Prog Rock Sub-genres: Rock Progressivo Italiano


The Italian progressive rock scene was born in the early 70s, mostly inspired by the progressive movement in Britain, but with certain features of its own. In the early-to-mid-70s, Italy was one of the European countries most interested in this genre; many English bands such as Genesis, Van der Graaf Generator and Gentle Giant were discovered by the Italian public before they had consolidated a fan base in their home country. Consequently, progressive Italian groups were prolific and Rock Progressivo Italiano (RPI) constitutes a prog sub-genre. Some bands received worldwide attention, such as Le Orme, Premiata Forneria Marconi (PFM), Area and Banco del Mutuo Soccorso. Most of the bands, however, were mainly known inside Italy.

BACKGROUND & THE BIRTH OF A MOVEMENT

As the 60s drew to an end, Italy experienced a wave of new ideas and ideals which coincided with the new musical era being born. It would not be exaggeration to state that the 70s were a watershed period in the history of the country. Even though the 60s are generally remembered as the years of the economic boom, it was only in the following decade that Italy made the long, difficult change from a relatively poor, traditional country into a fully developed Western society. A look at any timeline for 70s Italy will show an incredible concentration of events that changed the fabric of Italian society irrevocably: laws and acts were passed which affected worker's rights, family and divorce law, and women's rights and reproductive health. In a country where the physical presence of the Catholic Church has always been impossible to overlook, not least because of its open intervention in the country's political affairs, the introduction of such radical changes was no small feat. The Years of Lead (Anni di Piombo) was a period of socio-political turmoil in Italy that lasted from the late 1960s into the early 1980s. This period was marked by a wave of terrorism, political violence in the form of bombings, assassinations, and street warfare between rival militant factions. 


The turbulent times affected countless musicians looking for something new-some way to parallel the political climate through artistic media. Ranging from highly educated conservatory students to local singer-songwriters, this spirit managed to captivate an entire country within a few short years. Young people were restless, bursting with a burning desire to change the suffocating atmosphere of Italian society starting with one of its symbols, its venerable musical tradition.Without a strong rock tradition in the 60s Italy had mainly produced beat bands of varying quality, as well as singers well-versed in the long-standing canzone tradition of the country. As the tidal wave of counter-culture swept in, it brought revolution not only in the form of progressive rock, but also differing forms of heavier, continental rock which was establishing itself around the same time. Psychedelic influences and the incorporation of classical music may have been the same stepping stones used by most other progressive scenes around the globe during the same period, but even at this embryonic stage there was a whiff of something else in the air. In the late 60s when the beat scene was already heading towards a decline, a number of bands formed, some of them releasing singles (or even albums) that bridged the gap between beat, conventional Italian easy listening music (musica leggera), and the new ideas coming from Great Britain; among them, New Trolls, Le Orme, Panna Fredda, I Quelli (later to become Premiata Forneria Marconi), Il Mucchio, and Fabio Celi e gli Infermieri.

I Quelli-Lacrime e pioggia (1969) 
cover of Rain and tears by Aphrodite's Child

THE GOLDEN YEARS 

The beginning of the new decade saw the rise of a countless number of bands and artists, some of whom would go on to become successful acts. PFM, Banco del Mutuo Soccorso, Osanna, Il Balletto di Bronzo, Quella Vecchia Locanda belong to this group, with some being still active at the time of writing. Some others only managed to release one album (or even just a handful of singles) before they disbanded. The prog-rock bug became so widespread in Italy that almost every artist and band in Italy produced at least one progressive album during this time. A number of well-known mainstream artists started their career with a prog album, like singer-songwriters Riccardo Cocciante (with Mu) and Ivano Fossati (with the first Delirium album, Dolce acqua) or, like Lucio Battisti or Fabrizio De André, they released strongly prog-influenced albums when the movement was at its height. English progressive rock bands such as Genesis were popular in Italy. In 1970, releases by Italian bands, however, still favoured American-style psychedelic rock, such as Osanna, Le Orme and Il Balletto di Bronzo

