Back in late 60’s/early 70’s progressive rock has been a real cultural and artistic revolution and it worldwide influenced bands and artists to make very inspired music with the intention of expand what rock had created till then. Of course we all (i suppose) know the bigger british names like King Crimson, Genesis or Jethro Tull, bands that created solid basis for the genre; but there are also tons of less known bands and scenes all over the world, and in particular in Europe, that have given a strong contibution to the movement. There is Zehul in France (Magma, Zao, Weidorje), Krautrock in Germany (Amon Düül II, Tangerine Dream), the Canterbury Scene (Caravan, Gong, Camel), and the Italian scene: one of the most inspired, prolific and worlwide acclaimed of the entire period.
While USA and UK were experimenting new hallucinating and trippy experiences with psychedelic rock during mid 60’s (which is the direct precursor of progressive rock), Italy remained pretty indifferent to the trend since almost every band was still into beat, with the almost unique exeption of Le Stelle Di Mario Schifano and their sole album Dedicato a (1967), which is a real crazy psychedelic experience “made in Italy”. That’s why the italian prog scene evolved mostly from beat rather than psychedelic rock, sometimes showing some very tender and pop-esque moments, but without forgetting some incredibly weird and dark tunes typical of progressive rock with also many recalls of italian/mediterrean traditional music.
Italian prog season had its higher moments between 1970 and 1975, producing many impressive and incredibly inspired records that still preserves their magic today, after that short period punk had already changed the way of making rock music bringing back simplicity and killing the intricated structures of progressive rock.
This list is of course minimal, and there’s a lot of great stuff from the italian season that remained excluded, it is basically a gathering of some of my favourite ones (but absolutely not the only) according to my personal taste.
Franco Battiato “Pollution” (1972)
Let’s start with a pretty experimental album with a strong dose of electronic music, but probably the most close to a canonic idea of progressive rock from Battiato’s discography. Franco Battiato is currently one of the most acclaimed songwriters in Italy, mostly known for his successful pop songs made during the 80’s, his love for exotic music and philosophy, and for his very eclectic personality that makes him one of the most genuine and creative artists of Italy.
His progressive period includes three records: Fetus (1972), Pollution (1972) (the more rock) and Sulle Corde di Aries (1973) (the more acclaimed and inspired according to critical reception), then there’s a more experimental period followed by a pop/new wave one during best part of the 80’s and then by tons of other records of different genres released from then till today.
This work is a concept album based on pollution, and it is a very particular journey made of unique sounds that evocates exotic and spacey vibes; there’s a very solid rhythmic section of bass and drums that gives a very enthralling touch to the music in particular on the songs Areknames (where there’s also a very distinctive harmonisation of distorted guitars) and Beta. The main ingredient is obviously still Battiato’s EMS VCS3 with its hypnotic sound, very distinctive for most of his experimental works, that here creates an incredibly entrancing atmosphere especially when mixed with the sinister guitars of Plancton. Among effects, samples, classical music references and Kafka inspired monologues, the album continues and ends, leaving the listener a bit confused, but certainly impressed.
Metamorfosi “Inferno” (1973)
Progressive rock is one of the very rare episodes in rock’s music universe where guitars are not predominant or in some cases even absent; this happens in UK with the giants Emerson, Lake and Palmer as the bigger example, but also in Italy with some cases that includes this album.
Metamorfosi is a band from Rome and this album is their second full-length. The concept is a modern re-interpretation of Dante’s Commedia first chapter based hell, indeed on the musical side the atmospheres does an excellent work of evocation, bringing some definitely “infernal” keyboards/synth sounds that may be perfect as soundtrack while crossing the Acheron. As said in the introduction that’s very surprising how a record with almost no guitars at all could bring such sinister atmosphere and how much could be solid, enthralling and intense.
There’s a lot of epicness in the vocal parts and a lot of melody on the lead key’s lines, elements that alongside a use of not extremely technical passages, contribute to give a very immediate and distinctive impact on the listener. Definitely one of the most memorable it-prog records.
Alan Sorrenti “Aria” (1972)
Even if he’s most known in Italy as a disco pop singer for some very famous singles released at end of 70’s, the songwriter Alan Sorrenti started his carreer creating some of the most evocative, experimental and weird tunes of the italian prog rock season; His first record Aria is a real jewel absolutely worth to listen.
