Italian Progressive Rock, Part Two: Le Orme

Le Orme (“The Footprints”) is one of the most successful and prolific of the Italian progressive rock bands. From their inception in 1966 through the last decade, they have continued to create compelling music (with a few stumbles along the way). Note: All translations from Italian are from Google Translate.

They released their first album in 1969, but from the cover art and sound you would think it was created several years earlier. The music is much more psychedelic than progressive, and the cover design is close enough to that of Cream’s Disraeli Gears to be considered an homage, if one wants to be charitable.

On this album, the group was a five-piece, with Aldo Tagliapietra on vocals, Antonio Pagliuca playing keyboards, guitarist Nino Smeraldi, bassist Claudio Galieti, and drummer Michi Dei Rossi. “Oggi verrà” (Today Will Come), from Ad gloriam (“To Glory”) gives you an idea of where they were at the time.

 

Prior to the recording of their second LP, Collage, Smeraldi and Galieti left the band. Vocalist Tagliapietra took over playing bass and acoustic guitar, and their new incarnation as a trio would continue through the next three studio releases, earning them comparisons to Emerson, Lake & Palmer. Everything about Collage was a big departure from their psychedelic roots, including a change to major label Philips. Noted Italian composer and producer Gian Piero Reverberi was brought in to oversee the recording. The title track sounds a lot like an ELP fanfare.

 

The album reached the top ten on the Italian charts and garnered a fair amount of radio play. The song “Sguardo verso il cielo” (Look to the Sky) was quite popular, as the audience reception to this Italian television performance with orchestral backing clearly shows (I am assuming the pianist is Reverberi):

 

It remains one of their most iconic compositions, as demonstrated by this live performance from 2010 (with drummer Carlo Bonazza and guitarist Tolo Marton):

 

Collage was followed by Uomo di pezza (“Ragman”), which hit number one. Producer Reverberi added piano on one track. Here’s “La porta chiusa” (The Closed Door), a typical cut from that album:

 

At this point, they were already considered one of the premier Italian progressive bands. A 1972 tour found them performing along with Peter Hammill (of the British progressive group Van Der Graaf Generator). Hammill’s label Charisma took an interest in Le Orme, and they wound up recording an English-language version of their next record, Felona e Sorona, for release outside of Italy. Hammill, himself, translated the Italian lyrics that told a tale of two planets (Felona and Sorona) whose mood and fate alternated between happiness and sorrow, depending upon whether they had the attention of a supreme being.

 Felona e Sorona is widely considered their masterpiece and an essential addition to any progressive rock collection. This link gives you the full album, but you can choose individual tracks in the right-hand column:

 

To capitalize on their popularity as a live act, they released In Concerto in 1974, with a 22-plus-minute track called “Truck of Fire.” The album was not well recorded, and the first 17 minutes are comprised of a rather intense, noisy, chaotic jam complete with a long drum solo, so I’ll spare you this one. 

On their fifth album, Contrappunti (“Counterpoints”), producer Reverberi briefly became a member of the band, playing piano. The title track is, again, very reminiscent of ELP once it gets going:

 

“La fabbricante d’angeli” (The Manufacturer of Angels) is another fine cut from the album:

 

The next album represented big changes for the group. They went to Los Angeles to record 1975’s Smogmagica, and added a guitarist, Tolo Marton, to the band. The cover art was done by painter Paul Whitehead, whose work has graced album covers for Genesis, Peter Hammill, and Van Der Graaf Generator, among others. Reverberi continued as producer, but did not play on the record. Smogmagica had a somewhat more commercial rock sound, and was not as well received as the previous few albums. Nonetheless, two tracks are among my favorites. Here’s the rocking “Los Angeles”:

  

“Laserium Floyd” lives up to its name as a dreamy, spacy instrumental:

  

Verità nascoste (“Hidden Truths”) was their seventh studio album, marking a return to their earlier style. Guitarist Tolo Marton had left the band before this recording. He was replaced by Germano Serafin, who would continue as a member for the next three albums. The title track even utilizes a string quartet. “Insieme al concerto” (Together at the Concert) kicks off the record with all the hallmarks of classic Le Orme enhanced by Serafin’s electric guitar:

 

“Regina al Troubadour” (Regina at the Troubadour) features some well-controlled electric guitar feedback near the end:

 

Storia o leggenda (“History or Legend”) features the same lineup as Verità nascoste, along with strange cover art by the same people who had done Uomo di pezza. The album has two very different moods. The music on the first side is a mostly lighter, almost wimpy, version of their classic sound. Here’s the title track:

 

Side Two is something else entirely. New sounds and off-kilter rhythms show up throughout.  “Se io lavoro” (If I Work), which leads off the second side, is propelled by sequenced synthesizer riffs that are highly reminiscent of the work of Jean-Michel Jarre (Oxygène) or Ray Lynch (Deep Breakfast).

 

“Al mercato delle pulci” (At the Flea Market) yo-yos between Philip Glass-like percussion and heavy, ominous guitar, bass, and drums.