Il Balletto di Bronzo-Neve calda (1970)

Osanna-L'uomo (1971)

Banco del Mutuo Soccorso had already refined their progressive rock sound, as is evident from their recently released live album recorded that year, but they did not release anything until 1972. In 1971, New Trolls released the seminal Concerto Grosso per i New Trolls, a collaboration with Luis Enriquez Bacalov. It was a mix of canzoni, rock and classical music that put symphonic rock on the map in Italy. Other notable releases were I Giganti's concept album Terra in Bocca and Le Orme's organ-based album Collage.

New Trolls-Allegro (1971)

Le Orme-Collage (1971)

In 1972, directly after the tremendous Italian success of Van der Graaf Generator's Pawn Hearts, a creative explosion suddenly occurred, with PFM, Banco del Mutuo Soccorso, Il Balletto di Bronzo, Le Orme, Quella Vecchia Locanda, Metamorfosi, Museo Rosenbach, Ibis, Il Rovescio della Medaglia, Alusa Fallax, Alphataurus and more releasing their most acclaimed works. The most popular bands, such as Banco del Mutuo Soccorso (BMS), Premiata Forneria Marconi (PFM) and Le Orme, played symphonic rock heavily influenced by classical music, against the backdrop of the Italian canzone tradition.

PFM-È festa (1972)

BMS-Il giardino del mago (1972)

Le Orme-Alienazione (1972)

Bands like New Trolls, Osanna, Metamorfosi, Alphataurus, Semiramis and Biglietto per l'Inferno had a harder edge, but still with traits of the symphonic tradition.

Osanna-Preludio (1972)

Alphataurus-Dopo l'uragano (1973)

Biglietto per l'Inferno-Ansia (1974)

During these peak years of the RPI movement in the early 70s, countless bands showcased their talent in the many pop festivals organized throughout Italy. The festivals were often free of charge and boasted a level  of artistic freedom and competition seldom seen in popular music. Fans witnessed bands rise from obscurity to compete on the same stage as the heavy hitters. This musical competition created something of an upward spiral; everyone tried to outdo each other, producing unique sounds and incorporating disparate influences into their music. The variety of the music went through the roof, with every band sharing the same aspirations, though seldom the same sound. It must also be made clear that despite the beliefs of those who write off Italian prog as simply a British counterfeit, many of these bands were creating music that was phenomenally original, experimental, free-spirited, and creatively successful. While bands from abroad helped influence and inspire Italian bands, Italy's young bands quickly took the ball and ran with it. It is ludicrous to suggest the scene was a mere imitation. The upward spiral also meant an over saturated market, in which many bands only managed to put out one or two releases with minimal budget and intense recording. Some of the best, most genuine and treasured albums of Rock Progressivo Italiano can be found in this group: Semiramis' "Dedicato a Frazz", Pholas Dactylus' "Concerto delle menti", Raccomandata Ricevuta di Ritorno's "Per un mondo di cristallo", Museo Rosenbach's Zarathustra, and Il Balletto di Bronzo's Ys to name just a few.

Il Balletto di Bronzo-Introduzione (1972)

Museo Rosenbach-Zarathustra a) L'ultimo uomo (1973)

Nuova Idea-Clessidra (1973)

With time some of the biggest bands achieved international success, with PFM as the best-known example. Lyricist Peter Sinfield, known from his work with King Crimson and ELP, even wrote for the band, while Peter Hammill provided English lyrics for Le Orme's Felona e Sorona. Ironically this success often meant a detour from the roots of the RPI sounds, making these albums more aligned to the British scene than the bulk of the artists and albums in the archives. 