Permeated by a unique magical atmosphere the album should be intended as a meditative and dream-like journey; it is opened by a dark long suite (Aria) characterized by an impressive and crazy vocal performance developed on a very weird, but yet emotional, musical tapestry with melancholic violin and piano melodies, accompanied by dark folk acoustic guitars and enthralling bass lines enriched by experimental sounds here and there (you can hear synths, effects and even trumpets). With a length of 20 minutes this first side is absolutely unmissable and it is one of the most beautiful and intense things you could hear in 70’s rock in general. Withe the following Un Fiume Tranquillo, Sorrenti continues with dark melancholic folk tunes in a very intimate and meditative form, offering another amazing breathaking song, with melodies and sounds that seems coming from another dimension.
The last two tracks of the album brings some more lighter vibes, but still in a very weird and unique way, confirming this record as an incredible masterpiece absolutely recommended.
Balletto di Bronzo “YS” (1972)
Here we go with another uniqe masterpiece that sounds like nothing else: very dark, atmospheric, hypnotic and cosmic, YS is without any doubt one of the highest points of italian progressive rock.
Balletto di Bronzo was formed in Naples at the end of 60’s as a beat band, but it’s with the addition of the talented keyboardist/vocalist Gianni Leone that things completely changes in a revolutionary way; music becomes heavy, space rock oriented and mesmerizing, confirming YS (second album and only one with this style) as pure progressive perfection.
Gianni Leone’s approach to keyboards is absolutely unique and impressive, alternating different sounds and tones and intersecting them perfectly with powerful bass lines and some very acid guitar distortions, mixing sinister sections with pure heavy rock explosions and almost sci-fi effected sounds. YS is a peculiar trip that sounds like a nightmare where you are trapped through the deep darkness of space with no idea of how to come back. Absolutely amazing.
Area “Arbeit Macht Frei” (1973)
One of the most interesting, original and acclaimed rock bands coming from Italy, known for their absolutely unique approach to music; Arbeit Macht Frei is their debut album, considered by best part of the critics not only their best one, but a foundamental block of the whole italian progressive rock season.
The album starts with a female spoken word in arabic recorded in Cairo, Egypt by the band’s drummer Giulio Capiozzo and used as intro of the song Luglio, Agosto, Settembre (Nero); a wonderful track that later evolves in a fantastic table composed of prog rock, jazz, fusion, Soft Machine-esque recalls and a huge variety of mediterrean musical reference from north african music to greek, balkan and obviously italian folk. The album indeed sounds like a magic voyage made of different places and cultures, which is a sort of trademark of Area’s music, also able to push with no limits jazz and avant-garde contaminations played with an incredible sensible approach to the instruments (listen to Arbeit Macht Frei if you want to drown in an ocean of fantastic sax and drums solo expolosions with wonderful organ and guitar melodies). The music is composed by keyboard player Patrizio Fariselli and it is definitely close to perfection especially because it’s performed and often improvised by extraordinary musicians.
Lastly it’s impossible to talk about Area without tributing the singer Demetrio Stratos (died at 34 in 1979), an artist that have become a strong influence all over the world among experimental musicians for his impressive vocal work reached with unique studies on human’s vocal range and singing tecnhiques.
Jumbo “DNA” (1972)
Formed in Milan in 1969, Jumbo is one of the most interesting bands part of the italian progressive rock movement and this album with the following Vietato ai Minori di 18 Anni (1973) rappresent the peaks of inspiration of their career.
Opened by a long 20 minutes suite on the side A (the wonderful Suite per il Signor K.), this record is a perfect mix of pure hard rock with even blues/country references (especially on the scratchy vocal work and some guitar parts), very impressive flute driven progressive rock parts (needless to say a big Jethro Tull influence can be heard) and baroque sections with piano and acoustic guitar.
DNA is the perfect example of an album that results incredibly cohesive and well crafted mostly because of the band’s great ability of playing and composing music together, perceptible through the ability of assembling different lines and sections to build an incredibly convincing blend.
Here there’s basically the best of italian prog rock: from classical music inspired and acoustic instrumental sections to very heavy guitar driven parts and many emotional melodic moments leaded by piano and guitar; but there’s even a very strong dose of originality, i mean, how many other bands have mixed epic italian hard prog with blues and country out there?
