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"Is my face on straight?"
|Main Category:||Prog Rock|
|Also applicable:||Jazz Rock, Lush Pop|
|Starting Period:||The Interim Years|
|Also active in:||The Punk/New Wave Years, The Divided Eighties|
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Ah, Italian prog... doesn't that ring a bell? Not for the uninitiated, it doesn't. But if you're gonna initiate your way into Italian prog - like me - the most obvious choice for the neophyte as well as the seasoned pro is Premiata Forneria Marconi, a band that for a long long period kinda defined coolness, boldness, and a blatant and arrogant disregard for commerciality despite being named after their sponsor, a prominent Italian bakery. Others followed in their steed later or at about the same time (Banco del Mutuo Soccorso, etc.), but as far as my intuition tells me, Premiata Forneria Marconi, or PFM for short, are about the only Italian prog band to have really achieved something on the international scene.I actually find it rather strange that Italy, with all of its pompous status as one of the mother countries of classical music and all, has only managed to churn out ONE "universally important" prog-rock outfit throughout the entire movement, but then again, prog-rock is rock, and that means you have to sing in English, which bands of Roman origin (such as French or Italian) seem to do kinda reluctantly. PFM were an exception; starting their career in Italian, they eventually had the advantage of being caught up in the general prog scene and being spotted by Greg Lake and Pete Sinfield - the latter actually took care of promoting them and even translating, or, rather, uhm, "re-interpreting" their lyrics in English. In other words, the guy set them on the right path; and while connaisseurs usually state that PFM's best period coincided with their original Italian discs, the English period at least brought them under somewhat wider attention - face it, if not for Sinfield, not too many connaisseurs would have found out about Storia Di Un Minuto in the first place. The music of PFM still provokes difficult emotions within yours truly, though. They seem to have been suffering all the time from the typical "second generation prog complex", that is, trying to find a style of their own that would not reduce them to pale imitations of their betters - and whether they actually found it or not is hard to say. One thing is for certain: PFM are no "carbon copy" of any band that I could name. They drew their inspiration from a lot of sources, and were one of the few bands in the genre to freely mix rock, classical, folk, and jazz - including avantgarde improvisation - in one giant pot. All the band members were professional and dedicated musicians, although it would be hard to call any of those guys virtuosos; they seemed to understand that and rarely let any particular individual take the spotlight. This can lead to occasional moments of boredom - the endless interplay between the guitars, keyboards and violin can get annoying, yet at their best PFM's music never sounded all the same. In fact, sometimes it sounded so dang diverse that I'm still questioning myself as to what they really wanted to achieve apart from proving their ability to take on any particular theme. The best prog bands specialized in creating their own "worlds" - of cosmic fantasy, like Yes, or of half-medieval, half-absurdist Britain, like Genesis, or of the Apocalypse, like King Crimson. The "world of PFM" is a rabid mess that takes a whole lot of time to get used to and even then, you won't be all that sure what was it you got used to in the first place. For my standards, they definitely push the 'twisted' element of the music a bit too far; fortunately, much of this gets justified by the energy, dedication, and actual understanding of what they're playing. And - most important of all - relative lack of pretention; the lyrics, despite being written by Sinfield (English ones, I mean), aren't supposed to be taken into account at all, and the lack of extended self-indulgent solos with more emphasis on collective jam mode also works well for their reputation. In fact, even if PFM have to be classified under "prog" by all means, they are one of the very very few prog bands I've seen as revered by people with a penchant for more 'bold' and 'extreme' types of music who can't stand Yes or Genesis. PFM have actually hanged around for a long time - as far as I know, the band is still around in some form - but I'd say the 'casual' fan should stop somewhere around 1975; the band's first three Italian albums and two English 're-makes' are the cream of the crop, and the live Cook is also of some interest. As prog rock started to decline around them, though, the band too started getting less and less interesting, with a conscious, but pointless narrowing of the style and with the previously interminable pot of ideas almost exhausted. That doesn't mean that albums like Chocolate Kings and whatever followed don't have their moments - they do - but that's more for the dedicated fan to peruse. Lineup: Flavio Premoli - keyboards, vocals; Giorgio Piazza - bass, vocals; Franz di Cioccio - drums, vocals; Mauro Pagani - flute, violin, vocals; Franco Mussida - guitars, vocals. Piazza left, 1973, replaced by Patrick Djivas. Bernardo Lanzetti added on lead vocals, 1975. Pagani left, 1977, replaced by Gregory Block; Block left later in the year, replaced by Claudio Fabi and Robert Colombo, both keyboards. In PFM's case, thus, line-up changes were really indicative of musical problems as well, much unlike so many other prog bands, which are quite used to the 'revolving door' principle.
Listenability: 3/5. Pretty
accessible for a second generation prog band, but "complexity for
complexity's sake" CAN be a problem with these guys.
Resonance: 1/5. Nada. They command more respect from me than emotion.
Originality: 1/5. Nada. Prog rock existed before "the world became the world".
Adequacy: 3/5. Yeah, well, I guess, uh...
Diversity: 4/5. This one yields impressive results - their incessant evolution is part of their appeal.