Le Orme-Sospesi nell'incredibile (1973)

PFM-Harlequin (1975)

Those who search beyond the surface will discover that the most daring and provocative works were often made by more obscure groups who released one fantastic album and then vanished into thin air. This common syndrome of Italian "one-shot" bands became the bane of many RPI fans. The Italian progressive scene produced a large number of bands releasing one record before disappearing into obscurity (although some such bands would reunite decades later and produce more material). This was the case with highly-regarded bands such as Cervello, Museo Rosenbach, Alusa Fallax, Apoteosi, Murple, Alphataurus, Gruppo 2001, Locanda Delle Fate, Maxophone and Semiramis. 

Campo di Marte-Primo tempo (1973)

Alusa Fallax-È oggi (1974)

Maxophone-C'è un paese al mondo (1975)

The number of the typical symphonic albums released decreased dramatically by 1975-1976 and the Italian style of symphonic rock was close to being annihilated. After its explosive development in the early 70s, the movement followed the same path as other progressive musical movements around the world as the 80s approached. Some influential artists continued to release new albums though never with the same success as in the halcyon days. Others changed with the times and became highly successful mainstream artists both in Italy and internationally. As elsewhere in the prog universe the quantity and quality of RPI began to dry up a bit in the late 70s and early 80s, although there were some quality releases from that period. These titles tended to be more melodic and less brashly avant-garde than the classic period but were respectable nonetheless. To name but a few there were Locanda delle Fate, Stefano Testa, Pierpaolo Bibbo, and L'Estate de San Martino. 

Locanda delle Fate-Forse le lucciole non si amano più (1977)

PFM had a good title or two left in them as well.

PFM-I cavalieri del tavolo cubico (1978)

Since so many different musicians experimented with the progressive format, you will also find a broad musical scope within RPI, something which has kept the subgenre fresh and vital over time. An example is Area that in their own individual way, show a more cosmopolitan flavour and range of influences than most other acts. 

Area-Cometa rossa (1974)

Area-La mela di Odessa (1975)

Perhaps as a replacement of the symphonic albums, there emerged a quite differing wave of avant-garde music, often with links to Rock in Opposition (RIO) and minimalist music. Examples are Stormy Six, Picchio dal Pozzo, Opus Avantra, Franco Battiato's Clic! (still a very successful artist in Italy) and Pierrot Lunaire.

MUSICAL FEATURES

Italian symphonic prog is notable for the prominence of classical influences, often providing the driving force behind the music. The new listener will discover that this particular branch of RPI feels more like classical music in a rock setting as opposed to occasional classical influences on top of the rock format. Furthermore, the rich, diverse musical traditions of Italy permeate the albums, creating a strong national and even regional character. The "textbook" RPI groups can usually be identified by a pervasive sense of romantic melancholy and earthy flair, sometimes enhanced by baroque elements, sometimes by more ethnic ones. Other distinctive features include overt opera and operetta influences, wild and uncontrolled storytelling, and as a general rule, bold and highly emotional vocals. There is extroverted, operatic gallantry and panache or mellow balladry; exciting use of all sorts of keyboards, with sounds heard nowhere else but in this particular scene; exotic instruments such as aggeggi, ottavino, mandoloncello and clavicembalo leave their distinct mark on the music. There is a uniquely magical marriage of the traditional to the modern, of the warm to the wild. The combination of flute, piano and violin is often encountered, and the interplay between the first two instruments in particular supplies the subgenre with a fair share of its identity and flavour. Though the symphonic element is indeed the most common in RPI, the genre would be better characterized as eclectic: jazz-fusion, folk, hard rock riffing, intense drama, singer-songwriter, proto-metal, blues, avant tendencies, pop, psych, dark/occult, electronic and the list goes on. Even more amazing, these differences in style can often be found to varying degrees on one album, and still feel natural in the distinct stylistic framework mentioned above. One very noticeable defining feature of Italian progressive rock in the 1970s is the extensive use of Dorian/Lydian and Phrygian/Mixolydian scales, rather than just the more common Ionian and Aeolian modes (or, major and minor).