PFM “Storia di un Minuto” (1972)
Certainly the most famous italian progressive rock band and probably the most famous album of the period. PFM (short name version of the complete Premiata Forneria Marconi) have reached an extraordinary success, way bigger compared to all the other bands, that brought them into international music festivals and music charts and let them survive to the punk period.
This is their debut album and it’s a great lesson of progressive made in the italian way; on first production is absolutely perfect for the years and sounds like a very well recorded and mixed album still today, on second it is an absolutely great record, but i guess this last part was quite obvious.
PFM is able to offer introspective italian 70’s pop inspired moments (Impressioni di Settembre, La Carrozza di Hans), enthralling folk-like tracks (È Festa), hard prog euphoria (La Carrozza di Hans) and even medieval/baroque compositions that reminds the masters of the Canterbury Scene (Dove… Quando). This album shows an almost perfect approach to songwriting and musical execution and La Carrozza di Hans is probably the highest moment, showing very technical but yet emotional classical and electric guitar compositions with magnificent violin and organ solo moments. This formula is also repeated in a very well crafted way on the following album Per Un Amico (1972) recommended as well.
Alphataurus “Alphataurus” (1973)
Alphataurus emerges apparently from nowhere back in early 70’s, just time to release this wonderful LP and then completely disappearing the same year (and come back around 20 years later). This is an epic journey and it can be imagined already from the fantastic cover art, very sci-fi-esque, there are synth driven parts that reminds a bit Emerson, Lake and Palmer (Dopo L’Uragano, La Mente Vola) and some more melodic rock tunes (Peccato d’Orgoglio).
There’s a lot of atmosphere here, and very singular soundscapes emerge from the melodies generated by the band’s keys and synths, the song La Mente Vola is probably one of the highest points of the entire record with its unique mysteriousness. Impressive.
Banco Del Mutuo Soccorso “BMS” (1972)
One of the most iconic records from the period released by a legendary band as its first album ever. Everyone interested in italian prog knows and appreciates this, and it is one of the most original, emotionally intense and unmissable albums of that time.
Banco del Mutuo Soccorso is from Rome and beside the incredible and very original voice of Francesco Di Giacomo (1947-2014) the band is known for its very rich compositions made by founder and pianist Vittorio Noncenzi accompanied by his brother Gianni at the keyboards (who played in the band until mid 80’s, when whom role will be replaced by various second guitarist); so, “very extensive male vocals and piano and keyboards played simultaneously with a classical music touch” makes the Banco formula interesting without even listening their music, that omn this record offers an absolutely unique experience.
Opened by an epic spoken word evolving on a melancholic tapestry with flute and guitar the album already shows a strong personality on the first proper track RIP with a very catchy guitar riff accompanied by an enthralling piano section that marks the first part of the song that later evolves into a melancholic section that then becomes pure explosive epicness. Melancholy and epicness seems to be the more appropriated terms to describe the music on several sections of the album always marked by Vittorio Noncenzi’s piano and its unique musical sensibility. There’s also time for weird and dark moments (Il Giardino del Mago) and pure experimentation (Metamorfosi).
De De Lind “Io Non So da Dove Vengo e Non So Dove Mai Andrò. Uomo è il Nome che Mi Han Dato” (1972)
Another hidden gem from the italian prog period is the only album released by this obscure band named after a model. Formed in 1967 in the Varesotto area near Milan (where they have later relocated) as a beat band, they’ve then completely evolved their sound with progressive and hard rock contaminations and released this very particular record back in 1972.
The music is very close to the big compatriots bands of the genre such as Banco Del Mutuo Soccorso and PFM, and obviously english titans such as Gentle Giant and Jethro Tull (it’s impossible to not think of My God when listening to the flute solo part on Paura del Niente). differently than most of the albums from the period, the band here has a lot of guitars, also played with a good distortion tone (not so obvious for the time), moreover the vocal work should be definitely mentioned, with its mellow and tender melodic pop (with even folk recalls) vibes. There are also many excellent parts of acoustic guitars and flute that makes this album a really interesting journey made of ancient memories from the early times of man, alternating contemplative parts, heavy explosions and suspensful sections.