A life in music - Part II
My twenties: no place to call home
To my great dismay I had to end high school, putting an end to a very happy period of my life: hell, great people were teaching me italian, english, latin, greek and a bit of french literature every day, and history and philosophy too. And we had breaks for playing football in the yard, and the girls were young and pretty and careless. For all I know, shall I be grateful to my teachers, and to the girls. Then I signed up to university but it proved itself a complete waste of time - a time that ended granting me the degree after having changed over three different carreer paths, none of the three managing to satisfy myself. Why didn't I study literature, musical history, or philosophy? Because they weren't job profitable, and you were a science guy in the end.
A science guy.
Well, I still have a strong scientific forma mentis, but I eventually learnt to listen to my emotional traits and to give them full expressive (and decisional!) power.
Back to the past, I fell in love with a skingirl at the beginning of my studies, and she got me into punk and ska. From trance to Bad Manners, not bad as a leap.
She teased me for the pristine and innocent music I listened to. I teased her back, but I knew I was slowly parting from electronic to follow the guitars' siren call. The Strat of my dad was still a distant acquaitance, and he was becoming one as well, for we almost stopped talking during that period.
One of my best friends introduced me to Shandon, an italian skacore act. Skacore blends ska and hardcore traits, you wouldn't have guessed. Purists of both sides dislike this crossover, but I gave and give 0 fucks and I still LOVE Shandon. I saw them live many years after, around 2012 or so, and it was one of the best gigs I've ever been to. I couldn't speak for a couple of days afterwards, for how much I shouted.
Studies and family life were going pretty badly. So badly, that I stumbled upon a certain record from some Manchester guys, and I quickly skipped it because it was sounding like it was recorded through an old phone. That album was Unknown Pleasures. They had to wait some more years to lose their status, such pleasures!
I still needed pristine and innocent music apparently, at least in production. I found good shelter in italian songrwriter Elisa, one of the few (successful) ones to sing almost exclusively in english. After two very good albums she came to public acclaim, and started singing questionable duets in italian with questionable italian artists. Well, she had to pay bills as well.
I discovered a lot of beautiful songs and genres, but I was missing a sense of belonging. I couldn't call any band home. Then an university mate, that had a musical taste that I later recognised as very vivid and worth getting closer to, mentioned that one of his fav bands had just released a new album. I found the name of the band quite funny, and without asking any further I got it that very evening. It was Fear of a Blank Planet by Porcupine Tree.
I liked it. I liked their whole (broad) discography, that I downloaded the night itself. Many of their beautiful songs were simple acoustic themes supported by magnificent electronic soundscapes and embellished by prog-rock interludes and codas: they sounded fresh! Actually they sounded like a lot of things to me, and for the first time in my music journey I really felt home.
I read a lot of criticism about them basically copycatting Pink Floyd - well, they share a lot, and Steven Wilson is no Gilmour, but why shouldn't we be happy that two great yet similar band exist? I was and am, and it was a reason to go through the wonderful PF catalogue again! I loved Meddle, Animals and Wish You Were Here the most. Hell, even DSotM wasn't bad, but too overplayed for my taste. I still couldn't get into the barretian The Piper at the Gates of Dawn - it was just a matter of time.
An intense prog and neo-prog phase started: King Crimson, Marillion, IQ, Kino...and I soon discovered that Italy had an oustanding scene as well. Among the infinite list from the Seventies(Locanda delle fate, New Trolls, PFM, Le Orme, Museo Rosenbach, Osanna...), there is a band that came a pair of decades later and matched super technique with extreme sweetness in arrangement, lyrics and melodies. I'll go back to that pretty soon.
In those years, around 2007, I got acquainted with whom then became my first girlfriend. She liked metal a lot, I did not. Because all the metalheads in my school did listen to what I used to call broom-up-their-ass voices, all the hairy metal/glam scene you know. But thanks to the porcupines my defiance started getting weaker: their In Absentia, Deadwing and aforementioned FoaBP albums did include a lot of metal elements, and less psychedelic ones.
Years of Steel
Guess what? I dared to get into that very technical band that a lot of friends were talking about, albeit their singer had a broom-up-his-ass. And enjoyed a lot the first four albums from Dream Theater, especially Awake, and especially Space Dye Vest, my fav song from them. I seldom listen to DT now, and when I do is mostly for that song.
