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I SUONI IN UNA SFERA (Mellow MMP 113) [1974]         

CELESTE (Vinyl Magic VM 039) [1976]         

SECOND + (Mellow MMP 154) [?]

DIMENSIONE ONIRICA (Mellow MMP 104) [1973/74]         

LIVE AT LUX (Mellow MMP 138) [1974]         

CORTE DEI MIRACOLI (Vinyl Magic VM 040) [1976]

PICCHIO DAL POZZO (Crime KICP 2055) [1976]


We owe much to Vittorio De Scalzi of Italy's New Trolls. His Magma label was important in recording and releasing Italian progressive music by not only the New Trolls (ATOMIC SYSTEM) but a variety of other Italian groups like Alphatauris and Pholas Dactylus. Then, in 1976, he launched a second label, Grog. Like Magma, Grog was distributed by the New Trolls' original label, Fonit-Cetra, and can be presumed to be an artist-run subsidiary of that label. Lasting for only around a year, the Grog label apparently released only five albums and perhaps only one (45) single. The first and fifth albums were by Mandillo (Grog GRL 01) and Sigillo di Horus (Grog GRL 05), and I have never heard them. Likewise, I never heard L.M. Special's single, "Funky Prugna/Avventura," released, as was the final album, in 1977. Barotto, in THE RETURN OF ITALIAN POP, has little good to say for the first and fifth albums, and they were neither imported here in the seventies nor (as yet) released as CDs. On the other hand, the three albums which were imported and have been released on CD are among the most important to come out of seventies Italian progressive music. All released in 1976, CELESTE (Grog GRL 02), PICCHIO DAL POZZO (Grog GRL 03) and CORTE DEI MIRACOLI (Grog GRL 04) introduced those bands and stand as a sort of final summation of an era in Italian music -- an era which seemed to close near the end of 1976.

Celeste was a quartet of multi-instrumentalists. Leonardo Lagorio played keyboards, sax and flute, Mariano Schiavolini played guitar and violin, Ciro Perrino played flute, keyboards, and percussion, and Giorgio Battaglia played bass. Barotto states that "in spite of several years of 'paying dues,' they had not been able to release their own album," until the 1976 Grog release.

However, in 1992 Mellow Records, working with Ciro Perrino, released a movie soundtrack recorded by Celeste (with the addition of Marco Tudini on sax and flute) in 1974. I SUONI IN UNA SFERO is touted by Mellow as "a long lost mastertape" and runs normal album length (almost 42 minutes) and its twelve tracks are relatively short, but not noticeably soundtrack-oriented (there are no reappearing themes running through the album). Ciro Perrino tells me that "We never saw the film and we never got any suggestions from the director. So we simply composed and improvised some simple instrumental songs. (He adds, "Of course we didn’t get paid.") It's a pleasant, but unremarkable album. It does sound like a professional studio recording, but with relatively little in the way of production subtleties. The music is melodic and quasi-classical in tone. But significantly the tenth and eleventh tracks, "Eftus" and "Favole Antiche," are early versions of pieces (with the same names) which crop up again, to better effect, on their Grog album. (Perrino: "The track with Tudini – better known as the Italian Wyatt – is better than the version on the Grog album.") (I have no idea how widely available this album is. The back cover of my copy announces "This Compact Disc had been printed in a strictly limited edition of 300 copies exclusively for Japan and USA." But I have seen the CD, relatively recently, at Tower's Tyson's Corner store.)

