Style: Progressive Rock
Release Date: 4 Dec 2020
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Adding "symphonic" to a genre nowadays often translates to a band having a lead vocalist who sings in an operatic style, but that really subverts the original meaning. I haven't heard a better album to highlight that original meaning than this one in a long time, because it feels exactly like someone, in this case multi-instrumentalist Roberto Vitelli, didn't merely "write" this music but "composed" it. It feels like Ellesmere is less a band and more an orchestra working with rock instrumentation and led by its composer.
The core of the band seems to be Vitelli on guitar and bass, plus Fabio Bonuglia on keyboards and the drummer of Norwegian symphonic prog rock band White Willow, Mattias Olsson, on drums. However, there are at least three other name keyboardists here: Tony Pagliuca of Le Orme, Fabio Liberatori of a varitey of groups, including Stadio, and Tomas Bodin of the Flower Kings. Other musicians who make their presence felt are violinist David Cross, of King Crimson fame; saxophonist David Jackson of Van der Graaf Generator and flautist John Hackett, brother of Steve and contributor to his solo records.
A couple of vocalists, Luciano Regoli and Giorgio Pizzala, complete the line-up but this is primarily an instrumental album with their voices treated as further instruments in the orchestra rather than the leads we might expect. When they contribute, it's sometimes with words but sometimes through scat singing, on a number of tracks, or almost dramatic spoken word instead, on Ajar. What's more, they're also low enough in the mix that I couldn't even tell if they're delivered in English or Italian. That spoken word section sounds like it's actually delivered backwards.
The keyboards are certainly at the heart of this album. However the four keyboardists divvy up across the five pieces of music, they generate a lush and dense landscape for others to play against. This is an inviting landscape but one that's very easy to get lost in. There are multiple things happening pretty much all the way through, so that it's often hard to tell what to focus on and that results in the music washing over us like a tsunami. It works as an experience, but it also prompts us to keep replaying to explore deeper and figure out what's going on.
I like this as a synth-driven jazz album, with its layers of keyboards, but it really shines for me on the occasions when others sprinkle a different flavour over the top. On Challenge, that's both the violin of Cross and the scat singing of either Regoli or Pizzala. On The Eary Manor, presumably a mistake in the spelling, it's the atmospheric flute of Hackett. On Endeavour, it's the crazed sax of Jackson. These can play with or against the keyboards, depending on the need, so both duetting and duelling.
The downside for me is the transitions, because there are a few points where a song is busy and happy doing this but suddenly decides to do that instead. Some of the transitions work, but some jar. I'd see this as a composition issue rather than a performance issue, because the musicians are insanely tight here, as they need to be for some of the more ambitious sections to work. Not everything is played in routine time signatures and sometimes, such as the midsection of Endeavour, it finds itself deep into experimental territory.
That's a section highly reminiscent of King Crimson and the old British names do come up here for a lot of comparison. There's Genesis here and Yes, as well as the Italian bands I'm not as familiar with. I definitely caught some Banco del Mutuo Soccorso and it would seem entirely appropriate, given the musicians taking part, for there to be elements of bands such as Le Orme, Osanna and Raccomandata Ricevuta Ritorno. I just don't know them well enough to say.
What I can say is that this is immersive and often delightful symphonic prog. I'm four listens in thus far and I'm still finding plenty of new aspects every time through. I'm sure that will only double when I shift this to headphones in the dark rather than speakers in my office while I work. It's also the third album for Ellesmere and apparently a jazzy and symphonic evolution from Les Châteaux de la Loire in 2015, because, according to Ellesmere's Bandcamp page, that was "acoustic and pastoral".
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