Monday, 30 April 2012

PROGRESSIVE EVOLUTION

From  Rock Progressivo Italiano: an introduction to Italian Progressive Rock

Trieste
, September 24, 2007. At Tartini Conservatory, a sanctuary of classical music in the city, there’s a seminar about “the concept album in progressive rock”. The conference is presented by a music professor and features Francesco Di Giacomo as a special guest and speaker. Well, I have to admit that I find it a bit strange to attend a meeting where the music of Banco del Mutuo Soccorso is compared to the work of Liszt or Mendelssohn more frequently than with the work of King Crimson or Genesis but it’s proof that progressive rock is far more than simple entertainment. Francesco Di Giacomo talks about “Darwin!”, one of the best known concept albums of the Italian progressive scene of the early seventies and says that the album wasn’t conceived as a scientific treatise since doing so would have been pretentious and pointless. It was meant as a poetical parable to explain our evolution as men, the upright man is a metaphor for dignity, for the overcoming of stupidity... The lecture goes on with the reading of lyrics, some old videos, some musical examples... Very interesting indeed! If I had to give someone advice about the best starting point to explore Italian progressive rock it would be “Darwin!”!  

Francesco Di Giacomo

The album was released in 1972, a few months after the excellent eponymous debut album, with the same line-up featuring Vittorio Nocenzi (organ, harpsichord, synthesizer), Gianni Nocenzi (piano), Marcello Todaro (electric and acoustic guitar), Renato D’Angelo (bass, contrabass), Pier Luigi Calderoni (drums, cymbals) and Francesco Di Giacomo (vocals). On account of the recording techniques of that period the sound quality wasn’t flawless and almost thirty years after, in 1991, the band felt the need to re-record both their first two albums with up to date technologies and slightly different arrangements. The result was impeccable but I have to say that I still prefer the freshness and emotional intensity of the originals.  

Darwin! - album cover
The opener “L’evoluzione” (The evolution) is a long, complex track that sets the right atmosphere. It begins softly, the music is evocative and dreamy while soaring vocals seem to invite you to close your eyes and try, try hard to think of the genesis of the universe in a different way... No great Gods but just cells, fibres, heat and energy blended together to give birth to the Creation. Mother Earth is spinning inside a cloud, she wants a baby and she’s going to have him, son of Earth and Electricity! “Grey layers of lava and coral / Wet and colourless skies / Here the World is breathing...”. Then the rhythm increases while primordial life blossoms in an unexpected way... “The sea vomits shapeless creatures pushed out in clots on putrid shores / The land hosts the muddy herds that pass crawling on their likes / And the time will change the flabby bodies into forms that are able to survive...”. The music flows away like lava from a volcano, there’s room for drum solos and organ rides while “free sounds stir acoustic spirals of virgin air...”. When the rhythm calms down it’s time for reflection and for a new awareness. Observing an ancient skull you realize that Adam can’t exist and that just seven days are not enough to create. Adam is now dead and with him genesis as told in the Bible... A new awareness leads to a delicate classically inspired piano and organ passage and to the poetical image of a new light... “High, a halcyon squawks making arabesques over the gorses and the sea / Now the sun knows whom to warm...”. 

“La conquista della posizione eretta” (The conquest of the upright position) is another long track featuring many changes in rhythm and atmosphere. It begins with a wild ride on a frenzied rhythm... Try to imagine a wild ape-like man running among rocks and rushes following the smells of other beasts, the footsteps of his prey, roaring and screaming. Then suddenly the music calms down. The ape-man realizes that he can see nothing but his path and the wish arises in him to see more, far beyond the trees. He tries to stand up... “I try and fall and then I try again / I can stand upright just awhile / The scream resounds all along the vault / It goes up to the volcanoes and then I stand watching / My eyes drink flights and jumps, my forests and my likes... Now I can look straight, far over there where the air touches the sea...”. 

  
“Danza dei grandi rettili” (Dance of the big reptiles) is a wonderful instrumental where classical influences are perfectly blended with jazzier passages. Bass lines underline the slow, heavy paces of dinosaurs walking on earth, surrounded by a wild nature. Well, after Steven Spielberg’s film “Jurassic Park” it shouldn’t be so difficult to get a picture of what the music is about!

“Cento mani e cento occhi” (A hundred hands a hundred eyes) is about the need to socialize and join forces to fight for a common goal. It starts in a frenzied way while the lyrics depict hunters running after their prey. A solitary ape-like man observes the hunters wondering whether he should approach or run away. Suddenly the rhythm calms down and after a new rise in tension the solitary ape-like man approaches the hunters. One of them gives him his prey and he’s surprised... “On your spear you offer me some meat that I didn’t obtain with my strength / What kind of action is this!”. For him this behaviour isn’t in keeping with a strong being but the hunter, backed by his companions, answers: “Our strength is in a hundred hands / And a hundred eyes watch out for us / You are alone! / If you want you can go now, or stay here and join us...”. Here Francesco Di Giacomo’s vocals contrast with Vittorio Nocenzi’s, later backed by a powerful choir. The contrast underlines the clash between the instinct of freedom and the need for socialization. “From a herd to a moving tribe, from a village to a city / People breathing at the same rhythm / Men closed inside boxes of stone where you can’t hear the wind...”. Well, even if the need for socialization might prevail, the instinct to run away and look for freedom will remain...

Darwin! - inside gatefold

“750.000 anni fa... l’amore?” (750,000 years ago... love?) is an amazing piano driven ballad about the discovery of feelings. Love is far more than the instinct to breed, it can stir powerful emotions. The lyrics describe a shy ape-like man observing a beautiful woman with her tribe. Emotions and desires rise... “I hold my breath / If you see me you will run away... If you really were mine / I would dress your breast in water drops / Then under your feet I would spread veils of wind and leaves / Bright body with large flanks / I’d take you in the green fields and I would dance / I would dance with you under the moon...”. But the ape-like man can’t move and can’t speak, he’s aware he is ugly and fears that the woman might refuse him and run away...


“Miserere alla storia” (Miserere to History) is a complex track featuring a mysterious atmosphere and an Oriental flavour leading you to the roots of history, to Babel and to ancient Egypt... “Glory to Babel, let the sphinx keep on laughing for millennia / Let’s build in the sky up to Sirius / Let horses froth on the Milky Way...”. Recitative vocals seem to draw a mocking, disquieting prophecy about the destiny of Man... “How long will your intellect live, if behind you the human race is disappearing?”. 

The last track “Ed ora io domando tempo al tempo ed egli mi risponde... non ne ho!” (And now I ask time to Time and he answers me... I haven’t got it!) is about time passing by. Men are like puppets hanging on the eternal, heavy wheel of time that keeps on spinning... You can hear the wheel creaking and squeaking, munching lives and smashing bones, breaking wills and desires, slow and inexorable like an old, gloomy Waltz... “Oh, gigantic wheel why do you make me think / If later in your spinning you will restrain my mind... It goes, it keeps on going / The wheel never misses a beat and goes on and on...”.