Celeste's first official album, CELESTE, was first issued on CD by Japan's King Records on its Nexus label, and may still be available. (King had released the LP in Japan in 1981.) In 1994 Italy's Vinyl Magic released the album on CD. This version is more attractively packaged overall (but both have the same white Grog cover) but sonically duplicates the Japanese CD, which is turn is based on the LP. (Perrino: "The master tapes are lost forever.") It's not a long album (just under 38 minutes), but it achieves near-perfection. Here Celeste is in full flower, and impressively so. Swelling Mellotrons open the album with great melodicism and Mediterranean beauty. The album has an overall pastoral air, sounding much like more gentle balladic work of King Crimson. The other point of comparison is the first three or so albums by PFM. Celeste shares PFM's early melodic richness. For, as Barotto puts it, "Even though this record came out in 1976 there are still some classic pop passages from the early seventies [a la PFM] to which there were added experimental touches. This album is very beautiful: the experimentation is never exaggerated, and at the same time the record does not lose the indispensable communicability needed to be appreciated."

Ciro Perrino states that "Our most important inspiration came from Angelo Branduardi’s first two albums," which were ANGELO BRANDUARDI (1974) and LA LUNA (1975). These albums are little known outside Italy, but the first has been issued on CD by EMI Italiana, and LA LUNA was remixed and re-released with an additional track in 1980 as GULLIVER, LA LUNA E ALTRI DISEGNI, also available on CD from EMI Italiana. Barotto continues: "It must also be noted that the years when the groups simply copied foreign music were far behind, and there are quite a few distinctive ideas in [Celeste's album]. Celeste shows that even a group at the beginning of its career can separate itself from foreign models, finding melodies and sounds which are strictly Mediterranean." This last quality is what underlies all of the best Italian progressive music and makes it unique.

Celeste's Grog album is perfectly realized, and the contrast of the two pieces which appeared first on the soundtrack with their presentation here underscores that point. Here they enjoy added, extra-musical touches (like Aldo De Scalzi's surreal "found" dialogue) which add another dimension to them.

Apparently work was begun on a second album, and these basement tapes or studio demos were issued by Mellow as an LP around 1992 as CELESTE 2. A year later they were released, with added material, on CD as SECOND +. This is a long CD, clocking in at over 72 minutes. Unfortunately, much of that material is of value mostly to collectors. Here the band has been augmented by drummer Francesco "Bat" Di Masi into a quintet, freeing Perrino to play marimba, glockenspiel, and other instruments. The first four tracks (or roughly the first thirty minutes) are well-recorded pieces more reminiscent of their movie soundtrack than of their Grog album. With the fifth track the recording quality gets rougher and more home-made. The sixth track is a 14-minute apparent jam on several melodic themes, dominated in long stretches by Lagorio's saxophone -- with which he has reed problems (squeaks) and note-selection problems (he is clearly floundering in places, hunting for and sometimes missing notes in the correct key). This may have been improvised as an early stab at finding and developing new material. I've participated in better jams myself, however. Tracks 7, 8 and 9 see Celeste transformed into a jazz combo. Tenor sax dominates over electric piano for some loosely Coltrane-influenced lounge music. Mercifully, these are short tracks running between two and three minutes in length. Mellotrons come back to the forefront for the final three tracks (equally short), and a return to more typical Mediterranean melodicism. (Tracks 7 through 12 sound like studio recordings, unlike 5 and 6.)

At some point Celeste ceased to be and St. Tropez came into existence. This band was led by Perrino, playing a wide variety of keyboards, flutes and percussion instruments, and included Battaglia on bass and Di Masi on drums. This group recorded a long (over 74 minutes) album, Icarus, in late 1977 and late 1978 which was not released until 1992 when it came out on Mellow (MMP 105). Mellow blurbed it in its catalog as "Post Celeste, Canterbury influenced, in Gong and Hatfield [And The North] vein. The group maintains a great deal of tension between the instruments with a complex series of shifting time signatures." Frankly, I don't hear that at all. The album has its atmospheric moments, but is basically light, dance-oriented (but not quite disco) music. The music is inconsequential and unmemorable, and each piece stays in its groove for its full length, without many, if any, shifts in tempo or mood. The melodies are still Mediterranean-tinged, but mindless and interchangeable. Wordless female vocals may suggest Hatfield and the North to Mellow's catalog blurb-writer, but this group was in fact too well-named.

