On day three, I’d like to discuss a topic near and dear to Matt’s heart, and one that is starting to grow near-er and dear-er to mine: Italian Prog. One sentence history lesson: a bunch of musically talented Italian youngsters in the early 70’s, buoyed by the great prog coming out of the UK and also by their love of classical and jazz, released a BUNCH of ridiculously original and well-written progressive albums in a short time, mostly from 1972-74. The Italian scene during this time cannot be overstated or overrated: a decent chunk of the greatest progressive albums ever came out of this scene. In fact, I happen to have a copy of Greg Walker’s Top 150 prog albums of all time (one album per band max), and he has a full 29 Italian bands on the list. Now THAT’s a prog rock scene.
So, because this year marks the 30th anniversary of the Italian Prog explosion and because I need something to write about for my 3rd Day of Penance, I’m going to shine some light on a couple of obscure albums from the scene. No PFM or Banco here: just the overlooked and under appreciated albums.
In 1974, right at the end of the “meat” of the scene, Sensation’s Fix released their sophomore record, Portable Madness. The band is an odd example of Italian Prog for two reasons, the first being that their band name isn’t Italian, which I believe is sacrilege, although I suppose they get a mulligan for having an American drummer. The second reason is that their style was more space/psychedelic rock, much different from the symphonic and jazz stylings of their Italian brethren. Still, the trio produced some excellent music that remains quite interesting to this day.
I have one major beef with Portable Madness, but let’s talk about the positives first. Excellent musicianship and good production, considering the time and technology. This is psychedelic progressive rock in it’s purest form: no vocals, plenty of effects, the guitar being run through a Big Muff pedal… oh yeah, that’s the stuff. Be prepared for nine droning tracks, none of which are long but all of which take a theme or musical idea and then explore it for four or five minutes in jam session format. Luckily, this album doesn’t suffer from a lack of depth like so many other psychedelic records — the keyboards are plentiful and well played throughout. My one major beef would be with the snare drum, which actually doesn’t exist. Apparently, Keith Edwards doesn’t believe in snare strands, because I just assumed that an extremely taught tom tom played every snare hit on the album. If this album were ever re-recorded (will never happen, but still), I’d love to hear it with a snare drum.
The year was 1972, the scene was coming alive, and Il Balletto Di Bronzo released what is almost universally considered their masterpiece, Ys. Now, when I initially think of the work “Ys,” I think of the Japanese role-playing series that has been around since the dawn of time. Does this make me nerdy? Maybe. But Bronzo is making a strong play to steal that particular word association, because this album rocks.
Ys is eclectic symphonic prog at it’s finest. The female vocals are strange and interesting. The time signatures and tempo alter themselves the appropriate number of times. The musicianship is great and the keyboards are incredible, just the way it should be. I have no idea what the lyrics are, on account of my uni-lingual nature, but I can feel the thick drippings of a deep concept. The songwriting is unique, almost giving the feeling of a lack of structure — not in a messy way, but similar to today’s modern art rock bands. Transitions between ideas are abrupt and occasionally frenetic, but it creates a nice pace that ensures the record runs smoothly throughout it’s 45 minutes. And believe me, you’ll be wanting more when it’s over.