It makes no sense to go through all metal bands I liked (and like). The point is that I learnt to go back from the firm statement of not wanting to listen to a kind of music a priori. For instance, at the time I am writing this, I am listening to a lot of psychedelic rock, country and blues - all stuff I always felt very far from! But let's go in order, and let's go through all metal bands I like.
But some are really worth mentioning, for their crepuscolar mood really influeced my life and my musical approach. I talk about Opeth, about Agalloch, about Anathema, about Katatonia, about Klimt 1918 and Novembre. They all have acoustic passages in their otherwise loud and distorted sound. How I loved acoustic guitar, but I still had to wait some years to let it become my main life occupation.
Ah, I love thrash, black and death metal as well. Albums that had a huge impact on me were Symbolic by Death and Crimson by Edge of Sanity, both released in mid '90ies and both angular stones of prog-death and music in general.
I admire these records because they tell a story. It's not just about rage or skill, they rather use them as narrative devices. While Symbolic is a collection of immortal songs, Crimson is a 40 minutes long conceptual song, written mostly entirely by his majesty Dan Swanö. Dan is one of my all-time musical references, for he wrote countless beautiful albums in various different styles and produced a lot of seminal records in the metal scene (first Opeth LPs for instance). Even if very distant from the music ideas I would like to express at the moment, Crimson is still possibly my favourite single piece of art ever created. Of course there are songs I like more, but we are talking about fucking Crimson. Remember these words, and be strong.
Post [rock] Office
Ah, all this lovely music I am talking about was discovered mainly over my fav site ever, i.e. Rate Your Music. 0% fancyness, 100% information: that's the true spirit of the Internet! I could finally find the best/most influential releases on a genre, country or year basis. Back when I stumbled upon the website (2009-ish), I was much into progressive rock, metal, and an (then and for me) unconventional rock style that got pretty stale over the years, but then captured my greatest interest: post-rock.
My initiation was pretty orthodox: Mogwai and Godspeed You! Black Emperor were the staples, with their trademark crescendos where they build up tension to be released with the help of the rhythimc and bass section. Let alone the wall of sound, the structure resembles a lot my beloved trance themes, with pauses and snare rolls back to the full arrangement. No cheesy vocals fortunately. I must cite Golevka by obscure The Evpatoria Project as my favourite canonical post-rock record.
But the band that touched me the most had to be Bark Psychosis: they were labeled as post-rock, but they are so lush and lulling with their clean and entwining vocal and guitar lines. I used to listen to their albums in the twilight of my bedroom, whose curtains I always kept shut no matter the time of the day. Listening to Hex or to Independency in bed was the warmest moment of my day.
Post-rock broke with the verse/chorus/verse/chorus/maybe-bridge/chorus scheme, in order to favour a more symphonic approach. I liked it. Was it the end of my affair with songs? Not a single bit!
A musical scene of great interest grew up at the beginning of the last decade of the century, somewhere in the States, a scene based on abundance of sadness and scarcity of embellishment: vocals and instruments were often slightly out of tune in order to emphasise the lament aspect of the genre you surely already recognised as SLOWCORE.
If you want to be my friend, I warn you: it is not enough to know slowcore. Every Pitchfork lurker knows about Codeine, Red House Painters, Sophia, Galaxie 500 or Low. I am talking about listening to full discographies in a row, for days, lying in bed in partial darkness. It was a self induced sort of catharsis, whereto I still come back surprisingly often.
(seriously, I Could Live in Hope by Low sounds like living an entire existence one and a half steps downtuned)
Now that I am mentally going through their production theme by theme, I guess I could write a chapter for every artist, but that would be slow and sad.
To prove you that I am not just a compulsive sad music listener but also an accomplished lyrist, let me delight you with a couple of lines I just came up with:
There's a city in old Kentucky
That lies upon a hill
Girls from there are fair and lucky
I talk about Louisville.
I am pretty sure Kentucky to be all flat, but I needed to introduce the Louisville scene somehow. I don't know if there is wide consensus about the Louisville scene definition nowadays and I do not care: it's maaaath-rock baby and you know what I am talking about, and if you don't you'd better check out Spiderland from Slint right now.
Tortoise, Don Caballero, Shellac, Polvo, Gastr del Sol: they were/are all rock neoplasticists (I FUCKING DARE YOU TO FUCKIN SAY NEO-PLASTICISTSTSTSTS ALOUD), they filled the (musical) space with guitar bits, organised riffs and elaborated drum structures. With loudness and roughness being key part of the sound, the core of the delivered message lies in the rhythmical complexity, or at least there's where I would search it for.