 

Le Orme moved in yet another direction for 1979’s Florian, their ninth studio release. Predating the “Unplugged” phenomenon, they went all-acoustic for this one. There were no personnel changes, but the addition of violin and cello to their instrumental arsenal (as well as the return of Gian Piero Reverberi as co-producer and engineer) resulted in a completely different sound. The instrumental title track clearly demonstrates their versatility.

 

Piccola rapsodia dell’ape (“Little Bee Rhapsody”) from 1980 sounds a lot like Florian with a touch of the first side of Storia o leggenda. Missing again are the heavy keyboards and guitar. Guitarist Serafin would leave after this release. “Fragile conchiglia” (Fragile Seashell) is typical of the album.

  

Despite having reverted to their original lineup as a trio, the sound of 1982’s Venerdi (“Friday”) bears little resemblance to what came before. They were obviously going for a less progressive, more new wave style. Several tracks even use electronic drums. This lip-synched TV performance of “Marinai” (Sailors) is almost embarrassing in light of what they had done in the past (but don’t they look stylish!):

 

I have to admit that it’s rather catchy the second time through, but it’s not what their fans were hoping for. The trio broke up after this album, and briefly re-formed in 1986, but the next album wasn’t released until years later.

1990’s Orme was, sadly, a continuation of their flirtation with new wave stylings and lightweight pop compositions. The trio was augmented by a number of musicians and vocalists.  “L’indifferenza” is typical of the tracks on Orme:

  

Toni Pagliuca left the band and was replaced by two keyboardists, Michele Bon and Francesco Sartori, for Il fiume. Bon had been one of the supplemental players on the last album, and he plays a mean guitar synth. Thus began a resurgence of sorts, with this record and the next two (not counting 1997’s Amico di ieri – an album of re-makes of earlier songs) forming a trilogy of sorts. Il fiume was released in 1996, and the band came to America for a few gigs. I saw them perform in the basement of Johnny Foley’s Irish Pub in San Francisco, a most unlikely venue, and they were quite good. The entire album is linked here:

 

Elementi featured cover art once again by Paul Whitehead. Keyboard player Sartori was replaced by Andrea Bassato, who also plays violin. The album is broken up into four parts, representing wind, earth, rain, and fire. Each part begins with an “element dance.” The opening track, “Danza del vento” (Wind Dance) starts with a synthesizer blast straight out of the ELP tone book:

  

The third album in the trilogy, L’infinito, finds the four members augmented by a chorus and a string quartet. As before, Paul Whitehead provides the cover art. The title track has a heavy, orchestral feel:

 

“Si puo’ immaginare” starts out soft and sweet, but builds to a rousing finale:

 

2011’s La via della seta (“The Silk Road”) is the first Le Orme album without singer and bassist Aldo Tagliapietra, who retired in 2009. With one original member left, drummer Michi Dei Rossi, the band continued with Michel Bon and new bassist Fabio Trentini. Others on the recording are guitarist William Dotto and keyboard player Federico Gava. Still in need of a lead vocalist, they recruited Jimmy Spitaleri from the band Metamorfosi to sing on the album and in live performances. Although Spitaleri’s strong voice is deeper than Tagliapietra’s, it works well with the sound of the band, as evidenced in the title track:

  

The instrumental “Serinde” opens with a very Asian feel, then moves into more familiar Le Orme territory:

 

In 2016, the trio of Bon, Dei Rossi, and Trentini revisited Felona e Sorona. They re-recorded the entire album as a double, in both Italian and English, with Trentini providing the vocals. His singing is closer to the sound of Tagliapietra than Spitaleri. The redone versions are reasonably faithful to the originals, except for the addition of some extended instrumental sections and an unnecessary drum solo in the first track. Personally, I’d stick with the first release.

One year later, Dei Rossi alone put together Classic Orme, a third re-imagining of tracks from various albums, this time with classical arrangements (by Dei Rossi himself).  Strings, flute, trombone, percussion, and keyboards provide the instrumentation, and vocals are courtesy of tenor Eero Lasorla and soprano Marta Centurioni. Not being a fan of classical/operatic singing, this one doesn’t work for me.  (There do not appear to be any samples on YouTube.)

2019’s Sulle ali di un sogno might be a new record (in two senses). Yet again, Dei Rossi and Bon team up for a run through previously released songs, this time with new guitarist Ivan Geronazzo and bassist/vocalist Alessio Trapella. David Cross (of King Crimson) contributes violin on a number of tracks, and Lasorla and Francesca Michielin provide vocals on one song each. The end result is mostly a blend of the sound of Classic Orme and the other acoustic albums. Here’s Trapella singing on the title track (one of the few with electric instruments):

  

Michielin does a nice vocal turn on “Gioca di Bimba,” originally from Uomo di Pezza:

 

In the next installment of Italian Progressive Rock, you’ll get a brief introduction to a few of the other great Italian bands from the 1970s. I’ll leave you with Le Orme’s smoking concert performance from 2005 in Pennsylvania. The lineup is Dei Rossi on drums, Tagliapietra on vocals, bass and 12-string, with Bassato and Bon on keyboards. This is where you’ll see and hear Michele Bon’s incredible chops on the guitar synth:

 

Header image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.