The Italian Job

Local imprint offers prog-rock masterworks from Italia's other Renaissance

Long the source of ridicule, progressive rock has come back into vogue as of late, from the Gordian knots made by bands like System of a Down and Tool to hipster-cognoscenti compilations like Andy Votel's Prog Is Not a Four Letter Word. It's a reckoning that even Salvadori had to come to terms with. "I didn't grow up on Italian rock music. I was into Beatles, Todd Rundgren, Syd Barrett, Nick Drake. Then eventually, you know, those songs [of Battisti] anyhow because they are everywhere, on the radio, TV, every guy with a guitar is playing these songs." After reading a reconsideration of Battisti in an issue of Blow-Up magazine (Italy's version of Mojo), Salvadori began to delve deeper into the music of the early '70s and appreciate its distinct pleasures, from Battisti's pop to the thornier experiments being recorded elsewhere in the country.

Take, for example, singer Alan Sorrenti. With raven tresses, a lush beard, and dark, haunting eyes, Sorrenti's figure on the cover of Aria chills like another cover it evokes, the first Black Sabbath record. It's heavy as well, but not in the same way as Ozzy and company. Instead, the 19-minute vertiginous suite of an opening track showcases Sorrenti's powerful vocal range, recalling Peter Hammill in Britain's well-regarded prog outfit Van Der Graaf Generator, Cedric Bixler-Zavala from the Mars Volta, or outre Tim Buckley, while still sounding idiosyncratic. "Eventually," Salvadori states flatly, "Sorrenti went top of the charts with some really cheesy pop songs."

After a slew of mid-'60s singles, at the start of the 1970s vanguard musician Franco Battiato cut two enthralling and audacious concept albums entitled Fetus and Pollution. In the liner notes for the reissue of the former, renowned tastemaker, producer, and ex-Sonic Youth member Jim O'Rourke gushes about "a golden age in Italian progressive and experimental music" and Battiato's place at the forefront. "I could hear in the music of the later '90s that there had been groups ... who sat in reverence," writes O'Rourke. Listening to the fearless amalgam of sounds (heartbeats, choirs, acoustic guitars, space landings, primitive synths, orchestras, and hypnotic rock) that Battiato welds expertly, one can hear his influence future fans like Stereolab, Tortoise, Julian Cope, Mouse on Mars, and O'Rourke himself. Last year, What's Your Function?, a tribute album to Battiato, came out, with bands like Kinski, Oneida, Circle, Hrvatski, and Acid Mothers Temple repaying their debts to his oeuvre. In many ways, Battiato's career follows contours similar to that of Brian Eno: After a few weird rock records, he ventured deeper into the wordlessness of the avant-garde, releasing a slew of albums in the mid-'70s that O'Rourke correctly deems "the definitive sound of Italian experimental melancholy." Weirder still is that in 1978, Battiato reinvented himself again as a new wave star and rocketed to fame that he still enjoys to this day.

These particular reissues of Italian music may not rejuvenate Italy's place in the entertainment world (or have the same impact as, say, a certain notorious head butt), but they hold a certain nationalist pride for Salvadori. "Ten years ago, if you went into record stores, there was not too much French or Brazilian music," he says. "If you go to stores now, you can find everything. The same with German music and krautrock. Now there's a huge French section, a huge Brazilian section. There's good stuff from Italy that should be up there with Caetano Veloso, Serge Gainsbourg. It'd be nice to think that there's some Italian music people will now get to know."

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