Tuesday 14 May 2019

Banco del Mutuo Soccorso - Transiberiana (2019)

Country: Italy
Style: Progressive Rock
Rating: 9/10
Release Date: 10 May 2019
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As I write, the last review I posted was for the new album from death metal pioneers Possessed, released no less than 33 years after its predecessor. It isn't the first surprising return in 2019, as Rosy Vista, formed as far back as 1983, finally issued their debut album, and Rock Goddess released a new album 32 years after their previous one. Suddenly Alan Parsons releasing a new album a mere 15 years after its predecessor seems unremarkable.

The surprises do keep coming though, especially in the world of prog rock, with other recent new albums from Focus, Gong and Banco del Mutuo Soccorso. There are a few reasons why this last is particularly surprising, only the first being that this counts as the first studio album for these Italian prog rockers since Il 13 in 1994.

Another is that four of the six current members are actually younger than the band itself, who were formed back in 1969 and helped pioneer the scene known as RPI, or "rock progressivo Italiano", with their first three albums, released in 1972 and 1973. At that point, Filippo Marcheggiani wasn't even born and Nicola di Già, Tony D'Alessio and Marco Capozi were far too busy learning how to walk and talk to explore the joys of prog rock.

A third reason is that Banco's memorable lead singer, Francesco di Giacomo, died in a car accident in 2014, and his replacement, after over forty years in the band, isn't necessarily who we might expect. He's Tony D'Alessio, a runner-up in the X Factor Italia talent show with a pop/rap band called Ape Escape. Then again, he's also sung for a power metal band, Lost Innocence, and a prog metal band called Scenario. And hey, with Queen + Adam Lambert becoming something of an institution, the stigma of appearing on TV talent shows has evaporated.

The final reason is that this album is pretty frickin' fantastic. Prog fans generally rave about those first three Banco albums and appreciate the rest of their output in the seventies but despise everything they've done since, especially their eighties albums, which were far more mainstream pop. This album, however, is being received very well, with ratings almost up at the level of those first three albums. The choice of cover, a globe shaped like the money box on their debut album, is telling. This is old school Banco.

Certainly, it feels like a classic prog rock album from the very beginning. The opening track, Stelle sulla terra, sets the stage with a notable range of sounds. It kicks off with soft keyboards from Vittorio Nocenzi, the only founding member left in the band, gets raucous with drums, then quiet again with piano, allowing the operatic lead vocal to take the spotlight. Halfway through, that vocal changes completely, to a staccato delivery over a sort of jangling bouzouki and an electronic pulse. The second half sees guitars join the fray, duelling with the drums before finding a groove.

This is the opposite of that Alan Parsons album, which was so safe that it could hardly be called progressive. L'imprevisto is just as progressive but it's catchier, with an opening riff that sounds rather like an imaginative Survivor, a swirling progression and a very cool chorus that's stuck in my head even though I don't speak more than a few words of Italian and have no idea what D'Alessio is singing about.

La discesa dal treno initially seems lesser in comparison, but it gets much more interesting as it runs on, with a glorious section three minutes in of jazzy piano over a strong beat, before moving through Italian lounge to the heavier but teasing finalé that points the way to L'assalto dei lupi. Did I hear a vibrophone in there? There's surely a xylophone under a roaming bass in L'assalto dei lupi, which I presume details an attack by wolves. There's a lot of playful experimentation going on here, some of which aims to sound like a growl. What 'sukiyaki' means in Italian, though, I have no idea.

The tracks continue to impress, both by their individual quality and their cumulative variety, and it becomes very difficult to pick highlights. What makes that task harder is that those songs, such as La discesa dal treno or Lo sciamano, that hint towards being less impressive turn out to merely be doing something we don't initially grasp and they get stronger on a second listen, often much stronger. Even when they don't stand out for attention, like Campi di fragole, they still play their part in the bigger picture of the album as a whole.

A final surprise, perhaps a telling one, is that this is long for a Banco album, running 53 minutes even without the two live bonus tracks, including an excellent rendition of Metamorphosi from the Banco debut that runs well over nine minutes on its own. However, that old song excepted, there aren't any lengthy tracks here at all, five exceeding six minutes but none by much. This new Banco is a different Banco, even if it's looking backwards to the early days for its chief influence.

After a first listen, I'd have suggested that this is little heavier than those old albums, but further listens scotch that. I think this merely has the benefit of modern production values and so its heavier sections feel a bit heavier. However, much of this album, in keeping with the RPI mindset, are much softer, often delicate. Nocenzi, at many points, sounds like he's playing icicles that might break under his touch.

This is easily the best prog rock album I've heard so far this year and it has to be the most progressive such too, as admirably varied as the recent Jon Anderson album but more consistent in quality and more experimental. I leave this highly surprised that Banco del Mutuo Soccorso knocked out a new studio album in 2019 but just as happy. Maybe it's a little longer than it should have been but I'm not complaining and I couldn't pick any song as an obvious candidate for exclusion.

Now, 2019, keep those surprises coming!

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