Overall: 2.4 = * * on the rating scale.
READER COMMENTS SECTION
Year Of Release: 1972
Record rating = 9
Overall rating = 11
Maybe these guys aren't too certain of what they're doing themselves, but dang, they do it well.Best song: DOVE... QUANDO (both parts)
Track listing: 1) Introduzione; 2) Impressioni Di Settembre; 3) E' Festa; 4) Dove...Quando...(Parte I); 5) Dove...Quando...(Parte II); 6) La Carrozza Di Hans; 7) Grazie Davvero.
This is one definitely curious debut - Italian prog certainly knew its way to make an impression! I'd probably describe it best as a colourful, radiant melange of all styles and patterns, not exactly adequate, but for the most part, intriguing and attractive. In my general strategy of categorization, if you remember, I drew a rather strict line between "pure" art/prog-rockers and "experimental/weirdo" art/prog-rockers - a brief example is that while, say, the Soft Machine and Caravan both stem from the so-called 'Canterbury rock scene', the latter were oriented towards more traditional classical/folk values, drawing upon an emotional palette pretty familiar to art lovers around the world, while the former preferred to dabble in the unknown, experimenting with innovative rhythmics and scales and making the impression of 'groping in the dark' - thus making about half of their output look like pointless pretentious idiocy and the other half look like revolutionary genius. Well, this here band, the PFM, seems to embrace the basic musical inventory of "pure" art-rock, yet at the same time takes all the risky attitude of "experimental" art-rock as well. Which results in something that may not always be pleasant, but which is pretty unique most of the time.So what's this record about? Kill me on the spot, I dunno. It's got six middle-length compositions plus a brief 'Introduzione' (since this is the band's debut, all the track names and all the singing is naturally in Italian, which used to seriously bug me because Italian singing, unless we're speaking opera, is so closely associated with the San Remo Festival in my, and many other people's heads, that any Italian vocals immediately bring on a whiff of cheese for me! I got over it, though, eventually), anyway, six middle-length compositions none of which have any particular obvious sense or meaning or aim, yet none of which actually seem pompous and pretentious either. These guys have just the right amount of competence and self-assurance so as not to sound like ridiculous hacks a la Uriah Heep, yet they never engage in lightning-speed guitar battles or mind-blowing Wakemanish keyboard solos. What really bugs me is the way they present their material. It seems like they had a TON of melodies ready by the time they got to the studio, and instead of carefully elaborating upon some of them and saving the others for later, they decided to throw everything onto a record that doesn't even go over thirty five minutes. A song can begin like a "medievalistic rocker", then venture into a million sub-sections each of which goes for about thirty seconds and doesn't really feel closely connected to whatever is surrounding it. This leaves an atmosphere of complete and utter chaos and pointlessness - the saving grace is that most of these melodies are good, and when they aren't memorable they're at least moody, but even when they are memorable, it takes lots and lots of listenings to memorize them because they're so dang short. And that makes me so goddamn embarrassed. I respect this kind of musical inventiveness, but music should not only ring or speak, it should actually say something, and if anybody can tell me the message of the album (apart from 'look at us, we're Italians and we can play our instruments and make up melodies that can compete with questi pazzi Bretoni'), I'd be forever grateful. That said, don't get me wrong: Storia Di Un Minuto is pretty enjoyable listening, especially if you have something like Gentle Giant behind your shoulders already. My favourite part is probably the 'Dove... Quando' ('Where... When...') suite, that ends side one and begins side two on the original release. Part I is a gorgeous acoustic ballad, perhaps the most cohesive and 'reasonable' track on the entire release, and Part II is fully instrumental, a gazillion-part 'jam' (?) or 'collage' (?) from which I like to fish out some truly gorgeous moments, like, for instance, the 3:10-3:30 section with a tiny beautiful "synth climax" and, later, some excellent synth and electric piano passages from Flavio Premoli and impressive flutework from Mauro Pagani. Oh yeah, I should have mentioned these guys sure know how to use the Mellotron, too, and the record is actually far more dependent on piano, Hammond organ and Mellotron than on Moog, if that's a compliment for you. 'La Carrozza Di Hans' is pretty gripping too, in parts, establishing a certain mystical mood that I'd be hard pressed to find an analogy for. As for the actual rocking, you have 'E Festa', which begins like a pretty powerful rocker that actually borrows more from Irish jigs, so it seems to me, than from anything Italian in nature, although I could be mistaken. (Actually, if not for the singing, you'd never guess these guys were Italians - they must have spent so many days and nights listening to their British colleagues I could have sworn they were studying in the same art college with Peter Gabriel!). 'E Festa' later evolves into a very Genesis-like vocal melody backed by a powerful Mellotron... then, in a whoop and a swoosh, it is replaced by a chuggin' bass-'n'-drums rhythm section, then it goes away too, and gets replaced by a minute of acoustics, then it heads towards a symphonic climax, then it stops. That's just to give you a small impression of the headaches I've been experiencing through my first three listens (and it took MUCH more than three listens to get used to this stuff). Nevertheless, for a debut this one's pretty good. Not too many prog bands were able to establish their unique identity on first try, yet these guys were actually able to do it, and opened the floodgates for the Italian progressive scene in the process. Not that you'd know too much [good] Italian prog, of course, but your petty individual tastes are one thing, and freedom of expression is another! Give 'em Italian wankers some space, they deserve it.