Sleepy and tired
That's how I felt
So I stopped my horse
And set up my tent
The morning after
I was back at my best
So I packed up
And headed to Midwest.
Serious poetic shit going on. Because I need so bad to talk about midwest emo, and how midwesternly and emotionally it affected my life. Two bands stood out and found place in my progmetal heart: American Football and The Van Pelt. American Football's self titled is an ode to breakup. TVP are an ode to being good at playing guitar. Curious fact: a song from their The Sultans of Sentiment album (1997) gives name to one of my favourite italian bands.
Math-rock and midwest-emo, let me introduce you to your common progenitor: post-hardcore. I was a lot into postcore then. I am still, and for that I have to thank three albums in particular - Relationship of Command by At the Drive-In, Leaves Turn Inside You by Unwuond and The Shape of Punk to Come by Refused.
Extremely well crafted music, with extreme attention to detail and a clear punk attitude, without dragging at any single second: a new guitar world opened up before my eyes. A posteriori I find this to have been my ticket back from metallandia.
– Hey, and what about HÜSKER DÜÜÜÜÜÜ?
More on mr. Mould and friends later, of course.
(Ah please excuse me, I still have to start with Fugazi.)
Living the Dream
So far I covered many legs of my musical journey, all of them important to me to some degree. But of one encounter I think as the most crucial, as the everlasting flame that still burns high in me. One of my closest friend, with whom I had just online contact - a beautiful musical mind, both in terms of composing and appreciating - used to send me weekly suggestions. That week at the end of 2009 was no exception. It contained two names, two sides of the same fuzzy and sweet medal.
My Bloody Valentine and Slowdive.
I was listening to a completely unheard idiom, that I felt so close and familiar at the same time. It was talking directly to all my wounds, it was not healing them but just reassuring them that it wouldn't have gotten any worse at least.
What was that music called? That pop soul wrapped in the sweetest coat of noise? It was such a new combination to me, for I have always seen world in either black or white, with no room for intemediate nuances. With one of my best friends, Giulia, we always teased each other that one was strictly devoted to Apollo, the divine representation of sun and rationality, while the other to Dionysus, warden of wine and pleasure. Won't be hard to guess which was who.
My apollinian skills helped me to find their music belonged to a peculiarly named genre: ladies and gents, s h o e g a z e. It was the breach that let me peek at Bacchus' side. I was so eager every day to come back home from university and to drink from their catalogue, and to refill my portable player with such nectar. Were those guitars, keyboards, voices? Did it matter at all?
I used to listen to very long progressive suites, where the role of every instrument and player was clear. Apollo directing the orchestra. And here? Spirits dancing in messy circles, androgynous vocals, hard to tell whether humans or machines in the drum seat. How haunting, how mesmerizing! For the very first time I was also very interested in the story of the individuals behind such music, for I felt such a strong attunement with them. And the stories were melancholic at best and quite sad at worst: both bands in hiatus or disbanded, low sales, low recognision outside a circle of hardcore fans, personal and family issues. Hell, that was me. I got so into them, they even inspired me to write questionable prose.
But why shoegaze at all? My research retrieved two schools of thought: the first refers to the need of constantly looking at the pedalboard they used to craft their sound, the second to the shyness that prevented them from looking at the audience. I loved to believe in a mixture of both.
Of course there was an entire world of shy pedalboards out there - Lush, Ride, Chapterhouse, Catherine Wheel, Pale Saints, Swervedriver, Adorable, Curve... My love grew so big over the years that I even curated shoegaze.it, an italian resource about the genre.
Was it enough? Of course not, I needed to follow the spiral upwards towards of the first emanations of this wonderful sound. My friend was once again source of good advice, and pointed me straight to Scotland. Hell, what I knew from such country back then were the two football teams of Glasgow, scotch and that emperor Adrian built a wall to keep their people off. Not exactly the first place where I would have looked into. But there were the Cocteu Twins born, and there I headed to.
I bought a copy of Treasure, I put the CD inside my player and I pressed play. Damn, that voice! Where did I already heard it? In Massive Attack's Teardrop of course! A circle was closing. Since childhood I have always been an atheist. Was it for my refusal against the catholic environment I was raised into, was it for my rational and scientific mindset - SCIENCEGUYSCIENCEGUYSCIENCEGUY - spirituality never found my person quite comfortable.
