- Minimalistic in a Cool Way
After the headspinningly wild arrangements of Yugen and the classic meets modern prog sound of Not a Good Sign, Italian compositional mastermind Francesco Zago brings us yet another project that fills another musical space. This band is known as none other than Empty Days, a soft, atmospheric band that pushes all thr right buttons melodically while still maintaining Zago’s experimental compositional edge. Additionally, this self-titled debut features non other than Elaine Di Falco (Thinking Plague) and Paolo Botta on keyboards (Yugen, Not a Good Sign). A team like this, along with Zago’s compositional prowess and tasty arrangements, will not disappoint.
The format of the record seems to inversely mirror that of Yugen’s latest studio record, Iridule. Whereas on Iridule the focus was on the instrumental pieces with vocal songs serving as interludes, Empty Days shows an emphasis on the vocal tracks which alternate with instrumentals, which while being long enough to be full fledged songs, the fact that they seem to say more in terms of atmosphere than in melody makes them appear to be secondary to the vocal tracks; not inferior, but more of a supportive role. Among these, “Kurai” stood out with its immediately attention grabbing piano run, avant-garde nature, and absolutely brutal horror-film like tension. “Ananke” gets downright intense with its massive swelling of dissonant strings and vocals, while the closer, “This Night Wounds Time,” apart from taking the cake as one of the coolest song titles of all time, drives a strong sense of sorrow, tragedy, and even desperation through it’s soft, repetitious lines and subtle orchestrations. To sum up my feelings on the instrumental pieces, while I probably wouldn’t find myself constantly listening to them on their own, they do provide a solid backbone to the record and bring out the uniqueness in the other songs.
On to the main event, the vocal tracks that feature the stunning voice of Elaine Di Falco. The opener, “Two Views On Flight,” gets right to the point, introducing a style that is a constant on the record and consists of melodic vocals, minimalism (for this particular piece, the repetitious plunking of a distinct piano motiff), layer upon layer of texture, and a focus on mood. Di Falco absolutely nails it on tracks like “Words Lurking,” where her fragile, vibrato-less approach perfectly interprets the melody and “Running Water” which relies on constantly flowing vocal lines and complementary harmonies, well suited for the name of the piece. “Flow My Tears” shows that she’s got some tricks up her sleeve, pulling in a seriously amazing classical voice in support of this fantastic arrangement of the classic piece by Renaissance period composer John Dowland. If there was one piece, however, that left me absolutely floored it would be Empty Days’ modern arrangement and performance of another Dowland piece: “In Darkness Let Me Dwell.” The solo vocal for this song is fascinating, haunting, and solitary; what’s even more is that it is convincing to the point in which it practically carries the entire piece with only minimal support from other instruments. The deliberately slight undulating of vocal stability, genius use of echo and dry on Di Falco’s voice, subtle and menacing instrumental effects and use of feedback make this one of the most threatening pieces of music you will likely hear all year. Finally, this review wouldn’t be complete without mention that Zago, Ske, and company revisit “Coming Back Home” from their Not a Good Sign album, delivering it with well executed acoustic guitars, infinite layers of vocals, celestial harmony, and an overall sense of catchiness.
While not quite as in your face as Zago’s other bands, primarily Yugen and Not a Good Sign, Empty Days shows itself to be a strong project with a unique identity and loads of fascinating music to offer alongside some of the most convincing lyrics you’ll encounter. In some ways it’s a bit easier to approach than the aforementioned bands in that it is, at times, more stripped down. On the other hand this is an album that requires patience and careful attention from the listener, given the fact that performances are incredibly subtle and the mood can oftentimes be incredibly dark. Once again, a job well done by the Altrock clan, worthy of their fantastic catalogue and another great addition to the adventurous progger’s collection.