In 1980 Perrino began a series of solo albums, beginning with SOLARE, on which he plays almost all the instruments. That album and its nineties successors, THE INNER GARDEN, FAR EAST, and MOON IN THE WATER (and perhaps others more recent), have been released by Mellow on its Inner Garden subsidiary label (IGR 101, 102, 103 and 104 respectively). These are spacey New Age type music and pleasant but in no way close to Celeste.

Corte dei Miracoli have a somewhat similar recording history. Although their 1976 album for Grog was their only release in the seventies, Mellow has dug up enough earlier material for two albums, DIMENSIONE ONIRICA and LIVE AT LUX. The latter sounds like it was recorded from the audience on a lo-fi cassette recorder, but the former is more listenable.

DIMENSIONE ONIRICA runs over 77 minutes, offering a lot of music in the form of what sound like home-recorded "basement" demos, probably recorded on audio cassettes. The first two tracks, "Dimensione Onirica parte 1" and "Eterna Ricera," are pieces which were not used on their subsequent Grog album, but the remainder of this long disc includes fragments and themes which would be used -- but with different names ("Volando Nel Sole" becomes "Verso Il Sole" for example, while "Quasimodo" becomes "I Due Amanti"). Here what we hear is straight music, stripped of any production touches, while on the Grog album production touches abound -- and transform the music significantly.

Corte dei Miracoli was a quintet, formed around two keyboard players, Alessio Feltri (who also wrote virtually all the band's music) and Riccardo Zegna. Graziano Zippo did the vocals, while Gabriele Siri played bass and Flavio Scogna was the drummer. But this was not the group as it first existed in 1973 and 1974, when the tapes used on DIMENSIONE ONIRICA were recorded. At that time Michele Carlone played second keyboards and did the vocals and Mario Alessi was the bassist. In addition, Alessandro Della Rocca played guitar. (Vittorio De Scalzi guests on guitar on one track of the Grog album.)

By the time they played LIVE AT LUX, in Savona in the summer of 1974, the Grog band was almost in place, but Carlone still played second keyboards although he'd given up vocal duties to Zippo. As mentioned, this album is poorly recorded and of value mostly as a document of where the band was by this point. Four of the five pieces (correctly named this time) which would be used on the Grog album can be heard here, and both "Dimensione Onirica" and "Eterna Ricerca" are also performed. Since these are live performances they are fairly straightforward renditions of interestingly complex pieces. As with the earlier album, these performances are of material still in the process of evolution and maturation. Despite the poor sonics if one listens closely one hears a tightening of the arrangements, with better segues between sections and significantly less jamming.

But their Grog album, CORTE DEI MIRACOLI, is still the best choice. Here is fully realized, mature music, dazzlingly performed and full of subtle studio touches which add depth to the sonic tapestry. Barotto states, "The album is very interesting as it detaches itself from foreign models, and this happens in spite of the fact that the group continued along the line of symphonic rock. A lot of space was given to different types of keyboards and vocals. Guest guitarist Vittorio De Scalzi [the label owner] also appears in 'E Verra L'Uomo.' Unfortunately, just like in Celeste's case, after releasing an album the group broke up...." In other words, here again is Mediterranean-flavored melody, served up with a rich helping of synthesizers, organs and other keyboards to create "symphonic" textures in the context of progressive rock. Less gentle and pretty than Celeste, the Court of Miracles has more fire and power in its music. This is purely Italian progressive rock at its best.

The album exists on CD in both Japanese and Italian releases. Japan's King Records issued it on the Seven Seas label in the early nineties, but the Vinyl Magic release of 1994 is the preferred version. It is more attractively packaged, with notes in Italian (easier to stumble through than Japanese for these eyes) and full lyrics and credits (missing entirely from the Japanese CD). It is also easier to find.