I think the Twins clearly demonstrated that there was much more behind the brief chapters I read from Kant and Descartes, something there was no need to explain, but just to contemplate and enjoy. Art in its finest and pure form, art for art's sake, trascendence. The voice of Elizabeth Frazer gave an orthogonal turn to my life, and so did Robin Guthrie's guitar work.
They didn't even feature meaningful lyrics, Liz used her voice as a pure instrument of connection, as a ritual device. Idioglossia, they call it, what a beautiful word itself! Idios + Glossa, roughly renderable as private speech from ancient greek, if my classical studies do not fail me.
A piece of the 'gaze puzzle was still missing, and luckily I didn't need to go much far in order to find it. This time the suggestion came from Giulia, as she talked me about two brothers that made a lot of noise with guitars, and had sweet and sexy lyrics: Jim and William Reid, better known as The Jesus and Mary Chain.
The fuzzier the sound, the clearer the picture! This sacchariferous and so diverse universe had a gourgeous name: dreampop. Hell, somebody did even bother to dedicate it a website, so it must be quite an important thing. My liason with dreampop did just start, and stands still healthy and spicy nowadays.
In Italia seicento e quaranta [...] ma in Ispagna son già mille e tre
This thorough retrospective seems to be a much tougher task than the one I expected, for it is hard to go through so many years and not to miss anything, and yet not to indulge too much on some specific period. I noticed for instance that the narration is pretty much rock and anglic centric. What about my beloved mediterranean roots, half of iberian and half of italian heritage? The problem for me was to retrieve quality music written in my mother tongue(s), because what radio delivered was mostly and franklymistershanklyly unlistenable.
Fabrizio De André was my first italian musical love. For many more a poet rather than a songwriter, for me an amico fragile. I cannot thinkg about any single significant moment of my life that I could not relate to a song of his. He could describe even the most disgraceful event in the fairest and most lovely way. By the time you get a worldplay, the verse is already over leaving you speechless with a grin of appreciation over your face.
Albeit I like many other cantautori of his generation, I cannot digest their whole discographies. With Faber I never experienced such problem, and I still have a complete journey through his works at least once a year.
Franco Battiato comes very close. More a full fledged musician than a songwriter, he ranged from electronic experimentalism in his early years, to exquisite pop music crafting in his prime. He wrote music for many other artists (Alice, Giuni Russo), and his reckoned for writing many lyrics by opening the dictionary at random pages, and picking the longest and most exotic terms. I remember listening to him when driving back home with my friends after a night out. His voice is so soothing, it always calms me down when I need it.
Faber and Battiato were respectable gentlemen, who enjoyed life for sure but never lost their composure. But there is a soul in italian musical history that perhaps never showed any, Piero Ciampi. Born in Livorno (Leghorn if you sip your tea at 5pm sharp), he had few rivals when to talk about blue love and booze over the finest piano lines. During his relatively short stay on Earth, Piero sang sorrow like almost no other. He was good at laughing and making you do after him. And he wrote songs for leghornian fellow Nada. Oh Nada, how much I love the imperceptible distance that separates your steps from the boring ground.
Some italians are good at rock and roll too, even though it took me a while to find out. It was watching Paz!, a movie based on Andrea Pazienza's characters that I first got in touch with Giovanni Lindo Ferretti's CCCP Fedeli alla linea. Ferretti met Massimo Zamboni in Berlin in 1981 and soon founded one of the greatest acts of the decade. They took the punk gist and blended it with italian tradition and musical culture. After the first upbeat and noise production, they included ethnic elements into their sound. They split and reformed into C.S.I., and they kept of writing among the best pages of italian music. Now Ferretti turned into a reactionary, we don't know if just for provoking or really meant. Kill me before I do the same, just in case.
But if I have to choose as a model for his aesthetics, weltanschahuung and temper, my pick would definitely be Federico Fiumani, singer and guitarist of Diaframma. Diaframma's debut Siberia (1982) is on par with finest british post-punk. Chances are that I love their later wave material even more, for its raw production and dreamier mood. When I want to get an haircut I always show a pic of young Fiumani, yet they never get it right. Love you, Fiu.
While digging the math-rock/post-xxx scene, I stumbled upon some felsinean (read: from Bologna) guys that played finest uptempo post-rock, with spoken word stories on top. It blew my mind, the declamation fit so good with the dynamic of the music. What was the name of such band that I was playing so loud every day? Massimo Volume was the answer, nomen omen.
Remember The Van Pelt? There is a post-hc band in Turin that seems to like them a lot, for they are named after a line of theirs (keep your hands away // we were fine before you came - from Don't Make Me Walk My Own Log). After a couple of canonical albums sung in English, Fine Before You Came nailed it with s f o r t u n a. It fastly became a cult work, and I became adept.
