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SIRIO 2222 (Italian RCA ND 71819) [1970] YS (Japanese Polydor ERC-32001) (Italian Polydor/Mellow 519 388-2) [1972]


"Balletto Di Bronzo was surely one of the most unfortunate groups of Italian progressive music," writes Paolo Barotto in his RETURN OF ITALIAN POP. He continues: "Their two really fine albums did not get the public acclaim they surely deserved. Because of a lack of publicity and maybe because they were too musically advanced for their time, they got no public recognition." That was in Italy, in the early Seventies.

Here's what Jerry Lucky says about the band in his 1998 edition of The Progressive Rock Files (a book which says less about more bands than I've seen gathered together elsewhere under one cover): "Some say their album YS is the greatest progressive rock album ever. In the tradition of mid seventies classic Italian style. Some nice Mellotron mixed in amongst the jamming and dissonance." That is, except for a bungled listing of the band's albums and their release dates, all that Lucky has to say. Some of his other entries are one or two sentences shorter. But the point lies in his first sentence. This is an album, and consequently a band, which has attained a legendary status among fans of progressive rock - and deservedly so.

But not for their first album, despite Barotto's high opinion of it. "The first nucleus of Balletto formed in Naples at the end of the sixties," he says. "The group chose the name of 'Battitori Selvaggi' and had a hard rock style. Successively the name was modified into Balletto Di Bronzo and their first single came out in 1969." (The A-side ended up on the first album.) "In 1970 their first LP was released," on RCA Italia. That was SIRIO 2222. Barotto thinks, "It's still today one of the best albums published in Italy: their rock is very much 'alive,' at times extremely hard, and above all, the beginnings of progressive music are featured in here, especially in the fine suite 'Missione Sirio 2222.' The phrasing between electric guitar and drums is very nice and the participation of other instruments (i.e. harmonica) is always precise." In fact, the opening track is enough to put most people seeking progressive rock completely off, and the second unashamedly steals the powerful bass guitar riff of Norman Greenbaum's "Spirit In The Sky," using a Country Joe harmonica riff for the bridge. Indeed, it's not until you get to the fifth track that you hear anything that goes beyond typical Italian "Beat Group" music. That piece, "Meditazione," opens with an "Elinor Rigby"-ish string accompaniment and goes into a harpsichord bridge out of which it emerges into an increasingly more rock-like recapitulation of the opening melody which collapses back into the original strings. While quite possibly Beatles-inspired, its blend of classical elements with an attractive melody has a progressive quality, especially for 1970. (It was released as the B-side of their second single, interestingly enough. The A-side, "Si Mama Mama," has never been on an LP or CD.)

But then it's back to what amounts to undistinguished mainstream (for the time) rock for the next three tracks, and it's not until you get to the ninth and final track, the 9 ½ -minute "Missione Sirio 2222," that anything else of much interest occurs. And this is a kind of condensed psychedelic suite of pieces (each one based on a simple riff over which the band vamps or jams) vaguely reminiscent of Quicksilver Messenger Service. It includes a drum solo. It may well have been ground-breaking in Italy in 1970, but….

This incarnation of Balletto, like the next, was a quartet. Marco Cecioni was the vocalist and played guitar, Miky Cupaiolo played bass, Gianchi Stinga was the drummer, and Lino Ajello also played guitar. The CD mentions the composer credits - all of the tracks are written or co-written by Giacomo Simonelli - and the statement that Simonelli also did the arrangements, such as they are.

"In 1971," Barotto tells us, "there was a line-up change: the 'survivors' of the early band, Lino Ajello and Gianchi Stinga, … added bass player Vito Manzari from Rome and the ex keyboardist of Citta Frontale, Gianni Leone. The quartet started work to prepare an album that was much different than the earlier one. It was published in 1972 for Polydor under the title of YS. The album had a very fine graphic design with a foldout [gatefold] cover including four pages with the lyrics. Musically YS (another concept album from that period) is very good. Everybody deserves a particular mention, but above all there's new member Gianni Leone playing several different keyboards (organ, moog, celeste, spinetta [spinet piano]) and becoming the real leader, even if the background mixture of bass, guitar and drums is consistent throughout the album. The music goes from classical to jazz, the lyrics are surreal and the playing is perfect: perhaps this perfectionism caught the public by surprise, because YS requires several listenings."

