Widely considered to be one of the fathers of the Italian Progressive Renaissance of the 1990s, Notturno Concertante incorporates an ambitious and forward thinking approach to their long standing tradition of high quality albums and fine musicianship. With Canzoni Allo Specchio, their sixth release, they have put to rest comparisons to other groups that have plagued them since their start, and have proven themselves to be one of the innovators of the neo-prog movement. The entire album is well written and arranged, with thought provoking lyrics and music that is quite melodic and artwork that is simply superior to the vast majority of releases in recent years.
Before I delve into the musical content, I'd like to share some observations on the packaging itself. In recent years I've noticed a marked decline in many labels willingness to go the extra mile and really put a nice product on the shelf for the fans to purchase, unless of course it is a high profile high dollar act, or a boxed set. I attribute the problem to several causes, among them being reduced profits, piracy, and in some cases a lack of co-operation somewhere in the chain. Thankfully, Radici music did a splendid job with this lovely book-styled release. It is filled from end to end with the art work of Fabio Mingarelli a.k.a. Ming, photos, and lyrics written by the Italian critic Donato Zoppo in both English and Italian (Kudos!), and a clever system to keep the CD itself in place without those annoying little plastic tabs that break off so easily. And in the end, is it not wise for labels to really make as nice of a product as can be accomplished? To my thinking it helps control piracy, and it certainly makes purchasing the album far more attractive. Kudos!
The music presented on Canzoni Allo Specchio is something of a smorgasbord of refined neo-prog. Overall this album is fairly mellow; fans of mainstream neo-progressive will find this to be a fine addition to their collection. One of the defining characteristics of neo-prog is a maturity to the song writing; the style shares its roots with AOR (Adult Oriented Rock), but tends to be more open to trying new things. That is one of the most striking factors when you listen to Canzoni Allo Specchio. Each track has its own flavor, and this is quite an accomplishment when it can be done in a cohesive manner, which Notturno Concertante has executed flawlessly. The vast majority of it is sung in Italian, and it features quite a few lengthy instrumental passages as well.
The fine musicians performing on Canzoni Allo Specchio are: Lucio Lazzaruolo / classical guitar, keyboards; Raffaele Villanova / guitars, vocals; Giuseppe Relmi / lead vocals; Carmine Marra / sax, clarinet, whistles; Carmine Meluccio / violin; Gabriele Moscaritolo / accordion; Antonio D'Alessio / bass; Giuseppe D'Alessio / bass; and Simone Pizza / drums. Each plays a vital role in the overall flavor and texture of the album, and each masterfully brings their own personal style to form a solid and well-defined musical group.
The first track Ahmed l'Ambulante immediately calls to mind a gypsy camp, perhaps a bit Celtic, even a touch of Loreena McKennit seems fitting for comparison, but not long after you venture into the campfire circle you find yourself transported to another place, another time. The only issue I have here is that you end up being a little bit toasted by the end; the track is a little longer than I think it should be. One reason for that is a phrase that is repeated far too often for comfort, and as a result it becomes redundant and monotonous. On the other side, I really enjoy the violin work, it starts out with a gypsy style, then it becomes Celtic in nature, and it ends up as a fiddle in a hoedown. Add in some nice vocals and general good musicianship... and you're ready for more.
Featuring a beautiful melody, the second track Young Man Gone West is another winner, it breathes happiness and innocence. Come IL Vento is a pure prog-rock track. The introduction is a little dissonant, features some odd time, and has nice driving guitars. It then floats the listener with some shimmering psychedelia. This is one of my favourite tracks. The fourth song, Le Anime Belle, is a surprise all the way. Just when you're starting to drift off it picks up, and by the end you're glad you didn't push forward. And then it happens, you're ready to go back and hear Le Anime Belle again, but before your finger can push replay, On Growing Older comes on, grabs you hard, and makes you listen attentively. Here we have a high point, Notturno Concertante delivers some beautifully emotional melancholy music, and the listener will not be disappointed. I have always felt the importance of this one factor cannot be understated, emotion is essential for music, without it, music becomes the domain of computers not people.
Track six, The Price Of Experience is also sporting a pleasant surprise, the vocals are sung in English. Lei Vede Rosso is the rocker of the album and is a strong piece.
By now you're feeling pretty sure you've got the drift of this album, but, NO! La Milonga Di Milingo has other plans, and from the moment it starts you find yourself quite surprised. OK, I admit it, I really like the guitar tricks featured in the beginning, and accordion is always welcome in my prog sound line-up (recent groups like Beardfish have enjoyed some significant success by utilizing accordion frequently), but I wasn't ready for the smooth jazz the song is based upon. My first reaction was “I wonder if a few drinks would help me enjoy this elevator music”? You see, for me... accepting radio-friendly music has been a constant stumbling block in my life. I find that the more main stream something is, the less likely I am to like it. I also find that attitude is quite common amongst we proggers, many of us listen to prog simply because we like things that are different, things that take chances, and most importantly... try new things. And then it hit me, this is EXACTLY what is being done on this song. Armed with a renewed sense of purpose I promptly pushed repeat around the second minute of my first listen and tried different ears the second time around. And... what has changed you ask? My answer is simple: EVERYTHING! I quickly came to realize that part of my own issue with this genre is how difficult it is for the music to stand out since it is almost a prerequisite to follow a specific formula for each song. And to my great pleasure, Notturno Concertante had the wisdom and clear vision to break with tradition and they incorporated a brilliant acoustic guitar passage that is decidedly progressive. Well done indeed! Shame on me, La Milonga Di Milingo is a fine piece that deserves much credit, and I nearly missed it due to my own personal preferences and preconceived attitudes!
The final two tracks are fine closers and wrap things up very nicely. Canzone Allo Specchio is AOR, but it harkens back to a Robin Trower flavored guitar sound and style of playing, which is always welcome with me. And last but not in any way least comes my personal favorite track Ark En Ciel which is one of those few, rare, blessed songs that stands firmly with comparisons to former Genesis guitarists Anthony Phillips, who has always been widely viewed as one of prog-rocks great master composers and players. In short, it's a winner! Who should buy this album? Everybody... but we all will have different reasons for embracing this album. If you are one of the many fans of mellower prog rock, go and seek out this album, it is for you. If you prefer the wilder stuff, consider this album a sanctuary from hard-edged, driving technical or avant-garde wildness. Everybody needs to take a break from time to time, why not have a nice break surrounded by a lovely forest by a beautiful lake? Just close your eyes, and you're there!
**** Thomas Rhymer
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