READER COMMENTS SECTION
Year Of Release: 1972
Record rating = 9
Overall rating = 11
Shoot me if they ain't going for the Italian analogy of Gentle Giant!Best song: GENERALE
Track listing: 1) Appena Un Po'; 2) Generale; 3) Per Un Amico; 4) Il Banchetto; 5) Geranio.
The band's second album, in terms of scope and purpose, isn't much different from the first one. This is STILL music that I don't essentially "get", in that all of it is just a bit too much of an emotional and stylistic melange to assume any exact function. In other words, it's still weird and complex for the sake of weirdness and complexity essentially. That said, it is still essentially listenable and has a whole heap of musical and anti-musical ideas (there are even bits of avantgarde dissonance here amidst all the pseudo-classical splendour), and a minimum of pretention on the whole. Some actually prefer this to Storia, some even extol it as the greatest PFM album ever, but it's kinda hard to choose between this and its predecessor - they are that similar. Perhaps Per Un Amico is a little bit more mature in the technical sense; the band's armada of instruments has grown, and so has its grasp of different styles. Thus, despite having only five tracks, the record is obviously more diverse than its predecessor. But that can also be a problem - Amico is just too much all over the place. It's a typical 'musical dissertation', proving that yeah, indeed, PFM know all the basics of creating progressive rock and even have the soul and genius to do it, but are hardly able to make out their own idiosyncratic style. It's a great tribute to the genius of Yes, Genesis, and King Crimson, but no more than that.Still, let's dig a little deeper than that. The first two tracks on here are easily my favourite ones, both the most concise and the most memorable in terms of melody. 'Appena Un Po' opens with a rich Mellotron intro, then slides into some classical acoustic guitar from Franco Mussida, then transfers us to solid XVIIIth century with Flavio Premoli's harpsichord and Mauro Pagani's flute, and then, at 2:20 into the song, finally enters rock territory with an almost heavy bassline and crashing drums... the vocals arrive at around 3:00, when the song becomes a mild soft-rock flute-decorated ballad, and during the fourth minute, the Mellotron returns together with some faraway piccolo trumpet, but doesn't have too much time to it before it is replaced by a folksy guitar/synth interplay with medieval overtones, which is then joined by a monotonous flute part and finally collapses to give way to the soft-rock ballad again, which is then slowly engulfed by the rich, epic synth and Mellotron pattern again which finally gives way to a brief rush-to-the-end. Finale. Hmm. I re-read what I just wrote and I think I'm going slightly mad, like Mr Mercury would have said. What's that I wrote, 'most concise and memorable'? Wipe 'concise' out of here, please. Anyway, it's your dime now - this is what your average Premiata Forneria Marconi song sounds like. And the parts do flow together reasonably well. The second song, fully instrumental, is truly excellent, though. An energetic rocking number, with a really kick-ass guitar part, which actually borrows far more from jazz and funk than from classical, although at times you can hear the guitar distinctly wailing in unison with an equally kick-ass violin part. The mid-section, however, in true PFM style carries us into Elizabethan war march territory, and just a little bit Bach-style church organ for those who think this whole crap is really getting monotonous, and if that doesn't suit you, just a little bit free-style avantgarde improvisation, and then it all reverts to the original rockin' track. Pretty good, too, even if the Mothers of Invention circa 1974 could probably master all that stuff live as well. The other three tracks, particularly the two eight-minute compositions on Side B, start to wear down on me a little, though. The idea is obvious, and after the two first songs, there are no more surprises. The vocals are sparse; no melody really lasts longer than one and a half to two minutes in a row; and no, they do not tackle reggae or calipso or any of those minor littteeeel genres that could make your eyebrow jump up a couple of inches if you meet them on a record like this. But it always sounds nice and genteel. 'Il Banchetto' has a cool vocal melody, and near the end Premoli goes into a really long, really classical piano improvisation a la Keith Emerson... actually, he does that in 'Geranio', too, but 'Geranio' is maybe better because of that uplifting steady folksy shuffle... or maybe not. Anyway, they got everything, and they got this everything on every track. I realize according to my basic criteria, the rating is a bit high for an album I really respect more than enjoy, but I'll just have to say a couple more words in PFM defense - what makes them really different from lame prog imitators like Kansas is the lack of inflated dogmatism and pretentiousness, as well as an honest desire to really try and do something different and adventurous all the time instead of sticking to the lame hard-rockin' guitar/hi-tech synth routine. Per Un Amico may never really be uplifting and tear-jerking, but it is for the most part interesting, and completely unpredictable (within the genres they tackle, of course, but these are quite broad genres, really!). And the fact that it is almost completely instrumental actually works in favour of these guys - like I said, prog-rock singing in Italian just doesn't go off as well as your average English singing, even if this might just be my friggin' subjective opinion. But what would you be doin' here anyway? Reading the universal judgements of Baruch Spinosa?
