Monday, July 15, 2013

Il Mondo Musica Italiana

Five Stormy Six Albums, One Sensations' Fix Compilation and
that Recommended Records Sampler

In my first year of college I befriended Marc, an admitted acid-head who often had a gimlet for breakfast before class, and who turned out to be one of those musical gurus who seem to come along at just the right time. It was he who insisted I buy The Idiot and Lust For Life at a time when they were both out of print and thoroughly discredited. On one shopping trip he placed an interesting package in my hands, a double album set sheathed in heavy plastic, with hand-applied glitter spelling out the title: Recommended Records Sampler.

Recommended Records was an early indie founded by Chris Cutler, drummer for such avant rock mainstays as Henry Cow, Art Bears and Peter Blegvad. The Sampler consisted of newly commissioned tracks from the likes of Faust, The Residents, The Homosexuals, Univers Zero, Robert Wyatt, et al. One of the distinguishing features of the collection was the fact that it spread its net wider than the usual US/UK/Germany axis and included groups and musicians from France, Algeria, Belgium and Italy. The variety of sounds was equally diverse and made for fascinating listening. My plan was to follow up on the stuff that I found most interesting but in those pre-flat earth days this proved harder than I thought.

One of my favorite tracks was called Reparto Novita by an Italian group called Stormy Six. The song began with suspended organ chords and Nick Mason-style tom-toms accompanying a portentous melody sung in Italian. About a minute in, the drums begin playing at a molasses-slow tempo, which picks up when a biting guitar comes in, playing a liquid riff that's more prog than punk. The bass is brick hard and about halfway through joins the guitar to develop a brittle funk section. The song is through-composed with no verse/chorus structure and was obviously the product of a sophisticated ensemble. It reminded me a little of King Crimson and I needed to hear more.

It just so happened that later that year my family was taking what would be the last of our big group trips, a ski holiday in Courmayeur, a resort in the Italian Alps. We were flying in and out of Milan and would have a little time to explore the city on both ends of the trip. As excited as I was by the prospect of my first big-mountain skiing, I was nearly as excited about hitting a record store and scoring some more Stormy Six. Somehow I researched a couple of stores and made my way to them only to be met with blank stares that needed no translation. I had the same experience on subsequent trips to Italy in 1986 and 1988. (I did manage to pick up loads of obscure Ennio Morricone and an album by Tomografia Assiale Computerizzata on one of these trips. It's so avant that the garde is still no longer in sight - only slightly more musical than an actual CAT scan).

In the following years, I would occasionally listen to Reparto Novita and fruitlessly search the internet for signs of Stormy Six. Then, earlier this year, my heart skipped a beat as I read through one of the extensive updates from Downtown Music Gallery: There was a Stormy Six five-CD set on offer, collecting all of their albums from 1975 to 1982. As I read the description I wasn't entirely convinced that I would like all their work, but I had to get my hands on Al Volo, their last record and the one that contains Reparto Novita. The albums were not available individually and the set was on the pricy side but Amazon came to the rescue with a much cheaper deal and soon I was holding in my hands more music from Stormy Six. It had only taken 31 years, and ironically was via the agency of Warner Music Italia. Bravo, major labels!

After their earliest psychedelic years (they opened for the Stones in 1967), Stormy Six were founding members of the Rock In Opposition collective and sometimes, especially on Un Biglietto Del Tram and Cliche + Pinocchio Bazaar, the first albums in the set, that opposition is all you hear. They sound anti-melody, anti-groove, anti-pleasure. Let's just say they take themselves very seriously, blending folk and classical music in a manner similar to Penguin Café Orchestra, but without the puckish wit. As the albums continue, a sardonic humor starts to come through along with that increasing prog-rock sound, and the music grows more accessible.

