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Italian Progressive Rock, Part Four

Issue 115

In this final installment, I’ll introduce you to three more bands. Part one in this series focused on Premiata Forneria Marconi (“Award-Winning Marconi Bakery”), or PFM, the most well-known of the Italian rock bands. Another prominent Italian progressive rock group with an offbeat name was Banco del Mutuo Soccorso, translated variously as  “Bank of Mutual Aid /-Relief /-Rescue.” They later shortened it to Banco.

BANCO DEL MUTUO SOCCORSO:

Their first (self-titled) album came out in 1972. The cover image of a terra cotta coin bank in the vague shape of a breast would become a logo of sorts for the band. The lineup featured dual keyboardists Gianni and Vittorio Nocenzi, who had founded the band (with different musicians) in 1969. Both brothers were highly accomplished players who utilized a number of electronic keyboards. Vittorio wrote most of the music, and Gianni was featured on piano. Rounding out the group were guitarist Marcello Todaro, bassist Renato D’Angelo, and drummer Pier Luigi Calderoni. The vocalist was Francesco di Giacomo, an imposing figure with a semi-operatic delivery. D’Angelo, Calderoni, and di Giacomo had been together in another band called Le Esperienze.

From a physical standpoint, di Giacomo was an unlikely front man –  hugely obese, balding and bespectacled, with long dark hair and a very full beard – but the passion in his singing was unmistakable. He had a high tenor voice with a fair amount of vibrato, but not the kind of tone and vibrato that had made Acqua Fragile/PFM vocalist Bernardo Lanzetti so off-putting. “RIP (Requiescant In Pace)” gives a good idea of his singing and their initial sound:

 

“Metamorfosi” is the longest track on the album. Here’s a live version from a 2010 Italian performance:

 

Their second album, Darwin!, was also released in 1973. “La conquista della posizione eretta” (The Conquest of the Standing Position) shows them at their most intense:

 

It was followed by io sono nato libero (“I was born free”) in 1973. This album is considered one of their best. One of their most popular songs, “Non mi rompete” (Don’t Break Me), begins with sweet acoustic guitar and gentle vocals before shifting into a happy, jangly, wordless chorus that’s quite infectious:

 

This extended live version (with visuals from many different performances) features two guitarists, with some fine acoustic guitar throughout:

 

After this album had been recorded, Rodolfo Maltese replaced original guitarist Todaro. Like PFM before them, Banco attracted the attention of Emerson, Lake & Palmer’s Manticore label, and re-recorded some of their songs in English for a 1975 compilation album simply called Banco. It was not a strong seller, and they never had another American release, but if you were to have just one of their albums, this wouldn’t be a bad choice (although this photo on the back of the cover might not have been a good choice).

The following year, Banco provided instrumental soundtrack music for a film called Garafano Rosso. As with many soundtrack albums, the stylistic range used to illustrate the scenes is quite varied. To complement their standard instrumentation, guitarist Maltese adds some trumpet, Gianni Nocenzi plays clarinet, Vittorio Nocenzi contributes violin parts, and Renato D’Angelo plays contrabass.

The entire album can be heard here:

 

Also in 1976, they recorded come in un’ultima cena with lyrics in Italian. They released the same music on the Manticore label in Europe with English lyrics, under the translated title as in a last supper. The cover art depicted an arm being nailed to a plank, leaving no doubt as to the intended theme of the album.

Banco’s next record, …di terra (“…of Land”) was quite a departure from their previous work. It was another instrumental album, but this time featuring impressive orchestrations by the Nocenzi brothers and Antonio Scarlato. Some of the orchestrations fall in the romantic/classical category, with an occasional nod to Stravinsky. The first track is the fully orchestrated “Nel cielo e nelle altre cose mute” (In the Sky and Other Silent Things):

  

“Né più di un albero non meno di una stella” (No more than a tree no less than a star) opens with a pretty piano part that’s reminiscent of Keith Emerson’s playing on “Take a Pebble” from the first ELP album (as well as the piano solo in PFM’s “Il banchetto”). Guitar and woodwinds are slowly brought into the mix, creating a nice flow before drums and flute add a more up-tempo rhythmic touch:

 

Canto di primavera (Song of Spring”), from 1979, would turn out to be their last new album in a progressive vein for 30 years! New bassist Gianni Colaiacomo adds fretless and six-string basses to his arsenal. Maltese again plays some trumpet, along with bouzouki and charango. “Ciclo” (Cycle) has a repeating pattern with a hypnotic feel:

 

“Lungo il margine” (Along the Margin) is a languid piano and vocal piece in ¾ time:

 

“Circobanda” (Circus Band) opens with Mongol mouth harp (a variation on Tuvan throat singing?) by sax and harmonica player Luigi Cinque before going through a number of moods. Skip to 33:34 in the video:

 

The 1980s found Banco, like many other Italian progressive bands, attempting to fit in with the increasingly new-wave orientation of popular music audiences. This resulted in a string of albums with music that bore no resemblance to what they had done before. Six releases, from 1980’s Urgentissimo (Very Urgent) through 1989’s Non mettere le dita nel naso (Don’t Put Your Fingers in Your Nose) were disappointing to their original fans.

