Sensations, Arts and Crafts: Italian Progressive Rock, Part Three

Sensations, Arts and Crafts: Italian Progressive Rock, Part Three

Written by Rich Isaacs

In this installment, I’ll introduce you to two very different bands that still fall under the general category of progressive rock.

Sensations’ Fix is not your typical Italian rock band, with a mostly instrumental sound more in common with German electronic “krautrock” than typical progressive rock outfits. Leader Franco Falsini had been a part of the Italian rock scene since the mid-sixties. He moved to England, forming a band that would return with him to Italy, only to break up shortly thereafter. He subsequently relocated to America (Virginia, of all places) and built a crude recording studio in which he created demos that would become the basis of a rare self-titled Sensations’ Fix 1974 promotional album on Polydor, as well as the band’s first commercial release, Fragments of Light. American drummer Keith Edwards and Italian-American bassist Richard Ursillo fleshed out the group.

Many of the tracks are spacy, trance-like compositions with titles such as “Nuclear war in your brain,” “Space energy age,” and “Windopax and the stone sender.” Don’t ask me to make sense of that last one… One of the nicer cuts is “Music is painting in the air”:



An interesting side note about the album is that there’s a quote from Falsini on the back cover of the LP that reads: “Dear Robert, you’ll be glad to know that the heavenly music corporation is here, too.” Falsini is referring to Robert Fripp of King Crimson, who, along with Brian Eno (late of Roxy Music), recorded an electronic instrumental album in 1972 entitled (No Pussyfooting). Track one on that record was a side-long piece entitled “The Heavenly Music Corporation.”

The group had relocated to Italy prior to the recording and release of their second LP, Portable Madness. It was produced by Filippo Milani and engineered and mixed by Falsini on a TEAC 4-track in his own studio near Florence, resulting in less-than-stellar sound quality. Nevertheless, it is considered by many to be their best effort, with nary a vocal track to be found. Falsini’s penchant for bizarre song names continued with such titles as “Leave My Chemistry Alone,” “Strange About the Hands,” and “Pasty Day Resistance.” “Fullglast” shows one side of their sound:



Franco Falsini recorded an instrumental solo album in 1975, Cold Nose (Naso Freddo), the soundtrack to the short film of the same name that was made by producer Milani. The sound is very much like Sensations’ Fix, minus the drums. Robert Fripp’s influence is quite evident on this one (along with a generous portion of Terry Riley):



In 1976, Sensations’ Fix became a quartet with the addition of keyboard player Stephen Head. Their next album, Finest Finger, included a number of vocal tracks, all sung by Falsini. One of those songs is “Strange About Your Hands,” a reworking of the similarly titled track from Portable Madness.



“Map” is an instrumental track, and it features some more energetic than usual drumming from Keith Edwards:



Boxes Paradise, their next album, is much more of a “rock and roll” record, and a real departure from what came before. It was their first to feature vocals on every cut, with lyrics written by one Melanie Faith. Falsini is not a particularly strong vocalist, and the lyrics are not compelling enough to make up for that. The opening track, “The Flu,“ will give you a representative sample:



1977’s Visions Fugitives (a title inspired by the collection of Prokofiev piano pieces of the same name) was the only Sensations’ Fix album to debut on an American label – the short-lived All Ears Records. It was also part re-hash and part new material. “The Flu” reappears with a slightly funkier beat as “She’s Gonna Grow on You,” and “Fix a Drinking Fountain” concludes with an instrumental section called “Cold Nose Flashback.” Even the title track is a re-working of a cut with the same name from Boxes Paradise. Keyboardist Head takes over on drums for most tracks, with Marco Marcovecchio spelling him on two cuts. Keith Edwards also appears on one song. I can’t let this one go without mentioning a couple of other song titles – “Secret Orders for Operation Brainstorm,” and “Warped Notions of a Practical Joke.” Here’s the latter:



Flying Tapes, a 1978 release, is a compilation of re-mixed tracks from throughout their career. It is also labeled as the soundtrack to a television broadcast entitled “La Casa del Sole” (The House of the Sun).

In 1979 the band tried one last shot at commercial success, re-naming itself Sheriff (not to be confused with a Canadian rock band of the same name from the 1980s). It was released on a very obscure label called Observatory (again, not the same as later companies using that name from Italy and Russia). The lineup was Falsini, Ursillo, and Edwards, with the addition of another guitarist, Frank Filfoyt. It was, unfortunately, another forgettable effort along the lines of Boxes Paradise. The lyric sheet/inner sleeve includes a handwritten exhortation from Falsini to “Play It Loud!” (Spoiler alert: It Doesn’t Help!). I’ll admit, though, it’s hard to pass up song titles such as “Infall Defrauders and Audiphones” and “Girl With Optional Eyes.” Here’s the latter:



In my opinion, the best of Sensations’ Fix is to be found on the albums Fragments of Light, Portable Madness, and Finest Finger. In conclusion, check out this trippy live performance (with some obviously pre-recorded material) of “Strange About Your Hands” from 2013:



The second of our Italian bands in this installment straddles the line between progressive rock and jazz/rock fusion. Arti & Mestieri (“Arts and Crafts”) was an incredibly accomplished six-piece, primarily instrumental outfit consisting of Gigi Venegoni (guitar/synthesizers), Giuseppe (Beppe) Crovella (keyboards), Giovanni Vigliar (violin/vocals/percussion), Arturo Vitale (saxes/clarinet/vibes), Marco Gallesi (bass), and Furio Chirico (drums). Clear influences include both King Crimson and Mahavishnu Orchestra.