READER COMMENTS SECTION
Year Of Release: 1973
Record rating = 10
Overall rating = 12
Popularizing the music among the Anglo-Saxon part of the population.Best song: MR 9 'TIL 5
Track listing: 1) River Of Life; 2) Celebration; 3) Photos Of Ghosts; 4) Old Rain; 5) Il Banchetto; 6) Mr. 9 'Till 5; 7) Promenade The Puzzle.
Damn the monopoly. (Actually, praise the monopoly, but later on that). This time, it's the English language monopoly I'm speaking of: good as PFM's first two albums were, they just weren't good enough to break the band big outside their Italian audiences. Dutch and German bands like Focus or Eloy had already submitted to the Anglo-Saxon monopoly, writing and singing in English; the proud French of Magma had declined, resorting to the invention of their own crazyass language instead, and thus became virtually secluded with their tiny cult following. PFM followed the simple route, and betrayed their Italian roots for the idea of popularity and - dare I say it? - commercial success.By 1973, the band was touring extensively, and established its own relationships with several prog heroes of the day; among those was Greg Lake, who agreed to sign the band to ELP's Manticore label. This gave them a chance to get promoted much more heavily than before - Photos Of Ghosts even managed to chart in the States, although the band hadn't even set foot there. Another vital meeting was with "rock poet" Peter Sinfield, who had just abandoned the company of King Crimson in order to associate himself with ELP; the guy graciously agreed to provide the band, none of whose members, apparently, were great connoisseurs of English poetry, rock or otherwise, with some of his lyrics ('leftovers'?). The only thing was that the band was rather slow on the move, and for their English debut, instead of writing new material, preferred to re-record the old one. As a result, what we get essentially is a slightly simplified copy of Per Un Amico, with one song carried over from Storia Di Un Minuto and only one entirely new composition. As for the singing, one tune ('Il Banchetto') remains in Italian, while for all the others Sinfield has bothered to write lyrics that don't seem to have any connection with the original whatsoever. Now here's the rub: most fans consider this record to be seriously inferior to the original recordings. In fact, it's often considered a sort of 'chic' thing to track down the Italian originals instead and spend the rest of your life digging those, rather than satisfying yourself with this 'second-hand' product. This is a perfectly rational and understandable position, yet I thoroughly disagree with it. True, in a purely musical sense the re-recordings are slightly inferior. They are usually shortened, they get some sections cut out from them and while I haven't spent any time seriously comparing the sessions, I do get an intuitional feeling that the arrangements aren't as rich and multi-layered as before, in fact, the whole album has a slightly rushed feeling to it. But if anything, this actually makes me happy. The music is still complex and evocative, and the melodies haven't dropped out or anything - in fact, with fewer overdubs and all, they sometimes come out clearer. 'River Of Life', for instance, the 'Appena Un Po' of the last record, becomes nearer to my heart by not looking any more like it was written exclusively to demonstrate how many different sections these guys could work into one tune. But, of course, the major improvement is the singing. Of course, it's obvious that English isn't their native language, as there's a very light tinge of the Italian accent still present in the singing of both Premoli and Mussida. But geez, the English singing actually fits these songs, and for once, they don't sound like they were all taking their lessons from Adriano Celentano or whoever else! I never thought there would come a day when I'd actually have to thank Peter Sinfield, the most notorious song-murderer of all time (just look at his pretentious nonsense for King Crimson!), for contributing lyrics, but I don't mind the lyrics, I love the way these guys sound when using it. Even the accent is cute - the weird breathy vocal tone on the title track (ex-'Per Un Amico') really helps adding to the fantasy atmosphere of the song. No, really, I'm serious. The one new track, 'Old Rain', isn't much of anything, just a moody little instrumental heavily relying on Mauro Pagani's violin and woodwind work, but it ain't uninteresting. As for the others I haven't mentioned, 'Celebration', as you could have guessed, is the older 'E Festa', and it still rocks just as powerfully as before; 'Il Banchetto' seems to have been 'pasted' on the record with minimum modifications, if any at all; 'Mr 9 'Till 5' is the older 'Generale', and I really don't understand why the title was changed even if it's just an instrumental; and 'Promenade The Puzzle' is 'Geranio', again, thoroughly benefited by the jump from Italian to English (not to be offensive - Italian is great for opera, but not for progressive rock. Subconscious associations are subconscious associations, and you can't just get rid of them like that). So that's it, in a nutshell. I know I'm not supposed to give this a higher rating than its predecessors, for lack of originality and all that, but what can I do? These versions improve on the originals. Besides, it'd probably be easier for you to find Photos Of Ghosts than Per Un Amico, and if you like this one, well, no one can stop you from hunting down the Italian original.
READER COMMENTS SECTION
Year Of Release: 1974
Record rating = 8
Overall rating = 10
Dissipating all the time... this album doesn't know where the hell it's going at any given minute.Best song: IS MY FACE ON STRAIGHT
Track listing: 1) The Mountain; 2) Just Look Away; 3) The World Became The World; 4) Four Holes In The Ground; 5) Is My Face On Straight; 6) Have Your Cake And Beat It.
