William Blake (1757-1827) was an English poet, painter and printmaker. Largely unrecognised during his lifetime, Blake is now considered to be a seminal figure in the history of the poetry and visual arts of the Romantic Age. His prophetic poetry has been said to form 'what is in proportion to its merits the least read body of poetry in the English language'. In 2002, Blake was placed at number 38 in the BBC's poll of the 100 Greatest Britons. Although he lived in London almost his entire life, he produced a diverse and symbolically rich oeuvre, which embraced the imagination as 'the body of God' or 'human existence itself'.
Undoubtedly the works of Blake has been an inspiration to many people including musicians. Take for example Visionary (1976, see review), the first progressive rock album by the British guitarist Gordon Giltrap, which was based on Blake's art and poetry. Or Emerson Lake & Palmer who made a strong adaptation of the well-known hymn Jerusalem. Recently the Italian musician Sophya Baccini got inspired by Blake as well. Being the daughter of a tenor, Sophya has been immersed in the music since she was a child. She has built a reputation in the Italian scene for her strong vocal capacities and her performing in multiple languages. Furthermore she made excellent recordings with various bands such as Evil Rose (2008, see review) that she made with the Italian band Presence. In 2009 she recorded a strong debut album called Aradia (see review), a fine piece of art that reminded me more than once of the excellent music of Kate Bush!
The title of her first album became the name of her new musical project: Sophya Baccini's Aradia. This project consists of an almost female line-up, something which she had dreamed about for many years. Beside Baccini on keyboards, piano, synth bass, lead and background vocals the project includes Chicco Acetta (guitars), Francesca Colaps (drums), Marilena Striano (piano on Beatrice) and Stella Manfredi (violin, viola). Together they worked on compositions − mainly written by Baccini − of which many were inspired by paintings by William Blake which are displayed in the CD booklet. This resulted in a kind of rock opera called Big Red Dragon (William Blake's Visions).
As usual in a rock opera many guest musicians contribute which is also the case on this album. One of the most renowned guests is Christian Decamps (Ange), who sang on Au Matin De Premier Jour. Another well-known name is Sonja Kristina (Curved Air) who provided the vocals on While He's Sleeping. Furthermore you'll hear Enrico Iglio (Presence) on Hammond organ, MiniMoog and bells on The Number, Pino Falgiano who did a keyboard solo on Cerberus, keyboard virtuoso Elisa Montaldo (Il Tempio Delle Clessidre) who plays harpsichord, celeste and Mellotron on Love Of Hecate. And finally quite a number of guest singers contributed like Aurelio Fierro Jr on Big Red Dragon, Steve Sylvester (Death SS, Sancta Sanctorum) on The Number, Roberto Tiranti (Mangala Vallis, Labyrinth, Ken Hensley Live Fire) on Just, and last but not least Irvin and Lino Vairetti (both Osanna) on La Porta Dell'Inferno.
It took me quite a while to get into this album, because all tracks have a distinguished sound, just like all the selected paintings of William Blake have a different style or meaning. That's the reason why almost all songs contain a different style than the ones before. By doing so the album has a lot of variety. Well, some people like that while others prefer music that sounds consistently throughout. To be honest it doesn't matter that much to me as long as the music is entertaining enough and that's certainly the case on Big Red Dragon even though this stuff is influenced by progressive, folk, gothic, straightforward rock, Canterbury scene, classical music, opera and prog metal.
I won't mention all tracks in detail simply because that would take too much space, but I will make an exception for the wonderful rendition of the already mentioned famous piece Jerusalem. It closes the album in style. It's Blake's most renowned poem that was put to music by Sir Hubert Parry in 1916 almost ninety years after Blake's death. This song has already been recorded in many different styles, but Sophya Baccini created an arrangement that strongly differs from the others by using multi-layered female vocals and keyboards. In a way it comes very close to the original hymn, but it sounds as if it were sung by the well-known musical star Sarah Brightman.
Apart from this strong track this CD has so much more to offer. Thanks to the high level of musicianship and the contributions of several guest musicians, the Big Red Dragon is an album worthwhile listening to. Each composition has its own charm and has something to tell. Many of the songs have a classical, theatrical or cinematic touch. Sure, many times the influences of Kate Bush come to the surface. I even dare to say that Baccini is more or less the Italian counterpart of Bush, because just like her she has the talent to show many musical faces. Maybe Baccini has even more talents because she can sing in all kinds of languages such as French, Italian and English.
Big Red Dragon is a unique and challenging album that could be cherished by many devotees of prog rock, that is, if they're willing to take the time to listen to it more than once. I regard it to be an incredible piece of art that definitely can be recommended to people who love a mixture of classical music and rock themes. So my compliments for Sophya Baccini, who took a risk by taking this musical journey during which she transposed many of Blake's paintings to wonderfully sounding compositions! So, well done indeed!
**** Henri Strik (edited by Peter Willemsen)
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