[ SHORT REVIEWS | DETAILED REVIEWS
(43:05, Musea Records)
TRACK LIST: 1. Epilogo 2:41 2. Giu Nella Forra 1:47 3. Casa Di Blu 0:58 4. La Guida 1:28 5. Cosa Dice Quella Porta Chiusa 0:53 6. Dimmi Chi Sei 2:30 7. Cosa Dice Quella Porta Schiusa 0:53 8. Fame Che Ride 1:18 9. Ladri E Stranieri 4:49 10. Soldati 2:01 11. Un Lupo 3:29 12. Canto Antico 2:38 13. Casa Non Mai Vista 2:23 14. Cristo Guarito 3:10 15. La Lettera 1:52 16. Gli Scantinati 3:56 17. Requiem 2:29 18. Nessuno Muore Mai 1:37 19. Non Sono Morto 2:21 LINEUP: Leonardo Bonetti – vocals; bass, ac. guitar; keyboards Paola Feraiorni – vocals Fabio Brait – ac. guitar Aldo Orazi – drums
Prolusion. Hailing from Rome, Italy, ARPIA were formed in 1984 by multi-instrumentalist Leonardo Bonetti, guitarist Fabio Brait and drummer Aldo Orazi. They released three demos between 1987 and 1990, after some years spent experimenting with theatrical forms in support of their live shows. Then, after the 1992 release of the single “Ragazzo Rosso/Idolo E Crine”, in 1995 there came their CD debut with the concept album “Liberazione”, based on the history of Italy after the end of World War Two. Their second CD, “Terramare”, came in 2006 after a lengthy hiatus. “Racconto D’Inverno”, their third album, was released in early 2009 together with Leonardo Bonetti’s novel of the same title, which has received a lot of positive feedback from the Italian press.
Analysis. “Racconto D’Inverno” is one of those albums that may leave a reviewer stumped for the right words. It is progressive rock, but not as we commonly know it - as a matter of fact, if taken superficially, it can even come across as remarkably accessible in a ‘sophisticated pop-rock’ kind of way. It is a concept album based on a book, which in turn was based on two other works, Tarkovsky’s film “Stalker” and Italian writer Tommaso Landolfi’s short story “Racconto D’Autunno” (An Autumn Story). It is almost completely acoustic, with keyboards used as a complement rather than as a main character, so to speak. In spite of having been around for over two decades (and with the same core line-up as well), Arpia are anything but a prolific band. While all of their albums qualify as concepts, “Racconto D’Inverno” is the effort that really raises the bar in terms of the development and maturation of their individual style. Although a story put into music, it is not just any old, tired variation on the ‘rock opera’ theme. The concise, yet supremely elegant lyrics, perfectly suited to the dual vocal approach adopted by the band, emphasize the aura of mingled fear and fascination pervading the whole disc. In a way, though musically quite different, it could be compared to another similarly structured album released in the first months of 2009 – The Decemberists’ “The Hazards of Love”. The story (which follows a circular narrative pattern) is told from the point of view of its protagonist, a drifter roaming in the mountains near the border during World War Two. While trying to escape from the war zone, he meets a mysterious young man who guides him to an equally mysterious, derelict house deep in a forested gorge, haunted by the presence of a woman. Those familiar with Italian literature will immediately notice the link with the rich tradition of fiction set during those terrible years – however, “Racconto D’Inverno” is not a realistic account of the horrors of war, but rather a hauntingly Gothic tale that may also be read metaphorically. From a musical perspective, “Racconto D’Inverno” does not suggest ‘traditional’ Italian prog, as expressed by the historic bands of the Seventies and their contemporary followers. Some fellow reviewers have hinted at a possible comparison – motivated by the darkly rarefied, yet strongly melodic atmosphere of the album, as well as the presence of both male and female vocals – with Australian outfit Dead Can Dance, to which I would add seminal British prog-folk band The Pentangle (Jack Orion comes to mind). There is indeed a clear folk undercurrent in Arpia’s music, emphasised by the use of the acoustic guitar as the main instrument, and further reinforced by the expressive singing style of Leonardo Bonetti and Paola Feraiorni (already featured as a guest on “Terramare”, and now a full member of the band). Indeed, Paola’s voice is one of the main draws of the album – crystal-clear in tone, yet forceful, in the tradition of the great folk-rock female singers of the Seventies such as Maddy Prior or Sandy Denny. Her pristine, controlled delivery, far removed from the modern penchant for either saccharine sweetness or operatic grandiosity in female vocals, is the ideal vehicle for the often unsettling subject matter, dominated by the presence of death. Arpia are also to be commended for having kept the album relatively short, aware of the pitfalls of excessive length, especially on an album of this nature. The music, which favours the repetition of themes in selected episodes (as demonstrated, for instance, by the mirror-like melody of Epilogo and Non Sono Morto), may initially come across as somewhat monotonous, a bit like the shades of grey of the album cover and booklet – though further listens will easily dispel this impression. Given the importance of the storyline, familiarity with the Italian language is definitely a bonus, though not indispensable for the album’s enjoyment. Even without understanding the actual words, Leonardo and Paola’s stunning vocals will help the listener connect with the story. “Racconto D’Inverno” should be seen as a suite in 19 short movements (only the imperious, Middle Eastern-tinged Ladri E Stranieri approaches the 5-minute mark) rather than a standard collection of songs – which makes describing any individual tracks anything but easy. As is to be expected on an album of this nature, the music is very much at the service of the story, rather than the opposite. Though the acoustic guitars play by far the biggest role (together, obviously, with the vocals), the keyboards lurk in the background, introduced first in Un Lupo, and finally taking the lead in the climactic ending of the tale, the dual punch of Gli Scantinati and Requiem, where – combined with the mournful sound of strings and the almost unbearably intense vocals – they create a dirge-like melody that suggest some decidedly sinister goings-on in the vein of Edgar Allan Poe and its ilk. By releasing an album of such peculiar nature, Arpia have made an extremely bold move, putting artistic integrity before any concerns of commercial success. Intensely original in its combination of mesmerizing music, intriguing storytelling and splendid vocal performances, minimalistic yet deeply moving, “Racconto D’Inverno” is a masterpiece of atmosphere and restraint, light years away from the excesses to which modern prog bands are so often prone.
Conclusion. With “Racconto D’Inverno”, Arpia have finally joined the growing number of iconic modern Italian prog bands. This is an album that will appeal to all lovers of music relying on simplicity and purity, rather than technical flash, to convey its message. Those who have a good knowledge of Italian might also want to check out the novel, and possibly its source, Tommaso Landolfi’s “Racconto D’Autunno”. One of my top albums for 2009; highly recommended to everyone – regardless of labels.
[ SHORT REVIEWS | DETAILED REVIEWS - LIST | BANDLISTS ]