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Progressive Rock Book Reviews

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Rock Progressivo Italiano. An introduction to Italian Progressive Rock written by Andcrea Parentin

Review by Scott Montgomery

This is a confounding book, one that is both pleasing and frustrating.  Neither dense nor scholarly, it is a reasonably well-documented, satisfyingly comprehensive (enough), periodically informative, and pleasant, non-demanding read.  It is perhaps not trying to be the deeper more analytical book that I wish it were, but it could certainly do better.  It is peppered with nuggets of excellent facts and observations, making this a treasure-trove for anyone seeking to discover the genre.  However, one must wade through all-too-often vapid prose to find the good stuff.  It is pretty light reading, but not always in the best sense.  Despite this, both newbies and seasoned Italo-progheads can learn much from these pages.  My familiarity with the sub-genre notwithstanding, I learned quite a bit from Parentin’s book, and I thank him for that.  It is great to have another book take on this rich topic, though this is not likely to supplant Augusto Croce’s massive (nearly 800-page) Italian Prog tome. But, Parentin’s book is somewhat meatier than Paolo Barotto’s The Return of Italian Pop, which was itself a welcome publication in 1998 – essentially the first substantive English-language publication on Italian progressive pock.  Parentin’s self-published book is a bit disappointing in that such a sizeable book is less substantive than its girth promises.  It comes off as a bit light in terms of analysis, which is often lacking or astoundingly cursory.  Alas, its weight of pages is not matched by weight of content.  One is left wishing that more editorial discretion was prevailed upon.  This is a reasonably good book that could have been a very good book.  But, given the specialized nature of the topic, we should be glad that Parentin was able to publish this at all.  Warts and all, it is a useful contribution to an all-too-small field of publication on one of the richest traditions of progressive rock music.  What is perhaps most frustrating is that Parentin seems fully capable of writing a more substantive book than he delivers. His passion and amicability are apparent, but one wishes that he would have crafted a volume that lives up to his obvious depth of knowledge.  The extensive use of quotes by the musicians adds an effective, first-hand historical tone, somewhat bolstering the gravitas of the text.  Though the interviews are drawn from previously published sources (mainly internet), their collation into the author’s narrative effectively provides both an anecdotal and legitimizing basis to the story.

The book is divided into four parts of varying lengths and degrees of depth, though the two do not necessarily align.  Part I – The Italian prog explained to my little cousins Down Under (45 pages); Part II – Rock Progressivo Italiano as a separate subgenre of Progressive Rock (27 pages); Part III – A listening experience: my very personal play-list (232 pages); Part IV – A journey through the contemporary Italian prog scene (46 pages).

Parts I and II in particular are good for providing historical background and contextual analysis.  Among Parentin’s best contributions is the discussion of the socio-political climate in Italy and its impact on the formulation and development of progressive music in the country.  This is the most well-researched and intelligent aspect of the book – one that warrants further investigation. Indeed, among the frustrations of the book is the feeling that Parentin has so much more to offer here.  A great book could be teased out of an expanded (and seriously edited!) take on these first two chapters.

Part I (The Italian prog explained to my little cousins Down Under) contains much of the most substantive part of the book, though disingenuously couched as a paternalistic apologia letter to the author’s Australian relatives (huh?).  From this inauspicious opening, Parentin launches into a very nice, informative, and insightful discussion of the historical context in which the progressive rock genre incubated in Italy – from the Beats to the specifically Italian climate of song tradition to the emergence of the pop festivals in the early 1970s.  In paying particular attention to the political and cultural climate in which Italian prog was forged, Parentin offers useful historical insight.  The socio-political situation that transcended pure aesthetics is noted as a key concept to understanding how “…the Italian Progressive Rock movement was the expression of an artistic and social commitment and gave voice to a whole generation. It was never meant just for pure entertainment. (p. 20).”  More pointedly, “to go to a concert in the Seventies was considered a political act… (p. 21).”  While some prog fans less familiar with the socio-political climate of Italy during this time might see such statements as hyperbole, particularly if they try to parallel this with the phenomenon in England, such deep-politicization of musical activity was indeed the case in Italy (not unlike Germany).  Of course, this applies most notably to the overtly political bands such as Area, Stormy Six, and Osanna, as the author discusses.  He also adds insight into the complex political aspects that affected even those groups that were intentionally not political.  Even performing a concert was tied to the intense socio-political scenario of the turbulent “years of lead” of the seventies.  In the deeply politicized climate, violence was frequently directed at bands from both the left and the right – often bringing about the premature demise of many a promising group.  This was a very different from the comparatively more staid English scene.  It is interesting indeed that the Golden Age of Italian Progressive Rock coincided with one of Modern Italy’s most divisive turbulent eras – the “years of lead.”  Parentin’s contextualization helps explain both the eventual decline in the Italian progressive rock scene and the all-too-common phenomenon of one-album bands.  (How many of us have wondered why so many great Italian bands seem short-lived, producing only one album, and often a poorly recorded one at that?  Parentin gives excellent context for answering this question).  Political, social, and economic factors combined to eventually quash the progressive experimentalism that allowed for the creation of genuinely experimental popular music.  Perhaps the real miracle of it all is how much superb music was made, despite the often trying climate.  As Area put it, the “joy and revolution” sparked creativity, but also stymied financial success.  (It is no wonder that bands such as PFM, Banco, and Le Orme all tried to break into international markets by making English-language albums).  Parentin does an admirable job in addressing the complex context in which Rock Progressivo Italiano was born, flourished, and floundered.

