Tuesday 16 January 2024

Orchestre Celesti - Cornwall! (2024)

Country: Italy
Style: Progressive Rock
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 8 Jan 2024
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Official Website | Prog Archives

I have no idea why this album is called Cornwall!, so have to assume from the track titles that it's a concept album, even though it's entirely instrumental. Orchestre Celesti is only one man but he's an orchestra here, either playing all sorts of different instruments or approximating them with a bank of synthesisers. He's Federico Fantacone and he's been releasing music under the banner of Orchestre Celesti since 2007. The name refers to the ancient Chinese art of training doves to fly in specific patterns with flutes attached to their legs, thus creating music together. This is the ninth album to carry that name, plus another collaborative effort with Lisa la Rue, and a bunch in a duo with Enzo Vitagliano as the Round Robins.

The goal of the project appears to have been to combine two very different styles of prog rock: the well known British kind that was so popular in the seventies and the Italian kind that was less well known but massively influential. I don't know if that's changed over the years, but I didn't catch a lot of British prog here. Where there's a British sound, as there clearly is on The Song of Western Men, given that it starts out with bagpipes and progresses into harp, it feels more like soundtrack material than anything Yes, Genesis or King Crimson were doing back in the day. Maybe there's a lot more from the Canterbury scene, but I'm no expert there. It's rather like a travel documentary that takes us round the beautiful sights of the British Isles.

What's more, other pieces of music betray different influences. While most of the soundtrack type material leans towards the orchestral style, as the project's name suggests, with the comparisons being to Hollywood names like James Horner or Hans Zimmer, The Ballad of Elisabeth Raby starts out just like something Vangelis might have conjured up. Sure, that takes us back to Europe but to Greece rather than the UK or Italy, and From Pickaxes to Weapons takes us out again, to Japan, in part because of the early strings, which heavily remind of Japanese folk music, but also a rippling brook of a piano, thoroughly rooted in nature.

While I don't hear a lot of British influence, at least this time out, I do hear a lot of Italian prog, a genre I'm still learning about. The opening track, Cornubia, for example, is a perky and jazzy piano piece until it drops into something clearly prog and very much soundtrack influenced, because it's all about mood. Even when the drums pick up a tempo, there are all sorts of instruments showing up in the background, as if to represent different characters. There are similar hints at a voice but it always remains instrumental, just an odd vocalisation here and there. It might occasionally hint at a more German style, but mostly stays Italian.

Even though that track and much of the album continues to seem like the score to a movie that we haven't seen, it's never far away from prog. There are neat changes and technical sections and all sorts of experimental parts in Cornubia and a whole bunch more in From Pickaxes to Weapons, the longest piece here at almost fifteen minutes. That gives it a huge amount of time to build and it's happy to take advantage. Some sections are very quiet, almost experimentally so, but others are built around quirky rhythms on what I presume is some sort of drum machine.

Ancient Dukes and Mythological Heroes may be the most recognisably prog song here, especially once it reaches the two minute mark and launches into gear. What came before and much of what follows is built off solo piano and veers back to mood soundtrack, an approach that's impossible to ignore. The question really boils down to how successful this is as a soundtrack. Do we ache to see the movie, or movies, that this material imagines that it underpins, meaning that it's incomplete without the visuals, or do we enjoy it on its own merit, as many do with soundtracks that work as a musical achievement as much as accompaniment?

I wish I could come up with an answer to that. I certainly enjoyed this on its own merits, sometimes seeing footage from the nonexistent film a piece conjured up in my mind, most obviously The Song of Western Men, but often not. Mostly, I felt that it sounded like a soundtrack but didn't care what it might accompany; it was fine all on its own. And then there were sections, like that early part in Ancient Dukes and Mythological Heroes and the saxophone section midway through Ritual Dance of Mermaids and Seals, that didn't even feel like soundtrack material at all, just prog rock.

I guess that means that I never ached for the movie, so I'd lean much more towards success here. I certainly enjoyed the music, what it does and how I could fall into it. I also liked that it continued to feel fresh, whether on a first listen or a fifth and across quite a few days. Given that it's a highly generous album, running almost eight minutes over an hour, that's quite the accomplishment. I'd probably benefit from hearing more from Fantacone as Orchestra Celesti, but this was impressive as an introduction to his work.

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