I’m a music geek that has no issues watching grainy footage of a foreign screen ingénue casually vomit lamb entrails while bleeding from thousand-yard-stare eyeballs, but if given the choice, I’d rather be in my room with my stereo, music collection and guitars obsessing over liner notes for a Mountain reissue. Horror cinema really isn’t my forte, but I enjoy learning about it and quite frankly, I’d rather talk to a geek of a different stripe than another music geek any day of the week. You tend to get embroiled in less arguments about Bob Dylan that way. Wes and I go way back. He respected my strength of geek in the music arena and let me go about thinking that Guy Ritchie made great movies. I let him go on thinking that the Hellacopters were deserving of accolades and didn’t try to burst his bubble, but listened thoughtfully to his advice on where to start with Fulci because his geek specialization was clearly strong in horror cinema. I like his webberzine plenty. I don’t always understand it, but I check in with it often and occasionally get fired up about some movie and put it in the Netflix queue.
Last year around this time, there was an article for the first Italian week on a masterpiece of a record called Ys from Il Balletto Di Bronzo. It’s a pretty unknown album that I wound up purchasing in NYC some years ago while on tour with a band. I purchased it on recommendation from a guy who writes books. He should have had a beard, but instead, he had braided pigtails and I took his recommendation seriously. When I brought up in conversation about “Close To The Edge” from Yes that I was interested in hearing some of the “Italian stuff” he recommended the album highly as the place to start and possibly the place to end. We were on a ten hour drive home and when my shift came up to drive. I insisted on listening to the album cover-to-cover, refusing to acknowledge any whining about it being “gay” from my tourmates. I think we must have listened to it 5 times straight through. It was a super shitty “Ice Road Truckers” winter storm hellride going like 40mph on the endless Pennsylvania Turnpike and the oppressive darkness of Ys was the perfect soundtrack. It became a mantra and it was clear to me that this album was NOT the place to end with Italian prog. By the end of the drive home I was a believer, and digging up as much of the stuff as possible became my to-do list for the next month.
Trying to tie this stuff in to horror cinema somehow is just impossible. Beyond Goblin, Italian prog really has nothing to do with horror movies, but an overview was in order since there is such a strong correlation between the two genres. First off, It was the 70’s in Italy, it was the scene. Secondly, both are revered as the zenith of their style. Third, both styles are relatively obscure in relation to the mainstream. Production values, a language barrier, extremity of material and distribution issues kept both styles from really reaching a mainstream audience in the all-important American markets. All the gung-ho creativity from making truly disturbing visuals on a shoestring budget was for naught when it came to “sophisticated” audiences (see: status quo morons) whose tastes were more attuned to the nearly bloodless (but at times, just as off-putting) special effects of John Landis and Tobe Hooper productions. In the same regard, all the mind bending playing and high concept Italian lyrics on the planet simply would not catch the American ear the way torpid, repetitive blues rock could as long as the singer sounded like a Yeti passing a stone when he yelled “Baby” over and over.
To quote the right honorable Kurt Vonnegut: “So it goes.”
Italian progressive rock (or Rock Progressivo Italiano I have found it to be called in some circles, literally, Italian Progressive Rock) is a wonderland for music dorks. It is spoken of in hallowed and hushed tones. It can be as mysterious and elusive as a Robert Johnson 78. It’s a revered diaspora within an already specific genre like Scandinavian death metal or Japanese robot bondage hentai. It’s kept away from the REST of ground level progressive rock in the cupboard with the fine china (leave RUSH for the plebes and chumps.) Sound like a correlation to anyone? Rock Progressivo Italiano developed within it’s own set of influences and contributed to the genre while making limited impact outside of Italy, mostly due to the artists lack of interest in singing in any language other than Italian. Pristine OG vinyls command hundreds of dollars, but with the advent of file sharing, it’s been discovered by a new generation of listeners, as well as a couple of older generations too that it may have skipped. I was able to jump into it with both feet (as well as Swedish prog, Zeuhl, Rock-In-Opposition, Funeral Doom, Japanese hardcore and just about any other revered, eggheaded subgenre you can think of.) without wounding my credit history too badly.