In an apparent attempt to regain their earlier fan base, Banco re-recorded their first two albums in 1991 with an abbreviated lineup. Gianni Nocenzi had left the band in 1983, and brother Vittorio played synth bass in lieu of a bassist. Piercarlo Penta added keyboards, and Tiziano Ricci (who bears an uncanny resemblance to Larry Fine of the Three Stooges) was among three backing vocalists. Ricci would later become the band’s bass player. He can be seen briefly in some of the visuals included in the live “Non mi rompete” video.

Eight live albums would follow, with no new studio recordings. They even played concerts in Japan. 2005’s Seguendo le tracce (“Following the Tracks”), which was recorded in Salerno, Italy, is considered their best live album. That lineup included the brief return of Gianni Nocenzi and original bassist Roberto D’Angelo.

Beloved vocalist Di Giacomo was killed in a car crash in 2014, and guitarist Maltese succumbed to illness the following year. In 2017, Vittorio Nocenzi put together a completely new Banco del Mutuo Soccorso with Tony D’Alessio on vocals, guitarists Filippo Marcheggiani and Nicola Di Gia, Marco Capozi on bass, and drummer Fabio Moresco. They recorded Transiberiana, released in 2019. The album marks a return to the prog fold. D’Alessio has a nice enough voice, but without Di Giacomo, it’s not quite the same.

“La discesa dal treno” (The Descent from the Train) is one of the stronger tracks:

 

Banco has a number of live concert videos on YouTube, and they are worth checking out.

GOBLIN:

The Italian prog band Goblin has also been around since the 1970s. Known primarily for their work providing the soundtrack music for numerous (mostly low-budget) horror films by the Italian director Dario Argento, their output is almost exclusively instrumental. The main knock I might put on them is that they tend to recycle some of their musical ideas, albeit with minor variations.

The members of Goblin came together out of several other Italian groups. Claudio Simonetti (keyboards) and Massimo Morante (guitar) founded a band called Oliver, with Carlo Bordini (from the band Cherry Five) on drums and bassist Fabio Pignatelli. They relocated to England, briefly using an English singer, and even had some recording sessions with noted Yes and ELP engineer Eddy Offord. Things didn’t work out, and they returned to Italy, changing singers.

Simonetti had done session work on soundtracks for the Italian label Cinevox, and that connection led to a recording contract for the band. Bordini apparently wouldn’t sign with the label, and he was replaced by drummer Walter Martino, who had played with Simonetti in Il Ritratto di Dorian Gray (“ritratto” means “portrait”).

Their first album was the instrumental soundtrack to an Argento movie called Profondo rosso (“Deep Red”), released in 1975. The title track features a piercing synthesizer line that, on the original pressing, caused many a phono cartridge to jump the groove.

 

Goblin’s second album, Roller, is one of their best, if not the best. Maurizio Guarini joined as a second keyboard player, and Agostino Marangolo took over on drums. It’s not soundtrack music (although one of the compositions, “Snip Snap,” did get recycled for the soundtrack to Patrick). “Aquaman” is a mostly atmospheric piece that opens and closes with the sound of dripping water (starting at 4:38 in this whole-album video):

 

Another soundtrack album, Perche si uccidono (“Why They Kill Each Other”), was released under the band name Il Reale Impero Britannico (“The Royal British Empire”). This is considered the rarest album of their catalogue. It was actually recorded in 1974 (before Profondo rosso), with Edda dell’Orso and Cherry Five vocalist Tony Tartarini singing on one track each. Guglielmo “Willy” Brezza is also credited as composer and conductor.

The title track has some nice Mellotron, guitar work, and backing vocals:

 

Their next soundtrack was for the 1977 movie Suspiria. If you listen carefully to this track, “Black Forest,” you can clearly hear phrases and tonal bits from “Profondo rosso” and “Snip Snap” above:

 

Goblin’s only release to feature vocals throughout was 1978’s Il fantastico viaggio del “bagarozzo” Mark (“The Fantasic Journey of the ‘Bagarozzo’ Mark”), a concept album about a flying insect named Mark. The opening track has a cool organ solo and some fine guitar, but strange vocals by guitarist Morante. It’s not a bad record, but to my ears, it serves to show that they were right to focus on instrumentals. The whole album can be found here:

 

Following that studio album, they proceeded to compose and perform twelve more movie soundtracks through 2001, with the exception of 1982’s Volo (“Flight”) and 1989’s La chiesa (“The Church”). The latter album was a compilation of sorts, and included tracks by Keith Emerson, Martin Goldray, and Definitive Gaze. Leader Simonetti took a brief hiatus from the band in the early 1980s.

