Mathematical Mother is the third release from Universal Totem Orchestra, maintaining a constant output of one offering every nine years from the northern Italian ensemble, perhaps one reason why they are not as well known as they deserve to be.
For those who care about these things, the UTO are most often compared to Magma, and thus sub-genrefied as zuehl, if that helps anyone. They are also more importantly living proof that there is more to Italian prog than PFM. Make no mistake, this is a storming piece of work, from a band which deserves the adulation normally reserved for much more widely recognised musicians. They have chosen to start the set with a belting tour de force, the 14 minute Terra Cava, bravely opening with some jazz infused vocal improvisations. I wondered whether putting something as strong up front might have been a mistake, would the rest pale by comparison? I underestimate. This is beguiling, wonderful stuff. It gets stronger and even better. Complex, confident, multiform, symphonic, tender, dark and ethereal. Not a weak hand being played. No filler, no throwaway tracks.
The modest press release which came with my copy hinted that the UTO are capable of being a 'tad inventive'. To my mind what marks them out besides their supreme musicianship is their originality and ability to fuse a range of styles without appearing pretentious. Everything falls beautifully into place, whether jazz, orchestral and I even detected Balkan influences. It seems churlish to highlight any one performer, but Ana Torres Fraile's vocal is particular case in point. I am rarely a fan of fully fledged operatic voices within rock music. Don't get me wrong, I can dig a lieder or two with Schubert like anyone else, but a big bloke in a stuffed shirt with a rock band never seems to rise above its novelty value. It is all credit to the ability of the UTO that Ms Fraile's trained soprano stays the right side of rock, modulates when necessary, but also blends and complements the band without distracting. This is something the group achieves again and again in juxtaposing multiple styles and influences while never losing sight of a harmonious whole, creating something fresh and original.
Perhaps it's the parochialism of the Italian music scene, or the fact that Italians take their music very seriously indeed, that perhaps they don't realise or care to share this diamond of a band. Unfortunately I also suspect that non-English vocals remain a bit of a hard sell outside their country of origin. Which is a pity. So I urge you, embrace the Europhile within and hunt down a copy of this; beg, borrow, walk across the Dolomites and find the band if you have to, it will be worth it because you might not hear another release like it in the next nine years.
***** Andrew Cottrell
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