When it comes to horror soundtracks, how does one not talk about Goblin or Claudio Simonetti? Does any more really need to be written on them? Horror fans obsess over the soundtracks of their favorite splatter flix like midwestern housewives voting for their next American Idol. What do you guys NOT know about them that I could tell you? A fantastic article was already written on them for the prior Italian Week at The Blood Sprayer anyways. Goblin, within the Italian music community were never viewed as a legitimate musical force on the level of, say, Banco Del Mutuo Soccorso or Premiata Forneria Marconi (two of the most popular groups of the day… I spelled both of their names from memory btw.) Goblin were viewed specifically as the guys who scored Dario Argento film soundtracks. Most of their work was published in the late 70’s and early 80’s, years after the Rock Progressivo Italiano scene of the early 70’s had slipped into decline due to market oversaturation and lack of quality control from greedhead record labels looking to cash in on the fad. (Once again, sound like any OTHER fads you film types can think of?) It wasn’t through the music community that their name stayed alive and their legacy grew legs, it was through the film community. I came across the Italian horror film mini-genre totally backwards as a music fan through listening to soundtracks. The only reason I watched Susperia was because I was interested in seeing how the Goblin soundtrack was represented in the film. I’ve since gotten more into horror cinema as I’ve been with my wife and we tend to stay in rather than go out to bars and talk to well dressed people with meaningful things to say about society or whatever the fuck they were talking about.
Progressive Rock was actually the first bona-fide “ROCK” style that took a strong foothold in Italy in the late 60’s and early 70’s. Instead of Little Richard, or “The Killer” Jerry Lee Lewis, you had styles like the traditional Canzone or the slightly more contemporary Musica Leggera (literally, “light music” or easy listening in the Italian style. I guess it was all accordions and violins and shit.) still dominating the airwaves and discotheques. With a culture so strongly tied to the influence of the Vatican, it’s no small wonder that hip shakers like Elvis were given short shrift by the disc jockeys of the day. Progressive rock was never sexy music. Sensitive? Yes. Sensual? Occasionally. Brooding and dark? When it needed to be. Never sexy and therefore never in the cultural assassin gunsight. It was high minded, ambitious, dramatic, at times downright operatic and it rang wildly with the young, bearded-and-Beatle-booted hipster musician types. Progressive rock had a different kind of bombast to it that allowed for the symphonic, operatic, cinematic, complex, dramatic and/or jazz leanings to shine through with greater success than your business-as-usual Ted Nugent concert. For a fantastic overview of the style, look here:
A unifying thread of most Italian prog albums is a sense of the music taking you “there and back again.” Some of these records hold together as a complete statement, when logically, they should not hold together at all. Much like how a Fellini or Jodorowsky film might seem at first like a series of visual non-sequiturs, but once you get further into it, you know a truly profound statement is being made, even if it’s in a language you can’t understand. Many albums were written as “concept” albums, or at least had some kind of unifying statement at it’s core. A typical, high quality Italian prog album switches gears regularly. Much like in artsy foreign films, you may or may not understand entirely on the first viewing, not having kept up with the subtitles, but you know some heavy righteous shit is going down and you’ll be rewarded for your confusion.
It was requested of me to highlight the “Cinematic” side of Italian progressive rock, which is sorta like shooting fish in a barrel depending on what style of film you are talking about. Scoring a film is a whole different world than making an album though. Goblin were in a completely different headspace when they were scoring Tenebrae than say, Locanda Della Fate would have been when they were writing “Forse Se Lucciole Non Si Amano Piu’.” You can hardly call the majority of Rock Progressivo Italiano “The Music Of Terror” though. There are a rare few albums like “Ys” that might weave tapestries of total darkness, oppression and despair through the wheedlings of flat 5 chords on a Mellotron. Nothing much that would conjure up thoughts of true terror and horror though. What many of the best albums DO offer is a cinematic scope of music contained therein. I’ll see if I can’t round up a short list of the most fitting. Maybe not THEE best, but keep in mind, this is MY subjective taste and what I feel is fitting for the readership I am pandering to. I tend to lean towards the darker, more electrified end of things, preferrably containing a distorted guitar or an overdriven Hammond B3 at the very least. I usually require a level of badassery as well. If it’s on this list, it is guaranteed to kick a little ass and leave the lutes and flutes and wimpish baroque balladry to pastoral folk prog like The Fairport Convention. If that’s your bag of tea, it has been overlooked and for that I apologize. There is plenty of stuff like that I like as well, but I don’t think it’s up for discussion on a website called “The Blood Sprayer.” Geeks of this stripe will all be in agreement that I have uncovered nothing new to them. These albums are all undeniably some of the best albums of the style, it’s a starter list for anyone who would be completely out to sea. The list is organized in no particular order, more or less to my whim as I went through my iTunes and rediscovered some of these gems that I was so obsessed with a few years back.
