A short essay written for The Quietus's Organic Intelligence section - published December 2022
Organic Intelligence XVI: Italian Prog of the 1970s
What was particularly exciting about the proliferation of MP3 music blogs in the early 2000s was their role as a corrective to Anglo-American attitudes to The History Of Rock. The deeper you dived into them, the more it became apparent that not only had most countries had music scenes that mirrored the development of rock in Britain and America, but they’d produced bands and albums that were every bit as good – and often more interesting – than the supposed canon of UK/US acts.
A case in point is the progressive rock scene of the early 1970s. Long assumed to be a peculiarly British genre, the truth was that its combination of faux classical, jazz and folk mores with post-psychedelia and long-form composition had been enthusiastically embraced around Europe, and particularly in Italy, where a popular operatic tradition, as well as a love of drama and spectacle, created a perfect breeding ground for this new style of music.
In fact, it’s not a stretch to say that the Italian prog scene produced just as many bands as Britain. And while the UK certainly exerted a strong influence – after all, this is the country where cult refuseniks Van Der Graaf Generator went to no. 1 – the Italian groups quickly developed along their own lines. Yet until the MP3 blog explosion, their profile was limited outside of their home country. Premiata Forneria Marconi (PFM) had released albums in the UK on ELP’s Manticore label, Le Orme recorded an English language version of Felona e Sorona with lyrics by VDGG’s Peter Hammill, and then there was Goblin, purveyors of prog disco soundtracks for Dario Argento’s arthouse horror movies.
But that’s really only scratching the surface. The Italian scene was not only large, but also diverse, encompassing everything from the big symphonic gestures of Banco Del Mutuo Soccorso to the agit jazz rock of Area and the experimental tone poems of Franco Battiato. The five songs that follow are in no way representative of the scene as a whole, but give an idea of its scope and ambition, as well as hopefully providing a way into the music for anybody who usually runs screaming in terror at the very thought of prog…
New Trolls – ‘A Land To Live A Land To Die’ from Searching For A Land (Cetra, 1972)
Formed in 1967 and still going today, New Trolls are one of Italy’s most enduring bands (despite the rather odd name). Starting as a beat group, they rapidly changed with the times, and in 1971 released Concerto Grosso, an early orchestral rock album, and a landmark of the Italo prog scene. They followed this up with the double album Searching For A Land, sung in English despite failing to get distribution in the UK or US. It’s a varied record, moving from jazzy folk to hard rock, but ‘A Land To Live A Land To Die’ really hits the sweet spot. An intro of ecclesiastical organ gives way to sonar blips of Hammond and Nico Di Palo’s high countertenor delivering a wonderfully languorous melody. The atmosphere of glorious lassitude is enhanced by some wandering Gilmour-esque guitar – in fact, this could almost be classic 70s Pink Floyd, though pre-dates Dark Side Of The Moon by a year. The extended section of scorching organ extemporisation is also quite something.
Osanna – ‘Tema’ from Preludio Tema Variazioni Canzona (Fonit, 1972)
Osanna were another of Italy’s leading prog groups, given to complex, baroque freak-outs and the wearing of face paint onstage. However, their second album was actually an instrumental collaboration with composer Luis Bacalov – who had provided the orchestration on New Trolls’ Concerto Grosso – written as the soundtrack to noir gangster movie Milano Calibro 9. ‘Tema’ starts with limpid piano and wandering Moog before mournful strings lead into an increasingly impassioned guitar solo, which sounds like it’s being played backwards, eventually returning to the piano and Moog theme. It’s a perfect piece of moody cinematic prog.
I Teoremi – ‘Qualcosa d'Irreale’ from I Teoremi (Polaris, 1972)
Getting into more obscure territory, I Teoremi were a relatively short-lived group from Rome who only recorded one single and an album. Initially inspired by Vanilla Fudge, they ditched their keyboardist in favour of a harder, more guitar-oriented sound and recruited Vincenzo Massetti – also known as Lord Enzo – as a singer in the classic Italian declamatory style. Their sole album is a fascinating and exciting mash-up of proto-metal, heavy blues and avant-skronk, often sounding like an odd amalgam of Black Sabbath, Jethro Tull and Chicagoan post-rock. Yet it’s also surprisingly earwormy, ‘Qualcosa d'Irreale’ being a great example, with its juddering, crunching hook and angelic middle eight. Following the band’s demise, guitarist Mario Schiliro went on to become one of Italy’s most renowned session players.
Il Balletto Di Bronzo – ‘Epilogo’ from Ys (Polydor, 1972)
Now onto one of the absolute monsters of Italian prog. Sirio 2222, Il Balletto Di Bronzo’s debut album from 1970, is glammy hard rock with progressive undertones, and a great record in its own right – but it’s on the follow-up where they absolutely go for broke. Written by incoming singer and keyboardist Gianni Leone, Ys (named after the mythical lost city of Breton) is a five-part horror prog symphony that easily rivals the most intense, challenging material produced by their UK counterparts, with some astonishing instrumental interplay. The closing ‘Epilogo’ is perhaps the most impressive piece. Crashing in with rapid fire piano, tom rolls and Mellotron crescendos, it then gets a bit funky, with Leone both channelling Peter Hammill and anticipating Rob Halford. But then it switches down to an extended section driven by a creeping death bassline, flash-forwarding to the icy atmosphere of King Crimson’s ‘Starless’. Incredible stuff, and probably the reason the band features on the legendary Nurse With Wound list.
Blue Phantom – ‘Metamorphosis’ from Distortions (Spider, 1971)
An oddity to finish with, but also a goodie. The guy behind this one-off LP was actually Armando Sciascia, a producer of numerous orchestral/instrumental, soundtrack and library albums since the mid-50s. He also founded Vedette Records, an important label for Italian jazz and electronic music. Spider was a sub-label created to release Distortions, an instrumental heavy rock/psychedelia record, and as you’ve probably guessed by now, Blue Phantom weren’t a real band at all, but a crack team of session musicians. So yes, it’s an exploitation album, but it’s totally fabulous and often better than the records it’s ripping off, because Sciascia can’t resist embellishing his compositions with unexpectedly progressive/melodic touches. The mid-tempo ‘Metamorphosis’ slinks ago, propelled by surging guitar and piano, before erupting into a vortex of anxiety, all the better to soundtrack some garish giallo movie. Ironically, this is the only album in this list to get a UK release at the time (1972), though repackaged in a disturbing outsider art cover.