Part II (Rock Progressivo Italiano as a separate subgenre of Progressive Rock) is a short chapter that addresses various aspects of the music in an attempt to get at what is particularly Italian about the sub-genre.  Insights can be found regarding the use of language, production, and other factors, but the brevity of treatment confounds the realization of the tantalizing promise of the chapter.  The section on the visual/theatrical aspects of Italian Progressive Rock is a great idea – one that begs far more elaboration beyond its three-page allotment.  The rather cursory discussion only scratches the surface of the rich theatrical and visual aspects of Italian Progressive Rock.  Album cover art is only briefly discussed, and even then in an often vague and uninformative manner.  One senses that Parentin has much more insight to offer in this regard, and it is disappointing that this is omitted. 

Part III (A listening experience: my very personal play-list) makes up the lion’s share of the book (over two-thirds of the pages), including discussions of a hundred “key” albums.  The idea is not bad, but it is a bit of a pity that so much pagination is spent here, as it is not the strong-point of the book.  It is essentially the author’s informal review of his list of favorite albums.  But, the list is good and provides a useful (and discriminating) source-list for essential listening.  As such, this is less something that one might read cover-to-cover, as it is more of a reference guide.  However, given its rather cursory treatment of each album, its value as a reference is also somewhat limited.

The list gets off to a very promising start, appearing as an introduction to the genre.  It is not chronological, but it (obliquely) tells the story of Italian progressive rock, allowing main concepts to unfold.  Beginning with Banco del Mutuo Soccorso’s Darwin! (1972), Parentin underscores the elevated musical quality, lyrical richness, and lush majesty so typical of Italian progressive rock.  Proper historical chronology is dutifully addressed vis-à-vis the first Italian concept album – I Giganti’s 1971 Terra in Bocca – and the first full-fledged Italian progressive rock album – Le Orme’s 1971 Collage.  Once these key moments are set up, Parentin develops a more organic discussion of the genre’s characteristics and major albums.  All the major albums are there, as are many all-too-overlooked gems and obscurities – both old and new.

It is most welcome to see the occasionally overlooked (outside Italy) Le Orme receive their rightful credit, with no fewer than seven of their albums deservedly included in the list of a hundred essentials, the most by any band.  Le Orme’s centrality and stature in the Italian prog scene is often underestimated in the English-speaking world.  Parentin offers some very useful and educational explanations of the concepts of certain albums, some most felicitously like Area’s Maladetti, while other attempts at explaining larger conceptual continuity in other albums seem forced an unconvincing.  The idea of explaining the concepts and messages of these albums is a great idea.  One wishes that Parentin had endeavored to give a more thorough discussion and analysis beyond simple lyric translation.  Much of the space for each entry is devoted to translations (though not complete ones) of the songs’ lyrics.  This could be useful to those not versed in the Italian language who might want to follow along while listening so as to gain a greater understanding of the story/meaning of each album.  But, with a musical tradition as rich as this, simply translating the lyrics does not completely illuminate an album’s sensibility, aesthetic, and even complete meaning.   As it stands, a song-by-song lyrical play-by-play seems a bit of a profligate use of two-thirds of a book covering this rich material.  Unfortunately, just translating the words to Banco’s “R.I.P.” or Le Orme’s “Squardo Verso il Cielo” doesn’t convey the larger power and majesty of these songs which are comprised of more than words.  As it stands, Parentin tries to “explain” a song with no analysis, an inherently futile endeavor.  While I dispute the need for such excessive translation in the context of this book, I do very much share the author’s viewpoint that the Italian bands are far “better” when they sing in their native tongue as opposed to English.  But, it seems that the author could have further explored how integral the mother tongue is to the “Italian sound.”

The mixing of old and new albums is welcome in its temporally ecumenical purview, emphasizing the ongoing vitality of Italian progressive rock.  But the order of the list often seems positively arbitrary, despite the author’s (occasionally forced) attempts at linking successive entries.  One wonders if it might have been more effective to list them more-or-less chronologically so as to relate the story of Italian Progressive Rock in a coherent, historical narrative.  As it is, the list comes across as a bit willy-nilly, thereby losing a lot of potential for providing historical insight.  If it were to trace a chronological progression, this section would have been a great compliment to the geographic examination offered in Part IV.

Part IV (A journey through the contemporary Italian prog scene) offers a novel and very informative approach by examining the “map of Italian Progressive Rock” through a region-by-region examination, as though offering a topographic travelogue through the genre.  While ostensibly devoted to new bands and the contemporary scene, the region-by-region overview of the entire history of Italian prog beautifully illuminates the genre’s history along geographic lines.  This is a very successful approach – one of the most brilliant conceits of the book – in that it highlights the regional diversity among the all-too-often clumped-together Rock Progressive Italiano scene.  It also highlights just how widespread it is – literally throughout Italy.  (I did not even know that prog bands from Sardegnia existed!).  

The book is in desperate need of copy-editing.  Though the author might be forgiven for many infelicities of writing given the fact that he is not writing in his mother tongue, this all-the-more underscores the need for outside editorial input.  Awkward turns-of-phrase, improper punctuation, odd footnote formatting, and a plethora of minor errors all undermine the gravitas of the book’s insights.  The author frequently slips into cliché and fluffy writing that can undermine essentially good observations.  That said, there are some cleverly imbedded prog references throughout, adding a fun sense of play that will be amusing to those well-versed enough in prog to catch the references.  As revealed in such divertimenti, the writing is unassuming and familiar, often charmingly so. However, other-times the writing is clunky and awkward.  It does, however, make for a simple read that is chatty and not too demanding, can be digested in tiny bits, but is still informative.  The book could bolster its seriousness and intellectual weight to more felicitous results. 

However, when all is said and done, despite my (lamentably extensive) criticisms, I enjoyed the book and even learned a great deal from its pages.  It is a worthy addition to the growing bibliography on progressive rock.

This review is available in book format (hardcover and paperback) in Music Street Journal: 2012  Volume 4 at lulu.com/strangesound.

 
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