Continuing in the same vein as the year before and re-recording their third Italian album (L'Isola Di Niente, which I don't have in the original version as of yet) in English, with some more lyrics by prog-rock's crook extraordinaire, Peter Sinfield. Ooh yeah, baby. Remember their very very first album had this cute little ballad with a slight San Remo flavour, 'Impressioni Di Settembre'? Apparently, Pete thought it would be appropriate to transmutate it into a fabulous prog epic, so he took the melody, wrote creative lyrics about creation and hoopla, you have something really grandiose out there in the title track. In fact, believe it or not, when listening to 'The World Became The World' (song), I get exclusive vivid reminiscences of the epic phase of King Crimson - 'In The Court...' and suchlike, and yet, I never had these visions all the while Sinfield wasn't involved in the tune. Damn the bastard.In any case, this song and its immediate predecessor, the cute little acoustic-and-violin ballad 'Just Look Away', are about the only two songs on the record which you can listen to without thinking, 'what the hell is going on?'. If you thought Per Un Amico was a complex album, you gotta take a listen to this. It's almost as if the whole band just started betting with each other on how many different sections one guy can incorporate into a song (preferably completely unrelated to each other) and still call it a song. There's hardly one musical genre they don't tap into on here - well, okay, so far I haven't been able to perceive any reggae and plus, being Italian and all, they're much too wimpy to rock really hard, but apart from that, they do everything. And it hurts. The music is almost completely devoid of any emotional basis that way, and when there is some emotional basis, you can't even hold on to the required mood for too long. After at least half a dozen listens I still wasn't able to memorize any of the songs - all I had in memory were some disjointed bits that sounded, like, uh, atmospheric and all. These are the ones I'd suggest looping over the entire album and leaving it that way. I admit to actually liking the one song that's called 'Is My Face On Straight'. While the others have the (basically) negative distinction of blowing the top of the Great Pot of Pompousness ('The Mountain'), or locking into pointlessly twisted jam mode ('Four Holes In The Ground', 'Have Your Cake And Beat It'), this one is, should I say it? rather playful and inviting. Almost psychedelically paranoid in a certain way, not least because of the title - but the music, while hardly being any simpler than anything else these guys had ever done, doesn't seem so aimless and meandering; there are some particularly charming - and catchy - vocal melodies throughout, and the best thing comes towards the end, in the guise of that last chunky-chunky four-four mid-tempo section with the luvverly accordeon and Mussida or whoever was on vocals that time intoning 'is my... is my... is my face on straight?' in such a dorky manner as could only fit the tongue-in-cheek attitude of the song. That's really a good one. But 'The Mountain'? First, you have about a minute and a half chorale singing, which is okay if you like that kind of thing but dammit, if I want that kind of thing, I can go to church or whatever. Then, when the main tune kicks in, it turns out to be a rather lame three-chord riff "power-prog" thing with ugly singing and a generic (slightly Yes-influenced) progressive guitar sound, then it meanders into realms of pure atmosphere with the guys showing us how many different instruments they can play and heavily borrowing from some classical composer I can't recognize, but at times they venture into really jazzy bits, and in the end you're absolutely clueless as to whether you were in for a philosophic progressive epic, a pseudo-classical mood piece, or a free jazz jam in the first place. (Kinda reminds me of the attempts to mix coffee and cocoa to attempt the 'ultimate potion' of all time - boy, did that taste like shit). 'Have Your Cake And Beat It' even tries out funky riffs occasionally, can you believe that? (Although the real 'funk breakthrough' wouldn't occur until later). But after the funky riffs, it goes into this "epic climax" again, with majestic becalmed guitars and seas of organs and other types of keyboards presenting a very deceitful end to the record - as if you were listening to some introspective, deep, universalist progressive statement, when in fact you were listening to a band that had so severely suffered from being unable to find a unique style that they finally stopped bothering and decided to make the LACK of style THEIR style. I think I said about the Crimson analogies already - didn't I mention that at times they sound particularly close to Yes on here? Did I? Or didn't I? I'm sure I could pick up Genesis references, too, but I'll save 'em for later. Still, I give it an 8, if only because none of this stuff is ugly, and the title track and 'Is My Face On Straight' are really worth something in my book - and hey, they were still close to the peak of their game, whatever that game really was. Note, too, that it was their last album with Sinfield. The guy doesn't seem to want to spend much time with his clients... or maybe vice versa? Yeah, definitely vice versa.
READER COMMENTS SECTION
Year Of Release: 1975
Record rating = 8
Overall rating = 10
Live and kickin'.Best song: CELEBRATION
Track listing: 1) Four Holes In The Ground; 2) Dove ... Quando ...; 3) Just Look Away; 4) Celebration; 5) Mr. Nine Till Five; 6) Alta Loma Five Till Nine.
