It doesn’t take much to get me on an aeroplane to Italy, but the promise of a good band is an added incentive. The last trip to Milan for the FIM Fiera Internazionale della Musica was primarily about getting to see Anekdoten, something of a coup for the Black Widow Records-organised Prog On evening, with a support slot from La Fabbrica dell’Assoluto whose excellent 1984: L’Ultimo Uomo d’Europa was added to my record collection earlier this year. I’d also been informed that the third band on the bill, Hollowscene, was another amazing symphonic prog band well worth looking out for.
Originally a duo called Banaau formed in 1990 by guitar player Andrea Massimo and keyboard player Lino Cicala, they recruited drummer Davide Quacquarella and bassist player Dino Pantaleo to perform long-form suites inspired by T.S. Eliot’s The Hollow Men and The Love Story of J Alfred Prufrock and Edgar Allan Poe’s The Conqueror Worm, but didn’t spend any time recording the material. There was a hiatus following the departures of Quacquarella and Pantaleo lasting from the early 90s until 2011 when the pair met again and agreed to continue working on songs written by Massimo during that almost 20 year gap. In 2015 they officially re-emerged as a septet, augmented by Andrea Zani on keyboards, Elton Novara on guitar, Tony Alemanno on bass guitar and bass pedals, Matteo Paparazzo on drums and Demetra Fogazza playing flute and adding vocals, and released a highly-acclaimed 20 minute-long EP The Burial inspired by The Burial of the Dead, the first of five sections of T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land (1922).
For their first full-length album, Massimo and Cicala changed the band name to Hollowscene and replaced Novara with guitarist Walter Kesten. The new moniker recalls T.S. Eliot’s The Hollow Men but is also a play on the current geological era, the Holocene, and could even allude to the general state of music, a hollow scene. Once again, this features a lengthy concept, a five-part suite Broken Coriolanus and the album also includes a reworked version of The Worm, one of their original compositions, plus a cover version of The Moon is Down, a 1971 Gentle Giant song taken from Acquiring the Taste.
‘Broken Coriolanus’ is another T.S. Eliot reference, appearing in line 215 of The Waste Land:
Only at nightfall, aethereal rumours
Revive for a moment a broken Coriolanus
This itself is a reference to Shakespeare’s tragedy Coriolanus, based on the life of the legendary Roman general Caius Marcius Coriolanus who, following military success against uprisings challenging the government of Rome becomes active in politics. A proud, rude but genuine character whose nature, according to Menenius in the play
...is too noble for the world:
He would not flatter Neptune for his trident,
Or Jove for’s power to thunder. His heart’s his mouth:
What his breast forges, that his tongue must vent
Such a temperament made him unsuited to popular leadership and he is quickly deposed but, being true, he sets about trying to right wrongs in his own way and is forced to choose between his pride and his love for his family, ultimately bringing about his sad death.
Through no fault of theirs, Hollowscene’s performance in Milan was disrupted by a change to the published running order and a shortage of time during the soundcheck. I was expecting them to be the second act to play, following Prowlers, allowing them plenty of time to complete the entire Broken Coriolanus suite but they were actually the first band on stage which meant I missed their first track. What I did hear soon dispelled any disappointment because it was first-class symphonic prog that reminded me alternately of Tony Bank’s keyboard work for Genesis and, perhaps because of the double keyboards, occasional jazz phrasing of the guitar and the flute, National Health circa 1978. When they were rather hastily removed from the stage without completing their full scheduled set, presumably to keep the evening running to time, many of the audience were rather disbelieving; I’d just have to wait to get to hear the album.
I picked up a copy of the CD at the gig and the moment you click play it’s obvious that this is a very fine piece of rock progressivo Italiano. First track Welcome to Rome is simultaneously modern-sounding and a classic progressive rock piece. It begins with a fairly brief sinuous synthesizer and guitar line in an uncompromising time signature and gives way to a military rhythm which is very fitting with the theme, just before the vocals begin over harmonic flute lines. You get the immediate impression that it’s an uplifting (welcoming!) song, aided by fluent synth parts, yet there’s a rhythmical complexity underlying the entire piece. All the singing on the album is in well-delivered English. Massimo has a good voice that suits the story-telling requirements of the music; he’s not over-flashy and confines himself to a fairly narrow range, but he sings with a studied confidence. The group have a full, well-balanced sound, both live and on disc, and it’s clear that Genesis, Steve Hackett and Banks in particular, are a major influence.
