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Progressive Rock CD Reviews

Banco del Mutuo Soccorso


Review by Julie Knispel

Banco del Mutuo Soccorso is perhaps the best known and most widely loved Italian symphonic progressive bands. Revered every bit as deeply outside their home nation as within it, their works help to form the cornerstone of both Italian progressive and symphonic progressive music. Exhibiting a willingness to draw as much from fusion as from the classical works that inspired many progressive bands of their day, Banco’s best material shows how Italy’s fertile musical soil allowed progressive rock to grow in new and entirely unique directions.

Banco’s early works (Banco del Mutuo Soccorso, Darwin! and Il Sono Nato Libero) are all very highly regarded, but among them, Darwin! is perhaps the best known and most widely loved. It continues to amaze that a band could create an album that verges on perfection so early in their career, but Banco achieved just that with their second release. Loosely based around the works of noted English naturalist Charles Darwin and his still controversial theories of evolution, the album proffers a heady and addictive blend of richly symphonic keyboards, driving rhythms, and a penchant for fusion-influenced complexity in lengthy instrumental sections. Soaring over this wondrous musical brew is Francesco Di Giacomo’s operatic tenor vocals, exhibiting a power and innocence that pushes Banco from being merely an excellent progressive rock band to one of the best, regardless of nationality.

Much like the English bands whose influence helped spur the development of the Italian progressive music scene, Banco would find themselves in the 1980’s trying to build a new fan base with shorter, less complex, poppier works. Following that same arc, it stands to reason that the group would eventually rediscover their progressive roots, and more recent years have seen the band (with several younger, newer members) revisiting thier most loved works in concert. Of course, Darwin! features heavily in their live set to this day.

This review is available in book format (hardcover and paperback) in Music Street Journal: 2007 Volume 5 at

Track by Track Review
Side one of the original album opens with this diverse and lengthy epic composition. Quiet organ and slow, sorrowful guitar play several joined musical figures, while Renato D'Angelo’s bass guitar pins the two together. One of the benefits of having two keyboardists in the group is seen very early on this track, as Gianni Nocenzi and Vittorio Nocenzi are able to provide lush and individually complex organ and piano lines which play off each other with ease. Francesco Di Giacomo’s vocals are almost literally hair raising, hitting and holding high notes with bell like clarity. Marcello Todaro unleashes several keening, slightly fuzzed guitar lines, buzzing with intensity. The track suddenly shifts to a relentless fast paced section with driving bass and drums pushing the listener along with Di Giacomo’s rushed, breathless vocals. At nearly 14 minutes in length, “The Evolution” offers enough variety to keep the listener glued between his speakers, arising only for a quick breath at the end before being picked back up for the next track.
La conquista della posizione eretta
A thumping bass line and staccato drum/organ unison stabs lead the listener, still breathless and exhausted after the 14 minute workout that is “L’Evoluzione,” into another extended piece. Organ, synthesizer and guitar trade off arpeggios as the opening phases of this song shift between instrumental showoff and more subdued moments with Moog and analogue synthesizer. A dexterous piano line features under a brief Todaro solo, shifting to washes of synth sweep before giving way to a quieter, gentler bass and piano part that’d not be out of place, oddly enough, on a Magma album. The lengthy instrumental opening offers plenty of opportunity for Banco’s musicians to stretch out and carry melodic lines that normally would be the arena of Di Giacomo. When he finally enters the mix, some 6 minutes in, his vocals, drenched in emotional intensity, push the track over the top. Wind noise and gentle piano lead out of this track, closing the first side of the album with deceptive quietness.
Danza dei grandi rettili
Gentle piano from one of the Nocenzi’s creates a jazzy feel as side two of Darwin! opens with “Danza dei grandi rettili.” Renato D'Angelo helps to carry this feel with a walking bass line that bops and pops along, while synth and organ stabs and swirls from the other Nocenzi keep the song rooted in fusion and rock, even as the song seems to want to pop over to the local jazz club for some biscotti and a strong espresso. This brief instrumental does a fine job of exploring different territory compared to the rest of the band’s work, and as such is a nice refresher and gentle opener to the second half of the album.
Cento mani e cento occhi
A brief renaissance-influenced opening, with synth orchestration, quickly gives way to a pounding, insistent beat, with swirling and buzzing synthesizers and stabbing organ creating a dark scherzo for Di Giacomo’s passionate vocals. The composition just as suddenly shifts gears for a brief piano solo before exploding again with full force. Marcello Todaro also provides some vocals here, and his voice is every bit as pleasant as Di Giacomo’s, without the operatic passion that typifies Banco’s vocal work. In any other group, Todaro may have been the lead singer, which says as much about his abilities as it does for how special Di Giacomo’s vocals are. The boiling, roiling organ part, with rich piano foundation, leading to Di Giacomo’s return to the vocal mic and into a dark, chanted vocal section, is a powerful highlight.
750,000 anni fa ... L'amore?
A love song as only an Italian could write it. Close your eyes and listen...see if you can’t see Di Giacomo, weeping and pouring his heart out onto the page as he writes a letter begging his beloved’s forgiveness, while classical piano plays, echoing his inner torment and loss. “750,000 anni fa ... L'amore?” opens in just this manner, before fading to allow synthesizer and clavinet to take center stage with a sound and feel that heavily draws from Italian baroque music. This diversion ends in time for a second visit to the heartbroken narrator, still pouring his words, like lifeblood, onto the page as his voice gives audible form to his pain. The addition of bass guitar and drums at the very end of this piece add just enough tension to allow for a proper resolution to the composition.
Miserere alla storia
Quick organ and synth open the penultimate track on Darwin!. A simple bass line evolves from the musical mire, two notes pulsing as piano and synth circle each other ominously. A tympani roll heralds theatrical and slightly unhinged vocals, a hint of insanity and things better unseen colouring them. An extended instrumental break allows Nocenzi’s keyboards an opportunity to shine, with sustained synth lines resting uneasily over a bed of organ and piano. Meanwhile, Todaro doubles D’Angelo’s bass lines on his low guitar strings before being allowed a space to let loose with suspended in air guitar notes. A sudden shift to a lone clarinet is jarring, but leads out and into the album’s final piece.
Ed ora io domando tempo al tempo ed egli mi risponde ... Non ne ho!
Darwin! closes with its shortest track, coming in at just under 3:30. Carnivalesque organ and harpsichord create a backing that is both jaunty and yet sad at the same time. Di Giacomo’s vocals sound fatigued and world weary on this piece, and the music feels stereotypically Italian, with keyboards mimicking accordion and strings. This is as close to a celebratory track as one will find on this album; drunk on good red wine, one celebrates while knowing the celebration will soon end, with a return to the drear of life just around the corner. The music sounds as if it wants to be jaunty and joyful, yet a distinct sense of malaise pervades the atmosphere, provided through some edgy and off kilter synth stabs. As the song, and album, fade, the listener is left wondering whether they should have another listen or sober up, metaphorically speaking.
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