Picchio Dal Pozzo is remarkably unlike either Celeste or Corte dei Miracoli. To understand this, let's backtrack to Grog's first release, MANDILLO, by the group of the same name. Barotto tells us that "Mandillo was one of the many groups coming out of Genoa in the second half of the seventies. They made one single album for Grog, but both the lyrics and the music are rather trivial. During an interview the group confirmed that the album was indeed trivial, asserting that they did it 'on purpose' to make fun out of some kind of commercial music. Anyway all listeners will surely be disappointed with this album." Barotto's entry for Picchio Dal Pozzo follows up on this: "Formed in Genoa in the second half of the seventies, they released an album on the Grog label in a very ironic style, like Mandillo. They wanted to have fun out of a certain kind of music which was overly sophisticated. However -- musically in contrast with Mandillo -- they did not propose 'ordinary' music but a rather fragmentary genre which was more close to jazz than rock. It's dedicated to 'Roberto Viatti' (that is jazz musician Robert Wyatt) who was their 'inspiration' for several pieces."

In other words, this was the first Italian group to draw upon Canterbury-style British rock. And much of this album sounds like a close (Italian) cousin to Matching Mole, Hatfield and the North, and Wyatt's solo album (originally intended to be the third Matching Mole album), ROCK BOTTOM. Abrupt shifts, angular melodic lines, and a general surreality are adroitly blended with, yes, that "Mediterranean" sensibility that underlies the best Italian progressive music. One could call this a "jazz" quality -- but only if not well acquainted with real jazz. (Wyatt might be flattered to be called a "jazz musician" -- he could sing Charlie Parker solos note-for-note -- but his was and remains a rock sensibility which drew upon a love of jazz without actually making much direct use of its vocabulary.) "Ironic" is a much better descriptive term. So also might be "avant garde." (Italy has its own tradition of avant garde music -- descended from classical rather than popular traditions -- which intersected with rock in the seventies largely in the releases of the Cramps label, which included the band Area, and more specifically its late vocalist, Demetrio Stratos, whose solo albums have nothing whatsoever to do with rock or popular music.)

Pizzio Dal Pozzo was a quartet, led by Vittorio De Scalzi's brother, Aldo De Scalzi, who played keyboards, percussion, and did vocals. He was joined by Paolo Griguolo on guitar, percussion and vocals; Giorgio Karaghiosoff on horns, percussion and vocals; and Andrea Beccari on bass, French horn, percussion and vocals. In addition, seven others are added in various combinations on various tracks, including Vittorio De Scalzi on flute, Ciro Perrino (Celeste) on keyboards and "xilomarimba," and Renzo Cochis (J.E.T.) providing effects. And the band offers thanks to both Mandillo and Celeste as well as dedicating the album to Wyatt.

The original LP calls its first side "facciata 'X'" and gives it a name, "Hay Fay." Side two is "Y" and "Fay-Hay." (Note that added hyphen.) No composers are credited (except on the label, and we'll get to that) which leads to the presumption that they are group compositions. (The label credits every track to "Merta" or "Merta-Carrai," names not to be found elsewhere in connection with this label or group -- but: "Merta" is the title of the first track of the album, and Beccari is a name which might get misunderstood as Carrai. This leads me to the belief that the label credits are simply some kind of mistake.)

The music itself is of a very high order, complex in tempo and texture, alternating between playful and feverish. It pushes the envelope, but is intensely listenable, full of tuneful fragments which are juxtaposed oddly and cleverly. It ranges from simple, open marimba notes to flute choirs to melodic vocal harmonies to dense and pounding sheets of sound. While it draws upon and can be compared with the previously cited Canterbury groups, it remains uniquely Italian in its "accent." The production is of an equally high order, with many effects, from barnyard animals to short-wave radio, worked into the overall tapestry. The music has an overall jauntiness that is its closest comparison to groups like Hatfield and the North. The "irony" is delicious.