Chirico put together Arti & Mestieri around 1974 in Turin, after having played with a number of groups, the most recent being The Trip, an ELP-style trio with whom he recorded two albums. I guarantee you have never heard or seen a drummer like Furio Chirico. Although his drum set is arranged in a conventional right-handed layout with the high-hat on his left, his traditional stick grip is reversed, and he uses his left hand for the high-hat. He plays with a speed and style that sets him apart – flashy, but tasteful. In 1977, I had the opportunity to speak with PFM drummer Franz di Cioccio (no slouch, he), and I asked him if Chirico was really that fast. He replied “Yes, but sometimes I think he is too fast, and loses the feeling.” I can’t say that I agree. Watch this jaw-dropping clip of him performing to a backing track at a music clinic:



Arti & Mestieri’s debut album, Tilt, came out in 1974 on the Italian label Cramps (which featured Frankenstein’s monster in its logo), and it’s a killer. Most of the tracks flow into one another. The tragedy is that such great music was poorly recorded (another example of this would be Soft Machine’s 1975 album Bundles, which featured Allan Holdsworth before he became well-known). Side two begins with a brief instrumental intro called “Farenheit” that leads into the album’s centerpiece, “Articolazioni” (Articulation). Here is “Articolazione,” all 13-plus minutes of outstanding music:



Oddly enough, the short title track is the only weak spot on the record. It’s a strange collection of synthesizer bloops and bleeps with other instrumentation and random callbacks to bits of the other compositions.

Their second album, Giro di valzer per domani (“Waltz Ride for Tomorrow”), came out a year later, and was much better recorded. The instrumental tracks were more jazz-inflected than those on Tilt. For whatever reason, like PFM, they felt the need to add a different vocalist, Gaza Gianfranco. To my ears, he was not an improvement, but again, there are only a few tracks with vocals. The second cut on the LP is “Mirafiori”:



“Sagra” features a breathtakingly high-speed guitar/bass/drums workout:



Five years would pass before another Arti & Mestieri album would be made, featuring new members Claudio Montafia on guitar, Marco Cimino on keyboards, and a number of guest vocalists. Venegoni, Crovella, and Vigliar were no longer with the band. This resulted in a major stylistic shift away from fusion toward what I call “happy jazz,” easy to listen to and easy to ignore. Bass player Gallesi seems stuck in a funk/jazz mode. If you listen to “Arti,” you’ll see what I mean:



It’s worth listening to the whole 2:36 (or skipping ahead) to let the next video, “Alter Ego,” play  – you’ll see the contrast. Going back to Quinto Stato, here’s a vocal track, ”D’Essay,” to drive my disappointment home:



In 1983, Chirico remade Arti & Mestieri with a completely new set of sidemen for the all-instrumental, live-in-the-studio album Acquario. This one has a jazzier, more horn-based sound, featuring Siro Merlo on tenor and baritone saxes, Guido Scategni on contralto sax and flute, guitarist Luigi Tessarollo, and keyboard man Antonino Salerno (along with a few guests). Bassist Umberto Mari plays in the same funky style as had Gallesi on the last record. The musicianship is impeccably tight, and the cut “Tiroxina” is fairly representative of the sound of the album:



If you like, the whole disc can be heard here:



1985’s Children’s Blues continued in the same vein, despite numerous personnel changes and an expanded lineup. Drums, bass, and keyboards remain unchanged, with new guitarist Mario Petracca, Claudio Bonadè on alto sax, Gigi Mucciolo on trumpet and fluegelhorn, and Johnny Capriuolo playing trombone. There are a few guest players as well. The entire album is linked here:



Sixteen years went by before another album would be released. Murales marked the return of founding members Crovella, Gallesi, and Venegoni. They were augmented by former keyboardist Cimino, with Corrado Trabuio on violin. Another instrumental outing (with occasional wordless vocalizing), Murales incorporates some world music influences, on tracks like “Astortango” and “Sun.” It also has a couple of remakes of earlier songs. The album’s longest track, “2000,” includes quite a number of mood shifts:



2005 saw new studio and live recordings from the reconfigured band. Gone once again are Gallesi (replaced by Roberto Cassetta on bass and vocals), Cimino, and Venegoni (although he does play on two tracks). New member Marco Roagna does a nice job on both acoustic and electric guitars, along with Alfredo Ponissi on saxes, flute, and clarinet. The whole Estrazioni  (“Extractions”) album can be found here:



Italian progressive bands from the 1970s enjoy robust fan support in Japan – so much so that a surprising number of them have recorded live albums there in this century. For their 2005 concert, released on CD in 2006 as First Live in Japan, Arti & Mestieri added Iano Nicoló on vocals. This is an instrumental excerpt from that performance:



In 2013, they released a live CD/DVD set. The DVD is from a 2011 performance in Veruno, Italy, and the CD was recorded in 2011 at the same club in Japan as the previous live set. The Italian show features King Crimson alumni Mel Collins on woodwinds and David Cross on violin.



The latest album, Universi Paralleli, is from 2015. Nicoló again handles vocals, and he has a fine strong voice. This time around, Gigi Venegoni returns on guitar, the violins are played by Lautaro Acosta, and Roberto Puggioni plays the bass. Collins and Vitale guest on a few tracks. The previously noted “Alter Ego” and “Finisterre” are found on this disc. The only cut available on YouTube is “L’ultimo imperatore” (The Last Emperor):



If you’ve been impressed with Arti & Mestieri, there are many more live performances to be seen on YouTube, and I would encourage you to explore them. More Italian progressive rock next time…


Header image of Arti & Mestieri courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/Stadel 15.

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