The long-awaited live one (also available as Live In The USA, if I'm not mistaken). I suppose that the audience applause is the crucial moment of this album - heck, they could have taken some Rome show instead, but no, the important point was to show that they had actually been accepted by American audiences! (Except that part of the show was recorded at Toronto University, and another part at Schaefer Central Park Music Festival where they apparently weren't even the headliners, but let's skip that, shall we? I haven't done that much factchecking on their popularity in the States anyway, so don't crucify me).So... how were these guys live? Well, they kicked butt, which is good. Every half-decent prog band is supposed to be kicking butt on stage; otherwise, if they lack the grit and the chops, they end up being Uriah Heep. The real question is: which aspect of their live show makes a live album like that worth owning? Ah.. now there's the rub. Because really, the compositions are generally slightly inferior to the original versions. Only occasionally do they pump the energy level higher than expected - for instance, when Mussida showcases a really wild guitar overdrive on 'Four Holes In The Ground', one of the least interesting compositions off the last album (by the way, in case I forget to mention it later on, all the versions played here are entitled/sung in English, pretty humiliating for an Italian, I guess, but the only way to break the heart of the snubby American public. Oh, except for 'Dove... Quando', which has no English analogy, is trustily sung in the native lingua, gets the wildest audience applause and smashes all my nationalistic theories. So there. You never know where you're gonna end up once you've started)... ...anyway, I was saying that when they stick to their guns, aka the book, there's no real reason to worship these performances. Mussida's vocals also suck pretty much when he's not able to control himself by an endless number of takes - his singing on the faster part of 'Four Holes', for instance, seems like limp whining in comparison with the much more cleverly arranged studio overdubbing. Fortunately, the track selection doesn't allow him to sing all that much, and at least he handles the two ballads ('Dove... Quando' and 'Just Look Away') with enough fairness. The good news, then, is that there are many subtle and not so subtle touches in addition to the regular stuff - much more so than, say, on a regular Yes or Genesis live album. For instance, 'Celebration' unexpectedly gets a 'The World Became The World' coda (the mighty synth one that comes in as the climax after each verse in the original); also, the song is perhaps the only one that really benefits from the "rough clumsy edge" that the live performance brings. I've always liked the tune - after all, it was by far the most purposeful and energy-oriented number the guys ever did, and when they crank up the distorted guitars and the speedy Emersonlike synthesizers, it rocks real hard, and then there's that unexpected coda, hah. Elsewhere, 'Just Look Away' gets a lengthy classical guitar introduction from Mussida, demonstrating his rather unique picking style (I'm no expert, but at one point it almost seems like he's picking out a main classical melody on the lower strings while fidgeting in almost free-jazz style on the higher ones). And after they run through the predictable solid rendition of 'Mr Nine Till Five' (ex-'Generale', that is), they rush straightahead into a lengthy half-improvised fifteen-minute jam entitled 'Alta Loma Five Till Nine', parts of which sound like they belong on a John McLaughlin record or something like that. Mussida and Pagani both get very lengthy solos on that one - they're normal solos, not dissonant or anything, but still, highly professional and occasionally can get you moving if you turn the volume up really loud. I particularly like Pagani's solo here; not too many rockers in this world can make their violin rock that hard - maybe that Gentle Giant dude could, and maybe Eddie Jobson on a couple Roxy Music tunes, but overall, Pagani's playing is excellent, and when they join together with Mussida in a duel, it's, er, prog excitement at its most exciting? Whatever. They're still going a bit too long with this stuff, but at least have the sense to end this on an ironic note with the famous theme from Rossini's 'William Tell Overture'. (But what's up with that spooky bassline on the tenth minute? Isn't it ripped off of Andrew Lloyd Webber's 'Heaven On Their Minds' or did I hear something funny?). Anyway, there's some arguments pro and some arguments contra, and on the whole I have yet to find a prog live album that would shake down my foundations (unless you're talking Absent Lovers, woohoo! But that wasn't really "prog" in the classic sense). But at least the track listing is good, all good stuff they're playing, none of that boredom like 'Have Your Cake And Beat It'. The photos are really cool too (no theatric elements whatsoever! just a bunch of hard-workin' sweaty Italian guys kickin' the shit out of their instruments), although I have to question the choice of the album cover. Are the colourful snakes in the pan supposed to mean somethin' or what?
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Year Of Release: 1975
Record rating = 7
Overall rating = 9
TYPICAL late Seventies prog here - you'll like it only if you'll really want to like it.Best song: HARLEQUIN
Track listing: 1) From Under; 2) Harlequin; 3) Chocolate Kings; 4) Out On The Roundabout; 5) Paper Charms.