At the end of the Noughties I had a big crush on a band that was gaining extreme popularity back then, at least in the italian underground scene, Bianconi and Bastreghi's Baustelle. Cheeky arrangements framing pretentious and decadent lyrics, generous use of keyboards, string section and synthesizers. I left the Baustelle wagon when pretentiousness exceeded the musical message, but for the first four albums at least it was a comfortable trip. Tra i Manzoni preferisco quello vero, Piero.
While digging into the progressive realm, I discovered not just that all italian bands were not extinguished, but that the best one was still active and performing: Finisterre. Their skills were supporting a fresh expression and not mere manierism, their music did touch me deeply and I went through all their production. I discovered they had many branches, most of them associated with their bassist mastermind Fabio Zuffanti - Aries, Rohmer, Höstsonaten, it is very hard to find subpar material from him.
On the iberic side, things were quite different because I was barely visiting my relatives in that period, thus I could not be exposed to the scene. In last years of school we all listened to Madrid skacore band Ska-P. Very catchy music and lyrics, in tune with our juvenile social rage. Nothing more for many years, nada de nada. Once day I decided to inquire the RYM oracle directly about the subject, for I heard a primal call from half of my blood. What's the best fucking music ever written in spain, besides Paco de Lucia?
I discovered many great acts, and among the least known, the shiniest of the hidden gems of the spanish crown: 713avo Amor.
713avo amor wrote a couple of albums at the beginning of the 90ies. The second is a masterpiece of storytelling (á la Massimo Volume, yes), in a raw noise-rock shell. I was so shocked after listening to the closing track, a fifteen minutes piece narrating the story of a child that survived the extreme tortures his two brothers were exposed too after his father sold them to a creepy local boss in exchange for guns. I kid you not when I say that those 15m are one of the greatest things ever happened in musical history.
Getting to the front row
Remember the skingirl? It was with her I attended my first concerts. Punk/hc acts from italian and international scene. Back then I felt completely out of place but I slowly grew interest for live acts. Hell, that was music at its best, people making noise on stage and being allowed to fail in order to deliver you a performance.
I started going to as many concerts as possible, from bands I loved to obscure local groups, many of which proved why they were obscure and local - because they sucked big time. But they were part of the scene, and I was curious about the scene. The main problem with the scene is that it was based downtown, and I lived in the outskirts of the city, and my attendance was strictly dependent on friends or significant one willing to drive me there (or better to drive me back). I had to skip good concerts due to this inconvenient, but that's life.
Among the first glourious dates, I remember the Beastie Boys performing at Villaggio Globale, a squatted centre in the heart of Testaccio district. The place was full as fuck, with a long queue waiting outside. We went to peek from a gate nearby, where a couple of fellas moved a fence and prompted us to sneak in quickly puerca dia!, in a strong rumenian accent. God bless Romania, we where in for free!
I had then a great night with Battiato around 2006, when he played a first act with the orchestra, and a second one with the rock band. Priceless. Ok it was twenty bucks actually, but the outcome was still priceless. Then it was time for my first Porcupine Tree gig, insanely good. Klimt 1918 live were great too, I saw them twice, with the second show being interrupted by power outage. It was a free Thursday night at Qube disco, so we couldn't complain much about, but still we wanted them to play further - hell, we even looked for an acoustic guitar to play a short unplugged set, but we couldn't find any.
I took part to a lot of metal and post-rock gigs, as those were the scenes that interested me the most back then. But the most cathartic shows I have been to were for sure those of Fine Before You Came, because they completely broke the fourth wall: stage diving, playing and singing within the audience, letting the audience shout directly at the mike while hugging them. Been there, done that.
I still keep track of my concerts on my RYM page.
Quick flashback: on the fall of 2010, I visited London for the first time. I went to see GY!BE concert (actually two in a row, at the Troxy), first tour after a long hiatus. There I met a Last.fm buddy, and together we visited the city we just heard of through all those legendary records for many years. Hard to believe, it was my first trip that I did (almost) alone, not in a bunch of three or four at least. I barely rested during the stay, I was too busy visiting all those parks, those galleries and museums, admiring those monuments. And strolling through Camden, and having a pint, and looking for a green eyed redhead to fall in love with. That was an unfruitful research, that was.
I came back from Albion with tens of CDs, sore feet, and a strong desire to travel again soon.