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PiOA [1973] (Vinyl Magic VM 032) [1993] (Mellow MMP 143) [1993]

There was a period in the mid-seventies when I was going to New York every few months and scouring that city's more obscure record stores (like Dayton's and Pantasia) for imported LPs. I didn't have want lists, because I had no idea what had been released in other countries -- just a strong curiosity to find out. So I bought anything that looked different and promising. Increasingly these were Italian albums, by groups of whom I'd never heard, with names like Gruppo 2001 and Blocco Mentale. I got burned once or twice -- I Cameleonti turned out to be a ripoff band, copping licks, but not insight, from Pink Floyd and King Crimson, while I Pooh was simply the Italian equivilent of a Top-40 pop band -- but I bought more than fifty albums by bands who made only one album and disappeared, never to be heard of again, and the vast majority of those albums were good.

Case in point: PiOA (Greek for "grass") by Blocco Mentale ("mental block"). The LP had a die-cut gatefold cover: concentric rectangles that zeroed down to a box through which you could see a giant daisy flower. When you opened the cover there was a field of flowers in which were standing five white-robed men (the band) grouped around and pointing at that giant daisy. The lyrics of the album's seven songs were overprinted on the field. It was a strange surreal cover that perfectly suggested the musical delights which awaited me on the LP within.

Blocco Mentale were a quintet, consisting of Aldo Angeletti (who wrote the music) on vocals and bass, Michele Arena on drums and vocals, Gigi "Roso" Bianchi on guitar and vocals, Filippo Lazzari on keyboards, harmonica and vocals, and Dino Finocchi on vocals, sax and flute. Paolo Barotto, in THE RETURN OF ITALIAN POP, describes them as "another very little known group," who "did release an album and a single ... in 1973 for the unknown Titania label. It was recorded on an eight track studio recorder. Musically Blocco Mentale is characterised by a progressive style with some personal touches, but unfortunately lacks in originality. The best intruments are the horns and the keyboards. Everybody sings to some extent but it's not enough to cover the real lack of an original voice. ...There's also the neverending problem regarding lyrics; although dealing with important problems like ecology, they are still rather mediocre."

That's a rather dismissive view, and perhaps if I understood Italian well I would share it, at least in regard to the lyrics, which are apparently a bit too earnest. But, since I understand only isolated words of Italian, I listen to this album as music and as such I enjoy it quite a bit. The album opens with angular stacatto sax riffs and then slides into a lush melody somewhat reminiscent of PFM in their early (and best) days. There are rich vocal harmonies blended with organ and flute, and once again a Meditteranean sensibility which distinguishes much of the best Italian progressive rock. (The opening lines of that opening track, "Capita," are recapitulated in the closing lines of the sixth track, "Ritorno," but the album still has one track to go at that point, oddly enough.) Swelling Mellotrons blend into vocal harmonies, and give way to a cascading piano line. The music moves around a lot in the course of the album. The fourth track, "Io E Me," is an amazing Meditteranean blues, with a wailing harmonica taking the lead. One has the sense that the group was striving to produce a well-rounded album, rather than stamping out each track with the same stylistic cookie cutter. (This was an approach much more common in sixties and early seventies rock than it is today.)

In 1993 two Italian labels brought out CDs of the album. I'm not entirely sure why, nor am I certain that either label had access to the original master tapes (Titania being, as Barotto pointed out, an obscure label, even in Italy), although one hears no signs of an obvious LP transcription (surface noise) on either CD.

The Vinyl Magic CD has the better sound -- rich and full, if no improvement over the LP. But the Mellow CD has two bonus tracks -- the single, released after the album -- and a more faithful package (the insert booklet duplicates the original gatefold cover of the LP, including the die-cut box revealing the daisy -- Vinyl Magic's looks similar, but lacks the die-cut window). The single tracks ("L'Amore Muore A Vent' Anni" and "Lei E Musica") are minor, but pleasant, being more poppish than most of the album. Unfortunately, Mellow's overall sound is thinner and less rounded than that achieved by Vinyl Magic. But without a side-by-side comparison this might not be noticeable to most listeners.

I recommend the album, but cannot recommend one CD over the other, since the trade offs leave that choice a wash. Go, I guess, with whichever you find first, or, if both are equally available, the one with the cheapest price.

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