Il Rovescio Della Medaglia – Io Come Io
A bit of an anomaly in the Italian prog canon for it’s clunky, hairy Grand Funk Railroad circa ’69 production value and nearly “power trio” instrumentation. The vocalist plays flute on occasion, but that is the only instrument other than guitars, bass and drums. The bass tone on Io Come Io can only be described as rude. It’s that super overdriven Chris Squire-meets-Lemmy bass tone that refuses to take a back seat as part of the rhythm section. The guitars are recorded pretty raw and seem a little uncharacteristically out of tune at times, lending an uneasy truce with the bass while the frantic push-and-pull of the drummer suggests that no one really knows where the pocket should be. Production qualities like this are like catnip to me. The playing is precarious and headstrong and sounds like the performance could fly apart at any time. This is a dark horse album in the catalog and therefore cannot be recommended as a place to start, but an album to get into after you get a taste for it. It’s a total punch to the gut with fantastic playing throughout and a rewarding (if a wee bit short at 28 minutes) listen. Anyone who is a fan of the self titled Captain Beyond record would be really into this. The prevailing attitude is that the band’s third album, ‘Contaminazione’ is one of the best of the genre. It’s a concept album based on Bach and, unlike the first two albums, is extremely keyboard oriented. We’re talking harpsichords and shit. I’ve never met a harpsichord that I liked and therefore find that album to be nearly unlistenable. Io Come Io, on the other hand, fucking rips and gets listened to often.
Museo Rosenbach – Zarathustra
Zarathustra consistently tops lists, and rightly so. This album is up there with Il Balletto Di Bronzo – YS for bombastic, over the top drama. The A side is the 20 minute, 5 part epic “Zarathustra.” Museo Rosenbach, like many “holy grail” Italian prog groups, only got to make one album. It’s a through and through heavy-prog masterpiece with lots of dynamic, sweeping passages that go from feather soft hammond organ to crushing Sabbath heavy, all with a fleet footed fusion litheness. Avoid if you are allergic to Mellotrons. If you ARE allergic to Mellotrons, you are clearly lying and are a pussweed and should just get over yourself cuz Mellotrons rule. May Robert Fripp and Paul McCartney beat you with saps until you piss strawberry preserves. You’ll find plenty of talk around the internet surrounding this album. I haven’t read any of it.
Cervello – Melos
Yet another successfully keyboard free album. This is actually a deceptively beautiful record, quite unlike the rather unsavory opened can of stewed tomatoes on the front cover. Cervello’s lone release takes a few listens to get it all to sink in as it is probably some of the most complex music ever recorded. Tons of shifting rhythms that you don’t really notice at first because they were able to get everything to fit together so seamlessly. All 5 members are multi-instrumentalists, 4 of whom are credited with flute, so you have to be forgiving of flute. This is easily one of the most forward thinking albums of the genre. While most of the Italian prog scene were attempting to out ELP one another with 2 keyboard players, Cervello were barking up King Crimson’s tree and made a record that utterly SMOKES anything King Crimson ever touched. Tall words? Not tall enough if you ask me. Feel free to start on this album because Melos (to me) encapsulates everything that progressive rock in any era or area could accomplish. How does anyone sit down and write stuff like this?
Biglietto Per L’Inferno – Biglietto Per L’Inferno
I’m pretty sure the translation of this band name is Elevator To Hell. Sounds pretty hard rockin’ and it is. This is actually one of the tougher records of the genre. Plenty of organs and riffy, trashy, slashy heavy guitars give it more of a Deep Purple vibe. Incredible vocals. Great guitar work and some really catchy themes give this record a few extra bones to stick in your throat rather than make it go down all smooth like some of their more ‘symphonic’ contemporaries. I guess these guys gigged heavily and wound up being one of the most influential groups of the day.
Semiramis – Dedicato A Frazz
One of the ugliest album covers I have ever seen. One of my favorites of the genre though. More utter badassery on guitar courtesy of a 16 year old Michele Zarillo, who apparently went on to become a successful solo artist, songwriter and pop singer. This is seriously heavy stuff too, especially for Italian prog. Super rare at the time, but has come to be regarded as one of the strongest records of the era. Extraordinarily developed songwriting for such youngsters. Extremely dark stuff too. Anyone who dug up Ys based on Wes’s writeup last year would do well by digging this little gem up as well.