A Brave Fellow follows in much the same vein; highly melodic, again with the same clean lead guitar which gives way to some excellent synth. A flute passage gives way to emotive piano and vocals, with constantly changing instrumentation and sounds. When the second set of vocals finish, they’re followed by an eerie synth with a staccato rhythm, replaced by organ that harks back to classic 70’s progressivo Italiano; slightly threatening, building gradually towards the denouement.
Traitor is played with a slightly increased tempo. It’s a predominantly vocal piece punctuated by relatively short but tasteful guitar breaks, the second, soaring, more lengthy than the first. That’s not to say there isn’t a great deal going on underneath the singing; there are busy keyboard parts, some strong melodic flute and the contrast of a short burst of more breathy flute.
Slippery Turns is more sedate than the previous track, beginning with more of the emotive piano and vocals before being joined by flute. It departs from the expected with a passage in Japanese from Atsumori, a classical musical drama by Zeami Motokiyo who lived from around the late 14th century to the mid 15th century, narrated by Takehiro Ueki:
Human life lasts only 50 years, Contrast human life with life of Geten, It is but a very dream and illusion. Once they are given life from god, there is no such thing don't perish
Atsumori was a 16 year-old killed in the battle of Ichi-no-Tani in 1184 who is said to have carried a flute into battle, evidence of his peaceful, courtly nature as well as his youthfulness and naïveté. Eliot is believed to have invoked Coriolanus for The Waste Land as an allusion to death in battle.
The tone on the Japanese-spoken section is solemn but gives way to one of Hollowscene’s trademark guitar breaks. Massimo speaks the last section over another staccato rhythm that reminds me of Watcher of the Skies, without the Mellotron, but with some bright synth.
Rage and Sorrow is a mini-epic and, at a little over 13 minutes, the longest track on the CD. The development of the composition takes in the full range of keyboard sounds you’d associate with prog and there’s a really good balance between vocal and instrumental passages. Fogazza takes on shared lead vocal duties at the beginning of the piece, which I thought were reminiscent of Amanda Parsons singing on National Health; a strong, clear, unaffected voice.
A truly dynamic conclusion to the concept, one of the sections that most transports me is an emotive 12 string guitar accompanied by highly melodic flute akin to the classic Genesis sound on Foxtrot or Selling England by the Pound but throughout the track the twin guitars really work well, with nice angular riffs providing a framework for the vocal melody lines.
The Worm commences with an extended passage of gorgeous early Crimson-like flute, floating above picked guitar chords and keyboard washes which I think represents the best of progressive rock. The keyboard line which is introduced prior to the vocals is closer to neo-prog, perhaps reflecting the era in which the song was originally written, demonstrating that Hollowscene aren’t simply attempting to recreate a 70’s vibe but selecting suitable references to make some outstanding modern symphonic prog. The song undergoes a number of tempo changes, injecting a sense of urgency with the use of triplets and even gets quite dark.
Gentle Giant’s The Moon is Down is relatively sparse, containing brief flashes of texture, with phased clarinet, sax and multi-tracked vocals and a relatively urgent instrumental middle section which could be seen as a template for the GG medieval sound; Hollowscene stamp their own form on the song with different instrumentation, beginning the piece with piano and flute but using fuzzed guitar behind the vocals, adding lead synthesizer to their middle section. It’s a nice nod to one of the classic 70s progressive rock bands.
The band have used the same cover image for the Burial EP and Hollowscene, taken by acknowledged master photographer Ernesto Fantozzi in 1961. The photo appears to be a view towards the Via Biscegli in Milan from the west or south west where the frozen ground fits the imagery of Eliot’s opening lines for The Waste Land. This attention to detail reflects the care in which the album has been put together. It’s altogether a really satisfying and very fine piece of work.
Hollowscene by Hollowscene is available on Black Widow Records BWR207