Progressivo Italiano (originally posted 16/12/13)

By ProgBlog, Apr 8 2014 09:54PM

Last weekend was spent in Venice; a family trip to a city like no other in the world that we’ve kind of fallen in love with. There was no other reason for the trip than the need to get away from routine life for five days but it did give me the chance to look for progressivo Italiano at source. This was an understanding before we booked the trip.

Progressivo Italiano happens to be my second favourite prog sub-genre, the first being symphonic prog. Like the entire genre, rock progressivo Italiano (RPI) is undergoing something of a renaissance, with reissues of classic albums and new bands and new material. There’s also been a flurry of new literature on the subject including Andrea Parentin’s excellent Rock Progressivo Italiano, an introduction to Italian progressive rock. This provides lyrics from his personal favourite albums translated into English and was conceived as an explanation of the music for his family who had emigrated to Australia. Will Romano includes a chapter in his Mountains come out of the Sky and I’ve managed to pick up a couple of books in Italy (in Italian), Progressive Italiano and Il librio del prog Italiano. These two books, both published by Giunti, share a common style of album ratings (marked out of 5), the former is not much more than a book of lists that I can mostly understand but Il librio del prog Italiano by John Martin and Michele and Sandro Neri is a more serious tome with biographies and reviews of all the most important names and cult bands. There’s also an overview of the youth culture of the period, linked to music and musical projects in the context of an Italian society in turmoil at that particular time. I’m finding this much harder to read.

The Peter Sinfield lyrics on the UK and American releases by Premiata Forneria Marconi, The World Became the World, Photos of Ghosts and Cook were the first Italian prog we heard. The English releases also abbreviated the band’s name to PFM in an effort to somehow make them more appealing. That they were released on the ELP-owned Manticore label was also part of the attraction. Sinfield has suggested that some of his best lyrics were written for PFM and there’s undoubtedly a charm to them. However, the announcement on the live album Cook of a song “from our really first Italian album, never release in the States, sung in Italian...” heralded my conversion to believing that Italian is the best language for progressivo Italiano. The subsequent release Chocolate Kings, with Bernardo Lanzetti (formerly of Acqua Fragile) taking over lead vocal duties reinforced my new belief. It’s not that Lanzetti had any difficulty with English, having studied in the US, or that his vocals were in any way bad (though he does have a distinctive style) – it’s more that Italian lyrics are more in keeping with the genre, the subtle blend of Mediterranean influences on an English progressive sound blueprint. The music is itself lyrical and expressive, almost operatic. It’s hardly surprising that Van der Graaf Generator and Genesis, with their story telling and musical dramatics should have been very successful in Italy in the early 70s. Mediterranean influences in the widest geographical sense add a particular flavour to Osanna’s Palepoli and also to much of the output by Area.

I only had releases by PFM for a long time but researched what might be available when I took the family to Venice for their first visit in 2005. I had famously missed PFM when I was in Venice in 1980 and they were playing in Mestre. On that visit I expanded my knowledge of RPI when I bought Caronte by The Trip, Donna Plautilla by Banco del Mutuo Soccorso, Contrappunti by Le Orme and Concerto Grosso Nos. I and II by The New Trolls, plus Premiata Forneria Marconi’s really first Italian album, Storia di un Minuto. Donna Plautilla was a major disappointment after I’d read such great things about Banco. It wasn’t really prog, but then it was material from 1969 when they were simply an Italian ‘beat group’. Caronte was good in parts (Emerson like organ) but I wasn’t over impressed with the English lyrics. Concerto Grosso No. I showed another influence, reflected in the title of part 4, Tempo Shadows (Per Jimi Hendrix) that I’ve heard subsequently in other early RPI releases, most notably in Garybaldi songs, the Hendrix inspired guitar work. Orchestration features in a number of RPI releases. The Concerto Grosso blend orchestra with rock group (in a similar way to The Nice and the Five Bridges Suite) with the orchestral music by Luis Enriquez Bacalov who subsequently worked with Osanna and the only truly progressive release by Il Rovescio della Medaglia, their 1973 album Contaminazione. Quella Vecchia Locanda, Reale Accademia di Musica and Maxophone all use strings to great effect.

Le Orme were from Venice. Originally a beat group, they underwent some personnel changes and released what many regard to be the first RPI album, Collage, in 1971. I’d bought Contrappunti in Venice in 2005 and acquired all the essential Orme albums on subsequent trips to Italy. On the trip last week I went searching for a later release, Florian, named after the cafe in the piazza San Marco. Sadly, there are no longer any record stores on the islands but I did manage to buy a copy on a day trip out to Vicenza. This is quite a different release, coming at the end of the original prog era and featuring traditional acoustic instruments. In reality it is more chamber music than rock but it’s important that Le Orme were reflecting their true roots.

The RPI sub-genre is incredibly varied and well worth exploring. After reading that Ys by Il Baletto di Bronzo was regarded as the best prog album of all time I had to seek it out. It’s not. But it has interesting dynamics and a good storyline. Some might find it derivative. Banco del Mutuo Soccorso also released material sung in English on Manticore and some of their material can sound a bit like ELP at times (I’m thinking of Canto nomade per un prigioniero politico) but they’re so much more than that. The operatic voice of Francesco di Giacomo is perfectly suited to the music so it doesn’t matter if you don’t understand the lyrics. Perhaps this feature best sums up the attraction of RPI: it is genuine music of feeling.

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