Osanna – Palepoli
Up there with Museo Rosenbach in unfuckwithability. Palepoli is another one that consistently tops lists as one of the greatest of the genre. This is for the “Topographic Oceans” and “Thick As A Brick” fans. 3 extremely long, dense tracks, The A side being an18 minute track and a 1:45 side-filler interlude. A 20 minute side long track fills the B side. Top flight playing and arrangement all the way through. There are some pretty interesting melodies and Mediterranean themes thrown in. I read that they were from Naples (southern Italy) and a lot of Mediterranean influence seeps into the folk music from that area, which makes for a nice contrast with some of the more Euroclassical material.
Alphataurus – Alphataurus
I think I am starting to get worn down by this point. It’s all starting to sound a little bit the same. It’s like trying to review wedding cake (another field of expertise for me.) What else can you say? “This one tastes like… cake… with frosting.” Lots of keyboards, lots of “proggy” stuff going on. Heavy handed anti-war artwork on the cover. Heavy handed tunes contained within. This was yet another one off record by a band that fell apart after the record was finished. It’s a pretty familiar story line with this stuff. Unearthed forgotten genius.
Notice the reviews get shorter and shorter as I go along? It’s clearly time to change things up for my sake. I haven’t even mention my favorite band of the entire genre. No time like the present I guess. They were a fusion quintet called Area. I didn’t think their music fit all that well with the rest of the groups I wrote about, but they do deserve some special attention. I don’t even know what to write about them, actually. When I was originally checking out a lot of this stuff and picking what my favorites were, (Ys, Melos et. al.) I heard Area and all the searching tapered off. Heavily Mediterranean/Turkish influenced Fusion jazz, with one of the most talented and visionary vocalists ever. Demetrios Stratos should be as important to the world as Freddie Mercury or Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and it is a crime that he is not. He died in 1979 and I guess the memorial concert drew 60,000 people in Rome. Area stand far and away from the rest of the more “European” influenced Italian prog movement as they took their cues more from Arabic and Persian influences, Ornette Coleman and Mahavishnu Orchestra. The group interplay on their 1975 live album Are(a)zione is up there with John Coltrane’s “Live At The Village Vanguard” making it my second favorite live album of all time in any genre (“Village Vanguard” being first. Are(a)zione is sandwiched between that and “Live After Death” from Iron Maiden.) The first five Area albums are absolutely essential to anyone who has a taste for the exotic:
Arbeit Macht Frei
Caution: Radiation Area
The big difference is that while the brunt of the Italian progressive rock catalog is really of interest to hardcore record collectors, the casually curious or craven prog fanatics, Area may have released some of the only truly “timeless” recordings of the era. While the rest of Italy was roiling in Keith Emerson/Rick Wakeman keyboard pomp, giving them an instantly dated sound (though excellent stuff nonetheless.) Area’s albums stood alone. Nothing sounded like them then, since, or today. Not only could they rip out some of the sickest playing ever, but they could still manage to be as funky as anything Parliament ever did, only they could do it in 14/8 time while Stratos yodeled leftist socialist rants in microtonal diplophony. (…And we got you, CC.)
There are still dozens of bands and albums that I have zipped right over without even so much as a mention. There were the absolute titans of the genre like Premiata Forneria Marconi who actually enjoyed success abroad, releasing albums on ELP’s Manticore label and touring overseas. There is the utterly brilliant “Felona e Sorona” from Le Orme, which was one of the most successful albums ever released in the genre, even being translated into English at one point. Banco Del Mutuo Soccorso were another one of the biggest bands of the era and they are still active today. Certainly one of the more “operatic” of the genre, but still one of the best. I’m sure by not understanding the Italian language, I am totally missing the point on a lot of this stuff (and you can too!!!) but the music really is everything I had ever heard it was.
If you want to get deeper into it, I recommend the English-friendly website, www.italianprog.com It’s packed with excellent writeups, short histories and detailed discographies on dozens of bands. You’re likely to find a little “gentle plagiarism” on my part as well (Hey, gimme a break, there aren’t many resources out there on this stuff.) If that doesn’t get you hot and bothered, then I guess you could still always click over to more articles about Dan O’ Bannon or Kane Hodder, no one will fault you for that here.