When I first heard this album in the early Seventies - it was the first Italian album I bought after being exposed to Premiata Forneria Marconi (PFM) - I was stunned by its musical intensity, which rivals that of King Crimson. It opens with an eerie, unearthly wordless vocal keening that builds in layers until interrupted by a majestic church-like organ which in turn accompanies Leone who sings the opening lyrics (in Italian). This in turn gives way to more intense music in which a moog trades leads with the vocal line and the music continues to build in terms of tempo and intensity, eventually becoming quite manic, the drums ratatatatting furiously. After a certain point the vocals are simply another musical line, weaving through those of the other instruments. Leone is all over his keyboards (there's a Mellotron in there too, for the more subdued moments), usually playing at least two contrasting lines on different instruments. The guitar surfaces as a lead instrument from time to time. The music is organic and in stark contrast to that found on the earlier album. The album is one long, powerful suite and every moment of it works perfectly. It stands alone, unique among its Italian peers. Many consider it to be as good as Van Der Graaf Generator's best; it is in fact more accomplished than most VDGG and lacks that band's occasional rough edges. Others compare it with King Crimson - although there is no direct parallel to Crimson's music - due to its power and intensity.

Both the words and music of this extraordinary album are credited solely to "N. Mazzocchi." Paolo does not mention who this was, and I have never seen the name elsewhere.

Barotto mentions that "The album was supposed to come out also in an English version. In fact, the English lyrics would have better suited this kind of music, but for some reason that did not happen." In 1992 the Mellow label did release a short (fifteen minute) CD in the kind of abbreviated jewel box sometimes used for CD singles which had the English versions of two tracks from YS. Those were "Introduzione," the opening track, and "Secondo Incontro," the third track. The tracks are credited to "Leone - Mazzocchi," implying that Leone (who later released a solo album as Leo Nero, and moved to Los Angeles) supplied the English lyrics. For the most part they are unintelligible. Mellow typically did not supply them in written form. The sound on this CD is not very good; Jerry Lucky identifies it as a "demo" and it sounds like a cassette dub from the original tapes. There are minor differences in the mix and the opening lacks the ethereal voices which so effectively launch the album.

In 1973 the group released their last single on Polydor - sophisticated and progressive, and, as Barotto put it, "musically more communicative" than YS - and broke up. Leone made a light-weight but rather enjoyable solo album and turned to producing. I miss him. However, mysteriously and without any mention of it by Barotto, a third LP appears in the list of Balletto albums in THE RETURN OF ITALIAN POP. It is IL RE DEL CASTELLO and it is dated 1980 and was released on the Raro label with the catalog number of NL 74220. It is coded "A" - "commonly found" - which belies the implication of a record label called "Raro." I have never seen nor heard this album.

YS has been released in two versions on CD - both on Polydor-associated labels. The Japanese version has a booklet which accurately reproduces the original LP's packaging. The CD is a virtual duplicate of the LP. A few years later Mellow released it in Italy through Polydor. (It was a Mellow-produced release, with a Polydor catalog number. Mellow has worked similar arrangements with EMI for other re-releases.) There is no booklet - only a single card slipped into the front of the jewel box which accurately reproduces the LP's front and back covers on its appropriate sides. The back of the box, however, informs us of two bonus tracks - that 1973 single.

Both CD versions have the original good sound of the LP, which is hardly surprising. So it's a trade off: do you want the original booklet, with its graphics and lyrics - or do you want those extra two tracks?

Whichever choice you make, I recommend YS very highly. I recommend the ENGLISH VERSIONS guardedly, and SIRIO 2222 not at all, since it is effectively by a different group with inferior material despite whatever historical importance it may have.

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