I suppose at this particular point in history I should remind the readers that Genesis were really really popular in Italy (still are, actually). There was something about that band's music that really struck a chord in the hearts of Italians - whatever it was, it's not really up to me, more like up to a professional culturologist to deduce, but the fact remains the fact: Genesis were big in that country (which I dearly love, but that's a matter for yet another story), and the lads were always happy to play there, at least in their progressive days.Now you want to ask me what the hell I am talking about. Now you just listen here. PFM's third English-sung album, Chocolate Kings, brings up huge changes for the band. They disconnect their collaboration with Sinfield (apparently, Mussida and Pagani have mastered the art of writing pretentious lyrics in English pretty well themselves) and for the first time, release a new studio album that has no Italian analogy. But the most important innovation is the addition of new lead vocalist, Bernardo Lanzetti, a guy who sings - get this - exactly in the same way as Peter Gabriel. Coincidence? I think not. Of course, he can't out-Gabriel Gabriel, that's for certain. He hasn't got such a great mastery of vocal tones and styles as The Man, and he prefers to emulate Peter's raspy screechy tone rather than anything else, which gets on your nerves pretty soon. But it ain't a particularly annoying vocal tone either, even if for the life of me I can't understand why the heck did Mussida and company think they needed a new lead vocalist - sure, the band's singing never was THAT great, but it fitted the music and who really gave a damn about them singing anyway. Maybe, seeing as how Peter Gabriel's Genesis had just bitten the dust, they hoped to fill in the empty niche (before Phil Collins' Genesis stepped in, that is)? Who can tell? Anyway, that's hardly bad news by itself - the bad news is that Chocolate Kings suddenly pushes PFM from one extreme to another. On their previous albums, they were trying to do everything at once; here, EVERY single tune seems to sound the goddamn same. Mid-tempo complex prog-rock with a heavy keyboards / guitar / flute / violin presence, with no particular instrument particularly prominent, no particularly sharp-edged melodies, no particularly aggressive or particularly becalmed spots, and no other particularities I can particularly think of. It's almost like a different band, a band that has all of a sudden totally lost the wish to experiment. Okay, so call me a guy who's very tough to satisfy - I didn't much care for the band's excessive experimentation earlier on, and now I'm complaining about the lack of experimentation, but dammit, I can't stand extremities, and PFM seem to have been nothing but extremities. Sono pazzi questi Italiani! Oh well, at least we're not in Kansas territory yet. To really cross over and land in an endless sea of yucky muck, PFM would have needed to name all their songs 'Song For The Shaitan' and 'Pearl At Swine', bring in more of those cheesy cheesy synths, maybe throw in a Skynyrd-ish rocker once in a while, and we'd be all set. As it is, Chocolate Kings has its moments - for instance, 'Harlequin' is a really cool tune, slowly progressing with a slow "moderately powerful" melody, but then the energy takes over and the band engage in a superb hard-edged jam, with Pagani going mad on his violin, Mussida throwing in 'astral' guitar lines and that new guy, Lanzetti, giving out his best 'Supper's Ready' impersonation (the hot parts of the suite, I mean). The title track is kinda cute as well, short and almost poppy in a sense... maybe even boppy, I'd say, taking its clue from 'Celebration/E Festa', although, of course, nowhere near as involving. The guitar/violin interplay is amazing, though - just watch how those passionate guitar riffs slowly converge with the violins! Watch and wonder! It's the only short tune, though, because the rest all go over seven minutes: the band was by no means selling out or anything like that. All the songs are multipart, too, but that doesn't particularly matter (you won't remember more than one part out of each anyway), with 'From Under' playing the part of "epic opener", the already-mentioned 'Harlequin' the part of "magnum opus", 'Out On The Roundabout' playing the part of 'complex introspective ballad', and 'Paper Charms' the part of 'closing universal anthem destined to leave you holding your head in your hands and wishing you were someplace else'. I won't even try to describe any of them separately, though, as I've already said everything here sounds the same. Count it as, uhm, the band's Wind & Wuthering, to continue the Genesis analogy, almost equally unmemorable but with far lesser pretentions and with far more decent instrumentation (God bless Premoli for staying ever away from Banksynths!). Diehard prog fans will need this and love this; we the mere mortals will probably just say, 'yeah, uh, like, cool violin playing, now can we put on some Flaming Lips or sumpthin?' But in any case, nothing, nothing ever will be enough to help me understand this radical change of music conception in less than a year's time. Ah well, to quote and Web-style paraphrase an even unluckier band than PFM, 'all 'em jizzers are is dust in the wind'.
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Year Of Release: 1977
Record rating = 7
Overall rating = 9
The reverence towards Genesis is understood, but is it REALLY necessary to extend it to Brand X as well???...Best song: MERIDIANI
Track listing: 1) Peninsula; 2) Jet Lag; 3) Storia In "La"; 4) Breakin In; 5) Cerco La Lingua; 6) Meridiani; 7) Left-Handed Theory; 8) Traveler.
