The Italian prog scene is in good hands. A bold statement? I think not. While many countries have a number of veteran bands waving the banner of prog (Italy being no exception), I believe that few nations can lay claim to young bands that can marry a modern sound with old-school prog values on a level of quality that that young Italian proggers like Barock Project have been able to. Their newest album, Skyline, led by standout keyboardist Luca Zabbini and supported by guest appearances from the legendary Vittorio De Scalzi (of New Trolls Fame) is the proof.
The first sounds of the album bring us an uplifting acapella harmony followed by a simple odd-rhythm piano motif reminiscent of TFK. The band wastes no time getting to the first verse, immediately letting us know that they’ve kicked up the catchiness a few notches. The mix broadens up with the insertion of Hammond on a fantastic chorus, followed by some proggy punchiness in the rhythm section as the next set of vocals rolls in. The rest of the piece goes from headbangin’ hard rock to trumpety-funk, and a beautiful solo piano restatement of the main vocal theme that eventually pulls in an incredible and dramatic vocal performance by Luca Pancaldi. The icing on the cake is the introduction of orchestral strings that really pull the emotion into this section followed by a majestic rehash of the piano theme from the intro. Overall what we see throughout the opening piece is a memorable sense of melody and intelligent arrangements that balance piano, guitar, and organ in just the right way as they seamlessly weave through each other. Looks like we’re in for another solid album.
It should be clear to all listeners that Zabbini is in love with Emerson, but as my buddy Alvek has commented time and time again, the young Italian prodigy has far surpassed the master. If there’s any piece that makes Emerson’s influence clear in my mind it would be “Overture,” an absolute joy ride of a four minute romp into Hammond territory. This track is full of so much fun, from the classical meets rock inspired Hammond themes to the rhythm section having an absolute ball throughout. Although full of technical flurry, “Overture” is, simply put, loads of fun.
Then there’s “The Silence of Our Wake,” a song delivering the full package of what I love to hear from this band. “The Silence” gives us an ominous folk guitar intro where the pacing of the vocal line produces tons of tension. The gradual building with the strings section is highly effective, and the transition into the B section where the orchestra becomes an essential element is fantastic. In fact, this is pretty much the story of the entire song. Throughout, the orchestra is a major player whether it is in the long instrumental sections or when vocals take center stage. Of course there are many fantastic moments throughout, such as when slap bass and piano cross over for a cool polyrhythm that eventually brings in the vocal on a slow and somber restatement of the familiar vocal line from earlier in the piece. The way this slides into the next vocal section is marvelous and the amount of groove is absolutely incredible. Through several more instrumental sections and memorable vocal lines, “The Silence of the Wake” meanders its way to a final uplifting ending; the sum total of this piece leaves me thinking its one of the absolute treats of the new Barock Project.
If there’s a song on the album that gives me mixed feelings, it would have to be the title track, “Skyline”. While evocative, and even nostalgic, the folk inspired theme that features the legendary Vittorio De Scalzi (of New Trolls fame) seemed a bit of a departure from the dense arrangements that are typical of the band, although in the end, it is always nice to see the participation of such a beloved figure of Italian prog in an album of up and coming stars. Where the song really starts to pick up is about 3 minutes in when we start to get some interjection from the orchestra and De Scalzi’s voice becomes more ethereal as it’s augmented by the use of harmony. At this point, the entrance of cowbell introduces a mid-tempo headbanging moment that may have been fine by itself but seemed rather abrupt in this case. Fortunately it leads into an eventual extended instrumental section that showcases the bands’ mad skills before moving into an awesome outro vocal sections for the last two minutes that features interjections from the orchestra, screaming Hammond, and even a bit of Signore Di Scalzi’s classic flute playing. All’s well that ends well, and in the end, the track “Skyline” shows itself to be another quality entry in the band’s catalog.
To close, I’d like to wrap it up discussing “A Winter’s Night.” What first catches my attention about this piece is the melodic piano-work and somber tone that immediately brings to mind the verse section of “Coffee in Neukilln” in the best of ways. There is a certain amount of sadness and mystery that breathes deeply in this piece despite a melodic sense that almost seems optimistic but never quite gets there. The eventual presence of acoustic strumming and drums lends a bit of an upbeat feel, but what really drives this piece is the gorgeous piano arrangement and effective use of strings that really heighten the feel of the track at all the right moments. Last, but not least, I want to point out the solo section of this track and just say that the way the well thought out melodies on guitar and synths play through a variety of key changes, moving from uncertain to optimistic, is absolutely marvelous and exhibits the tasteful knack for smart-songwriting that the band should be known for. If I were in the producer’s chair, this heartfelt track would be the way I would demand the album would finish. It’s that good.
What more to say about this incredible and young Italian band? They have a huge future in front of them as they continue to become more and more savvy in their songwriting and musicianship. Barock Project has enough appeal in all departments to reach an extremely wide audience, and I hope that with the addition of Skyline to their catalog this will be a reality.