This two-disk set sees the remastered versions of this classic Italian prog band's two studio albums from 1996 and 1999 enhanced with a number of live bonus tracks from 2003. The first album, Lavori in Corso, has something of a Gentle Giant influence in several places but Maxophone could equally have been their touchstone. Smooth mellow vocals by Alberto de Grandis support the flowing arrangements which effortlessly shift through numerous time and tempo changes like an automatic car moving through the gears. "Work machine", the first track, exemplifies all these tendencies perfectly with its catchy descending chorus and sharply angular chord progressions. Alberto Bonomi's piercing Hammond Organ is more prevalent in the next piece, "Collage" where it drives and stabs home the main theme and carries Silvio Minella's rousing guitar solos.
"Pantera" starts in a more subdued vein but soon rises to the challenge of the earlier vibrancy and complexity. Somehow the band's own joy at producing this album seems to shine through here in the energy and freedom of expression apparent in the players' contributions. Again those Gentle Giant moves appear although the fusion influence is also creeping in giving us a foretaste of what is to come on Duty Free Area. You can even hear some early Genesis in the organ and quick fire stop-start arrangements in the middle of the track. One of the most impressive features, easily overlooked, is the understated but finely wrought bass and drum patterns from Luca Baldassari and Alberto de Grandis which underpin the work and drive the smooth tonal and time changes.
The acoustic guitar and flute-led instrumental (one of 3 instrumentals in the middle of the album), "La Sua Anima", provides a welcome respite from the frenetic opening tracks and showcases the band's pastoral side. We pick up the pace again though on "Trip on Metro", a bright, polyphonic, nervous tick of a track diving up and down the scales on several instruments at once underpinned by a jerky bass meter. "Space Ace Man" opens with a flamboyant guitar solo from Minella then cuts back to a series of thrusting bass and raked guitar sounds over layers of organ and synth. The guitar takes on a funky feel at times in this more dissonant of the instrumental pieces.
The album closes with the 16 minute epic, "La Via". This carefully constructed composition starts with an echoic mournful vocal and moves through several stages of development with infectious synth patterns, angular discordant vocal and guitar duets, atmospheric interludes and solo spots which flit in and out like colourful birds. The middle section becomes quite symphonic in style with a few hints of Yes and is one of the highlights of the piece. A live version of "Work Machine" is featured on this first disk.
It isn't until the follow up release though that the band really find their own sound, albeit with more than a nod toward the great fusion band Area. Their long relationships with singer, Alberto Piras of Deus ex Machina results in his appearance on one of the songs. The opening track "Escher" signals the change of direction with a nod to the master of intriguing mathematical and geometric art. You are immediately impressed by just how much the band have advanced in their compositional technique. A more confident, powerful style is apparent as the piece blends two opposing motifs and displays great sensitivity in places as well as a fiery brand of jazz-rock fusion. This moody, chameleon like piece is immediately a good head and shoulders beyond anything on the first disk.
Fortunately it is followed by the equally impressive "Caleidoscopio", where an opening ballad progresses into a slow building instrumental passage with a few National Health like Canterbury touches. Once again the band pack many changes and sonic textures into the opus from bright symphonic guitar and keyboard sets to intricate piano and bass/drum arrangements. As with many of the pieces on this album, they reveal themselves slowly over repeated listens, always the hallmark of a great album.
Alberto Piras lends his dramatic voice to "Esperanto", a major contrast to Bonomi's rather more tender refrain. A neurotic Hammond and guitar exchange opens the song, aided by sax effects and electric piano which then segues into the main theme and the infectious melody line for Piras. The late great Demetrio Stratos would have been happy with Piras' ostentatious vocal acrobatics as the song develops over a Wurlitzer-like organ layer. In "Ascendente Scorpione" sliding scales are the major motif for this short but pulsating instrumental whilst "Ragno", the longest work on the album and arguably the best thing they've done, shows much more complexity and variety. Drum and bass really take control on this track in a display of intense driving rock whilst guitar and keyboards weave their spells elaborately around the commanding rhythms.
"Malia" is the final studio track, a suitably refined and relaxed closer featuring some wonderful female vocals in the shape of one Giorgia Gallo. Live versions of "Space Ace Man" and "Collage" from the debut disk are the bonuses. These live tracks are all very well recorded and show just how impressive the musicians are, taking already difficult and complex arrangements and giving them even more of an edge than they have in the studio. Their NEARfest 2000 set was apparently one of the highlights of the festival. The one pity then about reviewing this release is that a new studio work hasn't been made since 1999 from a band which, at the end of the 90s, was perhaps the most promising of the new generation of Italian progressives. If you didn't buy them first time round, they really are a must-have for fans of adventurous but accessible prog-fusion.
Rating: Lavori in Corso – 3.5. Duty Free Area – 4.5
Lavori in Corso
1. Work machine
4. La Sua Anima
5. Trip on Metro
6. Space Ace Man
7. La Via
8. Work machine (live bonus)
Duty Free Area
4. Ascendente Scorpione