Al Volo is definitely their crowning achievement and a record any art-rock devotee should hear. The opening cut, Non si sa dove stare, is driven by an almost electronic pulse from the bass, coruscating guitar, well-deployed synths, and an apocalyptic sense of purpose, setting the tone for an assured, distinctive group of songs that still sounds like very little else. It was well worth the wait, and I'm glad to have some of the earlier albums to fill in the blanks of their artistic development. While the band did reconvene in 1993 for a performance (released as a live album, Un Concerto), they are essentially dormant at this late date. However, my acquisition of the Stormy Six Original Album Series has set off the discovery of more Italian avant garde music in a way that doesn't feel coincidental.

On a business trip to Austin I was flipping through the discs at End Of An Ear, a large well-curated music store, when I heard a heavenly sound. It was a little Kraut, a little prog and flowed so delightfully on clouds of analog synths and propulsively strummed guitars that I beelined to the counter and asked what it was. "Sensations' Fix," I was told, and that it was a reissue/compilation that had come out in 2012. I bought their last copy and found that the song I loved, Fragments Of Light, was no fluke. Further listening revealed many wonders of exploratory music, from noodling guitar and keyboard soundscapes to fully-fledged rock jams with drums and vocals, to proto-ambient atmospheres. It's a little reminiscent of Goblin, a more prominent Italian band known for their soundtracks to Dario Argento shockers, but without the malevolence and occasional tackiness. It also brings to mind sun-drenched Kraut-folk like This Morning by Gila, or some of Popol Vuh's cheerier work for Werner Herzog. It's a sound I don't tire of easily.

The collection, called Music Is Painting In The Air (1974-77), was expertly organized and beautifully packaged by the folks at RVNG Intl., with the help of main protagonist Franco Falsini. Strangely enough, it's kind of an alternative history for a band that doesn't really have a history. Twelve of the tracks are previously unreleased, and the rest appear in different versions than the ones released on Polydor in the 1970's. Also, strange is the fact that many of the recordings were made during Falsini's time in Alexandria, VA. The European flavor is loud and clear, though, and whatever the circuitous path this fantastic music took on its way to release, I am so happy to have it.

Perhaps it was last year's fantastic album of Fausto Romitelli's music by Talea Ensemble that primed me for this Italian invasion, but I already had slightly more awareness of 20th century Italian classical music, with Luciano Berio, Giacinto Scelsi and Salvatore Sciarrino never far from my radar. Whatever the cause, it happened again a few weeks ago when I was perusing some of the people I follow on This Is My Jam and noticed enraptured comments for a post featuring music by Luciano Cilio. Who? I listened and fell in line with the enraptured.

The piece, Primo quadro della conscenza, drifts in on delicate guitar, soon joined by single piano notes, and then a violin and cello. It's slightly somber yet not melancholy with intertwined female voices, singing wordlessly (shades of Edda Del'Orso), lending a searching air. At a point of dissonant climax, the music reverts to its opening delicacy, with the piano assuming the lead role for two or three minutes of lush arpeggiated exploration a la Satie. The whole piece was gorgeous, a natural link between some of the early folk-tinged Stormy Six songs, Morricone's quieter pieces, and the more rigorously composed classical music mentioned above. This was obviously a major talent - why hadn't I heard of him? Well, the fact that he committed suicide in 1983 at the age of 33 and only released one album during his short life may be a contributing factor. And the fact that the album, Dialoghi del presente (1977) is completely out of print and that the expanded 2004 reissue, Dell'Universo assente, was limited to 500 copies, doesn't help either.

Those facts also made further investigation after discovering him nearly as frustrating as my search for Stormy Six back in the 1980's. But of course, now I have YouTube and was able to quickly assemble a playlist of seven tracks from the two albums. Now I can listen to Cilio's music every day - and I keep the tab open in my Chrome at work so I do exactly that. It's a wonderful way to start the day and it satisfies my need to give Cilio's work the life it should have had were he able to continue his own. I hope you'll do the same and also explore some of the other Italian music I mention. Now I will say arrivederci and ask what am I still missing?

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