Probably their best-known soundtrack work was for George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead (released as Zombi in Italy). The other soundtracks (with release dates) were:

1979 Amo non amo (“I Love You, I Love You Not”)
1979 Squadra antigangsters (“Antigangsters Team”)
1979 Patrick
1980 Contamination
1982 Tenebre (“Darkness”)
1983 Notturno (“Night”)
1985 Phenomena
1997 Buio omega (“Dark Omega”)
1999 La via della droga (“The Drug Route”)
2001 Non ho sonno (“I’m Not Sleepy”)

A lineup consisting of Morante, Guarini, Pignatelli, and Marangolo put out an album called Back to the Goblin 2005. Although primarily instrumental, one track (“Hitches”) does feature a child’s wordless singing. This is one of the strongest efforts by any Goblin incarnation, despite the absence of founder Simonetti. Check out “Lost in the Universe”:

 

The same musicians also released Four of a Kind in 2015 under the Goblin name. This one is recommended as well. “Uneven Times” is the leadoff track:

 

Just prior to that album, Simonetti had put together a band with Bruno Previtali on guitar and bouzouki, bassist Federico Amorosi, and drummer Titta Tani. Billed as Claudio Simonetti’s Goblin, their album The Murder Collection was a re-recording of tracks from the Goblin soundtrack repertoire.

The past fifteen years or so have seen a number of other incarnations as New Goblin, Goblin World, Goblin Rebirth, and Goblin Keys, with varying lineups. There have even been a couple of tours of the U.S. in that time.

THE WATCH:

Until now, I have been concentrating on bands from the 1970s, but here is a more contemporary outfit with a decidedly retro sound – The Watch. Unapologetically inspired by classic Peter Gabriel-era Genesis (and they have also performed as a Genesis tribute band), they began in 1997 as The Night Watch. Leader and sole remaining original member Simone Rossetti sings and plays flute (as did Gabriel), but also adds keyboards. Other members in this first lineup were Francesco Zago (guitar), Giovanni Alessi (keyboards), Antonio Mauri (bass), and drummer Diego Donadio.

Their only album as The Night Watch was Twilight. Right out of the gate, “My Ivory Soul,” establishes the clear connection to the past:

 

In 2000, the band broke up and Rossetti rebuilt it with the shortened name. The next two albums (Ghost and Vacuum) utilized guitarist Ettore Salati, keyboard player Gabriele Manzini, bassist/guitarist Marco Schembri, and drummer Roberto Leoni, with keyboard assistance from Sergio Taglioni. Both albums could almost pass for Genesis outtakes, and are highly recommended, solid prog.

Ghost features long tracks (only one is shorter than six and a half minutes) full of trademark Genesis elements – multiple acoustic guitars, massive Mellotron-like keyboards, and odd time signatures. The whole album is linked here. The one short track (“Riding the Elephant”) is the only departure from the Genesis sound, and you can find it at 33:17.

 

Unlike most Italian progressive vocalists, Rossetti sings with no discernible accent, sounding uncannily like Gabriel most of the time, with all of the vocal quirks and mannerisms. On Vacuum, he also reminds me of early Tim Finn (Split Enz), who himself was clearly influenced by Gabriel. “Wonderland,” starting at 8:44, is an example of that.

 

Everything about this abbreviated clip of “Damage Mode” from Vacuum is pure Gabriel-era Genesis (including face makeup):

 

Fabio Mancini and Sergio Taglioni replaced Manzini on keyboards for the 2007 album Primitive. This is the title track:

 

Another wholesale rebuild of the group came in 2008 for the next album, 2010’s Planet Earth? This time, he recruited Giorgio Gabriel on guitars, keyboard player Valerio De Vittorio, bassist Guglielmo Mariotti, and drummer Marco Fabbri. Rossetti has a knack for finding competent and compatible bandmates. Despite the replacement of players, the sound remained remarkably consistent (and true to original Genesis) as this example shows:

 

The next record, 2011’s Timeless, featured the same roster, including another guest appearance by Genesis guitarist Steve Hackett’s brother John on flute on one track. That song, “Let Us Now Make Love,” is a Genesis composition from the early days of Trespass that didn’t make it onto the album. It’s a pretty song, here given a somewhat heavier treatment:

 

This is a fine solo piano version by original Genesis guitarist Anthony Phillips:

 

Timeless also contains another Genesis cover, “In the Wilderness,” that was on from genesis to revelation (their first album).

Mariotti was replaced on bass by Simone’s son, Mattia Rossetti, for 2014’s Tracks From the Alps as well as 2017’s Seven. That most recent album features Steve Hackett guesting on “The Hermit,” a track from his first solo album, Voyage of the Acolyte.

For anyone wishing that Gabriel hadn’t left Genesis, The Watch provides the next best thing.

There are literally hundreds of other Italian progressive rock bands.  Some of the better-known ones (to fans of the genre) are:  Alphataurus, Il Balletto di Bronzo, Celeste, Latte e Miele, Museo Rosenbach, New Trolls, Osanna, Perigeo, Reale Accademia di Musica, Semiramis, The Trip, and Riccardo Zappa (no relation to Frank).

For more information, the following two websites are invaluable:

http://www.italianprog.com/index.htm
http://www.progarchives.com

 

Header image of The Watch courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/Mattia Rossetti.

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