In keeping with the historical music played by Heilung, here's a new prog rock concept album from Italy that's based on a romance of chivalry written in 1516 by Ludovico Ariosto. Sure, that's notably new if we compare it to a hymn to a Sumerian goddess uncovered in a Syrian archaelogical dig but it's not that new, not really. I live in Arizona nowadays. We've only been a state for a century and change. It's hard for anyone here, who isn't Native American, to imagine the year 1516.
But never mind that, this is a new album from Banco del Mutuo Soccorso, a clumsy name for one of the giants of RPI or "rock progressivo Italiano". I adored their 2019 album, Transiberiana, a return to the studio for them for the first time in a quarter of a century. Three years on and they're back again, with another absolute gem. The line-up is the same as last time out, and that means one of the founding members, Vittorio Nocenzi on keyboards, along with a line-up that's mostly younger than the band, only drummer Fabio Moresco, another child of the fifties, predating the seventies. Banco themselves were founded in 1969.
And, with that said, where do I start? This is a sprawling album, running seventy-six minutes. You'd thought the last one was long at fifty-three? This one is too long, which brings it down a little, but it's bursting with imagination for the majority of its running time and kept me utterly on the hop. It's great to hear a prog rock band actually being progressive in the way that prog rock bands used to be way back in the heyday instead of just complex and virtuosic. In fact, it's so progressive that I haven't quite grasped the album as a single entity yet. It's a lot to take in.
Instead, I'm busy grasping some of the individual tracks. La Pianura Rossa is the first highlight for me, a bouncy and playful gem which unfolds in unnamed movements, shifting mood on a dime and doing all sorts of things in between the jazzy opening and the introspective piano at the end. The way multiple voices combine to become quite the party is wonderful and the presence of the brass section that punctuate things is even more fun. With a tango-esque rhythm, it felt like I should be dancing to it rather than just moving in my chair, but that would be hard even if I could dance.
While there's so much going on within the album for me to see it as a single work after a couple of listens, the individual songs often flow nicely into each other. That soft piano that finishes out La Pianura Rossa continues into Serve Orlando Adesso, which works as a fantastic interlude between its predecessor and the next bouncy gem, Non Mi Spaventa Più L'Amore, but also as a ballad in its own right. The vocals are fine, but it's the guitar sections that impressed me, one calm, the other searing. And that searing guitar continues into Non Mi Spaventa Più L'Amore, another prog tango with neat contributions from accordion and frantic piano.
Many of these early songs are delights. Le Anime Deserte del Mondo starts out like a fresh ballad but it builds and builds until it fades out into a gloriously old school keyboard solo from Nocenzi. I particularly liked L'Isola Felice too, even if it includes a brief autotuned section to match a pulsing electronic backing. Beyond the guitars and layers of keyboards, there's glockenspiel here too and even what may like a lap steel to kick us off, alongside waves and whispering. Norway may well be taking over as the new prog rock nation but Italy clearly won't let the title go that easily, even if a sleepy England seems content to watch them duke it out right now.
I preferred the first half to the second, but there are gems to be found there too. In fact, I doubt a few more listens will allow anything to depose La Maldicenza as my favourite piece here. It's a prowling gem that is not willing to be ignored. It's a storm of a track in a completely different way to how that would be normally meant. It doesn't drive incessantly onwards and destroy us, but it does rattle everything in its path. And, talking of rattling, I have no idea what the rattle is late in the first half but of the song but it's a wild sound amidst a whole bundle of wild sounds. What a piece! Oh, and I should add that the storm passes and the second half is a beautiful evocation of petrichor.
Italian prog tends to be less about a tie to folk music and more about a tie to classical music, even opera—hey, check out Nova Malà Strana if that perks up your ears—and there's a lot of classical in Nocenzi's keyboards and some less acrobatic opera in Tony D'Alessio's vocals. Some of these songs, starting with La Pianura Rossa, feel like they should have a visual element to them that I don't get when listening to an album. I don't think they could stage this entire thing as a rock opera, but the first half and some of the second would work with that sort of visual accompaniment.
The epic of the album is Moon Suite, hence why the planet Earth on the last cover has become the Moon on this one. I like it, but it's far from my favourite song here, playing to me like an attempt to write an Italian Yes song. It's more adventurous than Yes are nowadays and I adore some of the old school keyboard work Nocenzi throws into it, but I think I prefer the previous track that serves as a sort of intro to it. That's Non Credere Alla Luna and it features both a wailing saxophone and a Mark Knopfler-esque guitar. It may be my favourite song here after La Maldicenza.
The caveat to everything I've said is that I should underline that I need to listen to this more. It's a busy album and a long one and, as enjoyable as it is, I haven't scratched the surface after a couple of listens. This is easily an 8/10 but I may well up that to a 9/10 after listening to it more. Whatever I do, it's highly recommended, as is its predecessor, Transiberiana. This band are on top form right now and you should check them out.