Before doing anything else, I would like to translate - without permission, so throw me to the lions! - the brief music-philosophy paragraph printed in my liner notes in Italian (other copies may have it in English, I dunno): "JET LAG: When a great change happens within an extremely short period of time, man's capacity for adaptation doesn't seem to suffice any more. Being in a state of 'jet lag' means to experience this sensation after a swift journey across the meridians. We think it also possible to speak of a 'jet lag' as a consequence of a momentary change in the overall cultural situation as well. We believe that, in order to be able to move through a world of experience, it is important to slowly assimilate and, through one's own nature, filter the relations, the realities, and the ideas that happen to involve us in this world'. Something to that effect. See, my Italian's hardly rusty! (Drum roll).Now, given that this paragraph, as well as the album it accompanies, was created in 1977, it'd be only natural to suppose that the 'momentary change' our clever Italians are referring to is the punk revolution, and the 'slow assimilation' they're hinting at means finding a clever way to guide progressive rock through the hurricanes of punk so as to find new fans without losing old ones. But as it turns out, most of Jet Lag was actually recorded in the early months of 1977, by which time said revolution was only just brewing on the horizon - and unless the PFM people had someone with gypsy blood in their midst, endowed with the gift of foresight, they simply could not be referring to that. Besides, the actual music of Jet Lag suggests nothing of the sort. Not only is it totally ignorant of any new trends in pop music that might have been visible in early '77, be it disco, CBGB, or Bowie's 1976 brand of "Euro-funk", it actually moves in a direction that was decidedly against the general spirit of the 'overall cultural situation' in 1976-77: namely, in the direction of jazz-rock/fusion. Jazz influences had always been an essential part of PFM's pedigree, but Jet Lag decidedly goes through the roof with these things. As the quantity of classical and folk elements in the music steadily declines, so does it start to resemble late period Soft Machine or early period Brand X rather than anything that PFM's prog teachers proper were doing at the time. No doubt about it, prog rock was in a state of crisis in 1977. And PFM's decision to move away from the by-now-somewhat-obsolete overblown symphonic forms of it was a positive one - only a complete dork would still be releasing albums with titles like The World Became The World in this epoch of scepticism, disillusionment, and idol breakdown. But fusion? I don't hate fusion myself, but isn't fusion a rather, uh, faceless genre? And not just because you can't really have a popular hit with fusion (I think PFM actually tried to heavily promote 'Left-Handed Theory' from this album, but naturally it didn't work), but because all fuckin' fusion sounds the fuckin' same? Okay, no need to take that last line to heart, but every gross exaggeration has a grain of truth. As a fusion album, Jet Lag is tolerable and acceptable. But it just isn't... necessary. It's good in the historical sense, since it somehow delayed PFM's total creative decline. It's good in the "biographical" sense, because it showed that in addition to convincingly tackling all those other forms, PFM could convincingly tackle the fusion form, which, unlike 'basic' prog, always requires extra-good playing skills (I mean, symph-prog will always be bad if you lack the chops to play it, but fusion will simply not exist if you lack the chops to play it - feel the difference!). It's good in the "generic entertainment" sense, because it works as solid background music which can only get offensive if you get offended by Lanzetti's cotinuing impersonation of "Peter Gabriel And His Chronic Throat Disease", and since so many numbers on here are purely instrumental, even that problem gets easily solved. But other than that, I'm stumped. After an endless number of listens, only three tracks manage to make any serious impression - not surprisingly, exactly those three that refuse to follow the jazz-rock 'pigeonholization' more ardently than the others. 'Peninsula' opens the album with two and a half minutes of pretty acoustic guitar, playing some kind of a colourful melange of folk, classical, and jazz patterns, really giving no straightforward hints at what's gonna follow. 'Meridiani' is also notable for Mussida's prominence, now on the electric, playing extended, hard-rocking (or should I say "hard-jazzing"?) solos that actually display power, if little else. And the concluding 'Traveler' is an impressive half-anthemic conclusion to the album, again, sounding not unlike something from Genesis' 1976-77 period, but with the most emphasis on guitars, almost like a veiled tribute to Steve Hackett. Everything else sounds way too similar and expendable to my ears. So the title track goes on for nine minutes in true prog tradition - big deal! Apart from the short "gentle" mid-section, all crumpled by Lanzetti's trembling vocal delivery, it's just the same fusion jamming as ever. They have a new violin player, Gregory Bloch, who seems to have been hired under the condition that he should never try to do anything flashy or simply half-way interesting with his instrument. (Not that it ever helped him make any big bucks, I'm a-guessin', which must explain his quitting the band in between this and the following album). Only on 'Cerco La Lingua' do you actually notice that yes, they actually put their violinist to some use. Likewise, Premoli's batteries of pianos and organs never get out of line either. In fact, apart from Mussida's impressive soloing on 'Meridiani', the only player I'm seriously impressed by on this album is Patrick Djivas, whose fretless bass helps most of these compositions at least get off the ground. Alas, after getting off, they seem never to fly any higher than the paper airplane on the front cover. So what's up with the whole "jet lag" theory? If we are to directly link the contents of the liner notes with the actual music on the album, this can only mean that PFM made one collective fool of themselves by mistaking jazz-rock as the direction in which intelligent music would start heading after the "demise" of more traditional progressive rock. They made an even bigger collective fool of themselves by recording the album in the States and trying to promote it there - they could as well record an album of all-acoustic Woodie Guthrie covers. Fact is, the heyday of fusion in 1977 was just as long gone as the heyday of symphonic prog, which makes Jet Lag much more anachronistic than, say, Yes' Going For The One - a far more successful 1977 attempt to 'modernize' progressive sounds. With a new direction like this, Premiata Forneria Marconi had no hopes of commercial survival, and the belated realization of that led to their even more precipitous decline in the ensuing years.
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