyboards, guitar), Andrea Monetti (flute), and Fabio Zuffanti (bass, guitar, bass pedals), supplemented by guitarist Nick Le Rose and Antonello Trovato on Oboe.
The instrumentation provides dense arrangements though the long-form nature of the compositions allows for contrasting passages where heavy urgency gives way to light abstractions. I like the way Monetti’s flute tones vary between angelic and demonic and how the band switch seamlessly between rock, jazz, classical and even funk, create sonic chaos and calmness in a manner that could be compared to the 70’s version of Van der Graaf Generator. This contrast is perfectly suited to the album theme, the transcendental death-rebirth journey summed up in the quotation from Fyodor Tyutchev’s Dream At Sea, a poem written in Naples an on Ischia in 1829, which, in unquoted lines, provides the album title:
Our craft tossed by tempest and buffeting seas,
I drowsed, letting wind and waves rage as they please.
In me I felt two infinities play:
They held me enslaved in their unbridled sway.
All around me, like cymbals, the cliffs clashed and rang,
To each other the winds called, the waves roared and sang…
Dazed and deafened I lay in this chaos of sound;
Yet above all the chaos my dream soared unbound —
Uncannily silent and morbidly clear,
It seemed over racketing darkness to veer
And in bright febrile flashes its world to unfold:
Diaphanous ether, earth green to behold,
Towers, palaces, labyrinth-gardens showed fair,
And teeming crowds silently swarmed everywhere.
The concept is also cleverly illustrated in Jan Toorop’s 1892 drawing ‘O Grave, Where Is Thy Victory’ used for the cover artwork. The title of that piece is a reference to a letter from St Paul relating to the victory of Faith over Death where Death appears as the deliverer from earthly suffering. Toorop depicts two angels freeing the body of a man entwined in thorns lying near an open grave, where the briars symbolise humankind’s sorrowful existence on earth, with the grasping figures on the right representing his earthly desires: resentment, envy, hate, love, conflict. Fittingly, the first part of the first track La Fine del Viaggio, is the end of the journey of life.
With a sound that is indisputably associated with classic 70’s Italian prog, La Maschera di Cera have created a blend that’s more in the vein of Museo Rosenbach or Balletto di Bronzo than the Mediterranean-influenced PFM, with Corvaglia’s expressive vocals adding to the drama. Some of the keyboard trills sound like early Genesis and there’s a Wakeman-sounding synthesizer line or two. My favourite passage is the final section of the 22 minute 37 second long Il Viaggio Nell'oceano Capovolto Parte 2 (Voyage to the Inverted Ocean), a theme first introduced in the brief Il Canto Dell’inverno (The Winter Song), which builds up from a haunting gentle woodwind melody that reminds me of Islands-era King Crimson, though the addition of instruments to the melody line also hint at the third section of Pink Floyd’s A Saucerful of Secrets, reaching a climactic resolution. It’s also noteworthy that one of the sections of the last track, La Ballata del vecchio Marinata parte terza, is referenced in the Höstsonaten album The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.
Il Grande Labirinto is slightly less musically mature than Lux Ade; it’s an album I’d compare to the relationship between Fragile and Yes’ subsequent album Close to the Edge. It’s almost perfect, but not quite, though it is highly recommended for fans of both 70’s and modern Italian progressive rock.