The use of Italian is inherent to the soul of RPI, a critical component to the full appreciation of the subgenre. In fact, even if some key RPI albums were translated into English in an attempt to gain international recognition, most of them fail to impress. They feel as if one of the basic ingredients of what makes RPI such a successful concoction is missing. While most serious RPI fans consider Italian vocals essential to their listening experience, it is fair to say that some believe English lyrics are not so detrimental, even if in most cases the odd phrasing, incorrect emphasis, and heavy Italian accent of the singers detract significantly from an authentic overall effect.

CONCEPT ALBUMS 

New Trolls' Senza orario senza bandiera, which was the first true concept album in Italian music history, being published as early as 1968.
Le Orme's Felona e Sorona, about two distinct, distant planets, one full of love and warmth, the other cold and dreary.
Banco del Mutuo Soccorso's Darwin!, about Darwin's travels to the Galapagos Islands and his theory of evolution.
Metamorfosi's Inferno, based on Dante's Inferno.
Museo Rosenbach's Zarathustra, based on central parts of Friedrich Nietzsche's philosophy.
Murple's Io Sono Murple, the story of a penguin who is taken into captivity.
Blocco Mentale's POA, based on the preservation of nature.
Il Rovescio della Medaglia's Contaminazione, based on Bach's Well-tempered Clavier.
Alusa Fallax's Intorno alla mia cattiva educazione, the story of a boy with a strict upbringing who struggles to follow his own destiny.
I Teoremi, the album simply called I Teoremi, is one of the rarest Italian prog-era albums.
Il Balletto di Bronzo's Ys, a narrative alluding to the legend of the mythical city of the same name.
Raccomandata con Ricevuta di Ritorno's Per... un mondo di cristallo, about an astronaut who returns to a lifeless Earth.
Stormy Six's Un biglietto del tram, based on events from the last years of World War II.

Blocco Mentale-Capita (1973)

THE NEW CENTURY 

As recently as the 90s and early 2000s RPI again proved its longevity to the prog community. Scores of the classic albums were re-pressed, then specialized independent labels such as BTF, Mellow and Black Widow started to reissue many of the classic albums. As a consequence RPI has not only reached a new generation of fans, but the increased interest and appreciation have led to new material being released. Reissues proved so successful that several recordings which were never released at the time received their first pressings on CD in the 1990s and 2000s. The 1990s also saw a resurgence in bands performing progressive rock. The first of the well known bands to do so was Ezra Winston, but other groups such as Nuova Era, Finisterre, Deus Ex Machina, Delirio Sonoro and Moongarden soon established themselves as well respected progressive rock acts. With the revival clearly under way the 90s produced some stellar Italian albums and the beginning of CD reissue fever.

Consorzio Acqua Potabile-Traccia..ora lo è (1992)
In the 2000s the trend has continued to a much more successful degree. La Torre dell'Alchimista and La Maschera di Cera have carried on the Italian progressive rock tradition, sporting a very 1970's style

La Torre dell'Alchimista-Eclisse (2001)

RPI is back and fan interest has exploded for both the classic period and the new bands of today like Il Bacio della Medusa, Pandora, Lagartija, Conqueror, Il Ruscello, Senza Nome, Coral Caves, J'Accuse, Ubi Maior, and the projects of Fabio Zuffanti to name just a few. In the 2000s, a significant number of the classic 1970s bands re-formed, some after having been defunct for almost 40 years. Bands such as Alphataurus, Osanna, Raccomandata Ricevuta Ritorno toured Italy and even recorded new material. Bands which are still active which never disbanded include PFM, Le Orme and Banco del Mutuo Soccorso. Italian progressive rock today covers a wide range of styles and influences, but many of the bands ground a portion of their sound in the RPI tradition. The commercial success of RPI has always been modest compared to the big bands from other countries. However, the quality of the music past and present, from its unique compositions to fiercely independent spirit, has earned the RPI subgenre some of prog's most loyal followers. 

Il Bacio della Medusa-Verso casa/La beffa (2012)


Sources:
http://www.progarchives.com/subgenre.asp?style=28
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Italian_progressive_rock