- Glorious Arranging
As a general rule of thumb, I view supergroups as overrated. Why? Because in most cases the phrase “the sum is greater than the parts” simply does not apply. Not a Good Sign, however, proves that a supergroup can in fact be absolutely brilliant. Essentially this new band is an Altrock/Fading Records collaboration featuring members of Yugen and La Coscienza di Zeno. What’s great about the band is that for me it played out to be a recognizable blend of the two groups, but the cool part was it sounded absolutely nothing like what I expected.
A broad description of Not a Good Sign would be that the songs are more song oriented compared to, let’s say, Yugen, but convention and creativity come together to find that sweet spot time and time again across the length of the record. Very present are things like verses and choruses with very singable melodies (although not poppy by any means), but tying these together are a vast array of awesome melodies and well composed arrangements. Might I say, in fact, that the texturing on this album holds up to the best I’ve heard in a rock setting.
The album kicks it off with “Almost” parts 1 and 2, the former being an instrumental and the latter a vocal piece. Separately these two tracks offer us pretty much the spread of what the band does, but on virtually all tracks following these the band rolls elements found in “Almost” into single, coherent pieces. “Almost Part 1” is all about the interplay between heavy, dark, and vintage elements. It’s really quite ominous as open spacey melodies back up against loads of overdriven guitar and Hammond across easily recognizeable motifs, including some hints at the avant-prog that we’d expect from the Yugen gang. As it transitions into part 2 we get a demonstration of Calandriello’s vibrant voice over what is probably the tamest composition of the album. Just prepping us, I guess, for the wild storm ahead.
“Not a Good Sign,” the title track of the album, is really where we start tying together elements we saw in the opening two tracks. What starts off as crunchy riffing over shifting Hammond parts quickly transforms into a first verse whose chord changes come across as slightly jazzy, creating a nice backdrop to Calandriello’s vocals, then passing into a prechorus and finally moving into an amazing chorus that capitalizes on its heavy and menacing display of syncopation, emotional vocals and really cool synths.From here the direction changes dramatically, but in a natural way as we move into an instrumental section starts off light and then sways back and forth between thick synths, heavy avant-rock, and fluffy breathing moments before returning to the verse/chorus. All in all the result is a title track that is well deserving of the album’s name.
Before moving on to the other vocal pieces I’d like to deviate from the track order a tad and mention the two instrumentals: “Making Stills” and “Afraid to Ask.” It’s actually really funny, because my thoughts as I listened to these piece were something along the lines of, “sounds like SKE wrote these.” And indeed, I was correct. “Making Stills” and “Afraid to Ask” show what an fine knack Paolo ‘Ske’ Botta has for lovely melodies and catchy rock. These two tracks are a chalk-ful of lush texture, pastoral atmosphere, and are ultimate extremely soothing and uplifting. The melodies are memorable while the dynamics show a strong sense of gracefulness. Of particular mention is the ending to “Makiing Stills” which features a slow, deliberate movement that breathes beautiful chord changes and repeating motifs over which Zago delivers some tasty leads.
What I really love are albums that start off strong but reveal how incredible they really are as the record progresses, rather than starting off with a bang but then gettiing progressively weaker. Not a Good Sign proves do do things right on their debut; at least from where I’m sitting, they knocked my socks off time and time again during the second half of the record. After a heavy intro, “Witchcraft by a Picture” takes a huge turn as it turns heavenly as it introduces the angelic vocals of Sharron Fortnam from Northsea Radio Orchestra. The instrumentation is perfect and thorougly enhances the vocals. If I thought it couldn’t get much better I was wrong; the outro is stunning in its gorgeous repetition of an uplifting piano motif, fantastic chord changes and a drumbeat that blew me away. From here it moves towards a slower and heavier variation with loads of analogue towards a breathtaking finale, making this one of the highlights of the album, if not my favorite piece.
From its onset, “Coming Back Home” takes us in a more dark/intense direction, with something about the feel that reminded me a lot of Not a Good Sign’s compatriots, Barock Project. Dreamy choruses and a brilliant instrumental section that delivers variations on the verse follow to take us back to the verse/chorus before ending off this fantastic piece in which once again, Martino Malacrida’s drumming left me picking my jaw up off the floor. Following “Coming Back Home” is “Flow On,” a piece that does everything well from brilliant drumming, great keyboard/bass guitar complimenting, to epic composition that takes you on a journey through wonderfully progressive soundscapes. Finally, “The Defeaning Sound of the Moon” shows us that the boys from “La Coscienza di Zeno” know how to write some seriously dark tunes which are marvelously executed by Zago’s brutal riffing and Ske’s dirty Hammond. Speaking of Zago, he really gets his moment to shine on this song and I must tip my hat off to his phenomenal abstract and maniacal riffing/solo section in the middle of the piece. To cap it off, just in case you didn’t get your dose of nightmares for the week, might well have to change your diaper after the humongous closing that is basically an all out aassault of eerie synths textures combined with heavy drum/bass/guitar.
So, what’s the verdict? Not a Good Sign is a thrilling ride from start to finish with enough freshness and nuance to calm even the harshest of critics. Couple that with the fact that Zago and Ske know how to arrange a piece to the point of pure genius and the result is an album that I really feel like I could recommend to everyone. I must say that 2013 has been a year of several incredible releases, but as the Proggies comes around and we debate Steven Wilson’s The Raven Who Refused to Sing versus La Maschera di Cera’s Le Porte del Domani for best album, it looks like we’re going to have to factor Not a Good Sign into that discussion as well. Well played, Altrock/Fading Records.