Little Red Record
There is an increasing amount of printed information about Rock Progressivo Italiano (RPI.) From the odd line or two in the original prog-as-serious-music sociological and musicological approaches of Bill Martin, Paul Stump and Edward McCann, writing on this sub-genre has spread to a chapter in Will Romano’s Mountains Come out of the Sky and 380 pages of personal impressions in Andrea Parentin’s Rock Progressivo Italiano: An introduction to Italian Progressive Rock.
Despite the welcome newcomer to the scene, Massimo Salari’s Rock Progressivo Italiano 1980-2013, the print media is still missing a decent update on what is still an active field. Prog magazine unearths every facet of prog-metal but barely touches on RPI. That Prog magazine has not taken up the banner of RPI is something of a mystery to me. I wrote to them at the end of March 2013 and had a letter highlighting this deficiency published in May, using what I consider to be the best album of 2013 so far to illustrate my point. Le Porte del Domani by La Maschera di Cera is truly cinematic in scope, like the soundtrack to an epic science fiction film (I am reminded of Ursula Le Guin’s highly regarded novel The Dispossessed with its twin planets of Annares and Urras.) The impact of this piece of music, like all great Italian prog, is almost operatic with grand themes explored using classic prog instrumentation. The full text of the letter is as follows:
“The early editions of Prog were a genuine revelation, and my favourite regular feature was the ‘Once around the World’ spread that introduced me (amongst other things) to the Zappa-esque Supersister. What is missing from the magazine is a column on Rock Progressivo Italiano. You dedicate column inch after column inch to Steven Wilson but somehow you’ve neglected to mention the best release of 2013 - Le Porte Del Domani (and the English co-release The Gates of Tomorrow) by La Maschera di Cera. Not even an album review, even though this was released in mid-January following a long build-up on the band’s website.
I first came across LMdC while trawling through the prog section of Beanos, Croydon’s late lamented best second-hand music shop in the world, and picked up their 2006 release Lux Ade, an album of classic 70s style RPI brought up-to-date with crisp production supplied courtesy of Franz di Cioccio, the PFM drummer. That album is stunning because all the essential ingredients are present: dominant fuzz bass; the whole gamut of analogue keyboards (and a theramin!); operatic vocals; great flute; expansive drumming; tasteful guitar and long, well crafted songs.
Le Porte Del Domani is a particularly bold concept because it takes up the story of interplanetary romance from Le Orme’s 1973 classic Felona e Sorona, an album regarded as a highlight of RPI with its overtures to European art music; LMdC even went back to Lanfranco for their artwork, the man responsible for the cover of Felona e Sorona. In true RPI style, two versions of the album have been released; the Italian version and an English version, with subtly different mixes. Think back to PFM with English language versions of L’Isola di Niente and songs from Storia di un Minuto; Banco’s foray into English language releases and the Peter Hammill penned lyrics of a collector’s item Felona e Sorona. There’s even a deluxe limited edition box set of Le Porte Del Domani selling for €400!
Both Italian and English versions work very well, despite the obvious dangers of comparisons with a 70s classic. The musicianship is excellent, the melodies and riffs beautiful and stunning, influenced by styles as varied as Jethro Tull and Van der Graaf Generator, the sonic palette conforms to what you’d hope from an RPI band – check out the list of keyboards used by Agostino Macor – and it’s never over the top like Il Balletto di Bronzo’s raw Ys, it’s an excellent production from the first bass notes to the final crescendo. Come on, Prog, how did you miss this?”
I had another letter published last year that was ostensibly about prog and socialist values but it had been taken from an article I’d written that also included my fears about buying politically inappropriate music. The polarisation of Italian politics in the 70s coincided with the rise of the genre and, not having a very good grasp of the Italian language, I wasn’t happy about acquiring something that was produced by any proponent of extremist right-wing views.
The beauty of Andrea Parentin‘s book is that he covers the social and political situation of 70s Italy in sufficient detail to allay any of my concerns. He also translates the lyrics of his favourite 100 RPI albums so that the reader can better understand the songs; two areas that provide context for full appreciation of the music. Most RPI bands were politically to the left or left-leaning, with only a handful of religion-inspired bands and fascist sympathising bands, plus some bands that (later) claimed they weren’t attempting to be political. I had already mostly figured this out because I’d read about the pro-Palestinian stance of PFM and Area, and any the group that cited Jimi Hendrix as an inspiration, Garybaldi or New Trolls for example, was unlikely to be right-wing. In fact, the whole social movement that was instrumental in creating conditions for progressive rock to develop was united by the attitude that music could change the world, a belief that the peace movement could bring about the end to global conflicts and end oppression, and an appreciation for ecological concerns. This counter-culture idealism included the concept of multiculturalism, that a ‘good society’ was the inevitable result of the equality produced by a global village and spawned politicised music forms from folk to psychedelic rock and not only were the politics outward looking, the influences for this music were also outward looking. In this context, it’s hard to believe that any true progressive musician could be anything but left-leaning, whatever part of the world they came from. So I really need not have worried too much. Yet there is one album that made me think long and hard about its provenance: Zarathustra by Museo Rosenbach. An undisputed classic, this album concerns philosophy that has been subjugated by both sides of the political spectrum, but also has a cover montage that includes a bust of Mussolini. Nietzsche’s ideas were misinterpreted by fascist leaders; Nietzsche originally inspired German socialists (the conservatives thought his writings were subversive) and his philosophy was associated with the anarchist movement especially in the US and France. The anti-Semitic right in France even labelled supporters of the artillery officer Alfred Dreyfus, charged with treason but eventually exonerated, as Nietzscheans. However, by the First World War Nietzsche was cited as an inspiration for right-wing German militarism and Hitler, who probably didn’t even read Nietzsche, made selective use of the philosophy and hijacked terms for Mein Kampf. Museo Rosenbach may have been being ironic, as they include thanks for "Un busto di Mussolini cibi per cani e lacche per capelli" which translates to “A bust of Mussolini dog food and hair spray” that help to make up the cover image.
This is the moment to point out that I’m not a fan of Rush. Any band that willingly adopts the beliefs of Ayn Rand is not something I’m going to enjoy, however skilful their musicianship. Bill Martin comments that he thinks the music on Rush’s 2112 is mostly good though the ideas are mostly bad. Rand’s message is "the concept of man as a heroic being, with his own happiness as the moral purpose of his life". Rand's books have without doubt had great influence, especially in the US but increasingly among British Conservatives, probably because she took ideas already active in the US to their logical conclusion. It has been reported that Alan Greenspan, the former head of the US Federal Reserve was her ardent disciple, as was Ronald Reagan. Apparently a survey in 1991 declared her book Atlas Shrugged "the most influential book on American lives after the Bible" and according to UK newspaper The Guardian, since the beginning of the current recession her books have once again shot to the top of the best-selling list. Her heroes are ‘men of the mind’ - tycoons and inventors - who have to prevent the state from ever interfering with them by regulation. She herself identifies with these people, suggesting that they should never to be expected to consider the rest of the general public, who are ‘parasites’ and ‘mindless hordes’. During my teenage years, one of my good friends owned a Rush album and though we’d have intense, shared listening sessions when any of us bought a new LP, this Rush album wasn’t something that we’d request to listen to. As a drummer my friend appreciated Neil Peart’s technique; as a socialist, I didn’t appreciate any view that espoused selfishness, laissez-faire capitalism and opposed socialism, altruism and the welfare state.