"After several years of silence," Barotto says, "the group returned in 1980 with a second album for the Stormy Six['s] L'Orchestra label, taking the middle road between 'ironic' rock and jazz." This album, ABBIAMO TUTTI I SUOI PROBLEMI, was produced by a quintet (Aldo Di Marco is added on drums, vibraphone and organ; Karaghiosoff is replaced by Roberto Romani on saxes, flutes and clarinet). It lacks some of the polish and the production touches of the first album, and some of its intensity as well, but it does still sound like the same band, and it also lacks all composition credits, even on the insert sheet of the original LP. But the LP's label provides the information that the lyrics for all the pieces were by Aldo Di Marco, the music by Aldo De Scalzi, and the arrangements were by the band. -- the only place these credits appear. Here there is less sense of playfulness, but still a strong Hatfield-like quality to the angular lines and juxtaposed sounds. I have no doubt that if the Grog album had not existed this album would be considered to be much better; it suffers only by comparison to the first. On the other hand, this album must surely have been a fish out of water and gasping for its breath when it was released in 1980. By 1980 "progressive rock" was dead throughout the world -- as far as the record companies and most audiences were concerned -- and especially in Italy, where it survived only in basements, like an underground resistance movement.

The undercurrent of feeling that in its "'ironic' rock" Picchio Dal Pozo was mocking them may be why the Italians have yet to reissue either album on otherwise inexplicable oversight on the part of both Vinyl Magic and Mellow, who have come close to scraping the bottom of the barrel in their reissues (not that other deserving albums don't also still await reissue, however). Fortunately the band's music is better liked elsewhere. In 1990 Japan's King Records brought out the first (Grog) album on its Crime label. Of course the booklet notes are in Japanese, but they do include a readable list of the five Grog releases, complete with their original catalog numbers. And all of the original LP back cover credits are faithfully and readably reproduced on the jewel box back cover. (What is missing are the photographs which completely covered both sides of the gatefold interior of the original LP.) I believe this CD remains in print, although King's stock fluctuates in its availability.

Oddly enough, those missing photos from the Grog LP are to be found on Si-Wan's CD reissue of the second album, ABBIAMO TUTTI I SUOI PROBLEMI, occupying the interior of its booklet. (But Si-Wan left out the insert which came with the LP of the second album, containing all the lyrics and credits for that album.) Si-Wan is Korean, an apparent subsidiary of Samsung (who manufacture and distribute its releases) and has in the last decade released a good many European progressive rock albums. This one, I note, was licensed by Si-Wan from none other than King Records in Japan, although I've never seen a King CD of this album. It carries a 1993 date on it, although I picked up my copy rather more recently than that. It should be currently available.

When the second album was released in 1980 it came with a "gift" 45 single, "Uccellin del Bosco," included. Few of these were imported into the U.S. with the LP, however. Additionally, the album's tracks were listed on the LP's back cover in alphabetical order rather than playing order for some odd reason. Si-Wan's CD packaging does list the pieces in playing order (as well as misspelling a title which was "Moderno Ballabile" as "Mederno"). More important, the CD includes that "gift" single as its eighth track, giving a total playing time of about 45 minutes. (By contrast the first album clocked in at just under 40 minutes.)

I must admit that I'd like to hear Grog's first and final LP releases, no matter how bad they sounded at the time to Italian ears. But in the meantime, I want to celebrate the second, third and fourth Grog albums. The Grog albums by Celeste, Corte dei Miracoli and Picchio Dal Pozzo are most highly recommended.

UPDATE: In late 1999 the Italian Vinyl Magic label issued its own CD of Picchio dal Pozzo's first album PICCHIO DAL POZZO, as VM CD 067. It has excellent sound and in addition has a new first for the label: its booklet notes now appear in both Italian and English. (Although unsigned, they are obviously by Paolo Barotto, and closely paraphrase his entries in THE RETURN OF ITALIAN POP.)

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