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Franco Battiato / Lucio Battisti / Giovanni Fusco - Pollution / Umanamente Uomo: Il Sogno / Music For Michaelangelo Antonioni

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Artist: Franco Battiato / Lucio Battisti / Giovanni Fusco

Album: Pollution / Umanamente Uomo: Il Sogno / Music For Michaelangelo Antonioni

Label: Water

Review date: Nov. 6, 2006

If you’re going to fight a prog-rock fan, you have to do it on their territory. The hipster cognoscenti may still dismiss Genesis, Yes, etc. as florid, wanton excess, but you need to spend a lot of time with their records to formulate non-clichéd criticism, and by that stage you may well be caught in the prog maw - it’s seductive stuff. Tracing the two-tiered prog climate of the 1970s - roughly, the over-bearing (yet not necessarily unbearable) pretension of Yes, ELP, PFM etc. vs the prog-not-prog of the Canterbury scene, Heldon, Henry Cow etc. - leads critics to make divisive claims that generally bolster the latter over the non-humility and sometimes arid technicality of the former.

It’s also worth noting the replication of ‘the prog hierarchy’ in every country that produced prog of lasting value. Italian prog offered the wretched ponderousness of PFM, but it also offered the vibrant ‘post-avantgarde’ - another terminological shuffle of the cards - of Battiato, Juri Camisasca, Roberto Cacciapaglia, Demetrio Stratos, Giusto Pio, and so on. Of all those figures Battiato is the fountainhead, the name everyone knows - he later moved into new wave territory and had a string of hits in his home country.

Pollution is Battiato’s second album, and it sees him struggling with the new language of the Synthi VCS3, weaving single-line phrases over folky acoustic guitar and occasional patches of loosely juiced group interaction. Battiato’s songs are simple things - no problem there: I’ll take relative understatement over bullishness any day - though he also favours the cellular, suite-like workings prevalent to both prog and acid-folk of the era. He is in love with the sound of his own voice, multi-tracking it into oblivion and repeatedly ghosting his own linguistic turns. I prefer Battiato’s late 1970s tangles with minimalism, like “Café-Table-Musik,” but Pollution offers a fine explanation of why he’s a central figure of the Italian underground.

Lucio Battisti’s 1971 album Amore E Non Amore, reissued recently by Water, featured members of PFM and Formula Tre as the backing group. Its 1972 follow-up, Umanamente Uomo: Il Sogno isn’t quite as formally daring, but it’s still a lovely set of songs. Battisti’s song writing touches on the non-contrived melancholy and vocal wrench of figures like Tim Buckley, and though his songs sometimes get stuck among saccharine string figures, Battisti mostly manages to avoid drippiness, always a risk with delivery this ‘emotional.' Amore E Non Amore was riskier and more interesting, but in terms of quality of writing, Umanamente Uomo may just have the edge on its predecessor, although I could have done without the boundary-of-cheesiness factor of “Il Leone E La Gallina.” And if you’re bemoaning the relative lack of overt experimentation, wait until you hit the closing “Il Fuoco,” which sends the album deep into a pit of cloaked, claustrophobic noise, with wah-wah guitar fighting its way out of a musty, dank grotto, while Battisti’s wordless chorus groans sound the death of the album’s romantic optimism.

Italian director Michaelangelo Antonioni’s use of music in his films is sparing, to say the least. At its most pronounced it works as part of the films’ overarching cultural commentary (The Yardbirds in Blow Up perhaps the shining example); but in his early 1960s films, soundtracked by Giovanni Fusco, the music composed is usually deployed as punctuation, nothing more. L’Avventura, L’Eclisse and Deserto Rosso are all part of Antonioni’s ‘tetralogy of psychological alienation’ (as Michael Talbott’s liner notes would have it), and if you’re having trouble remembering what the soundtracks comprise of, then they’ve done their job.

The great gaping tracts of (near-)silence that plot Antonioni’s films are the ultimate sonic analog of the grave sense of interpersonal alienation endemic to his cinema and the overwhelming weight of the physical world on his impotent protagonists. At their most pronounced, the soundtracks offer tinting and coloration, highlighting certain moments within the films that help communicate the key meanings of the melodrama. L’Avventura’s muted woodwinds twist little phrases together in moody, vaguely elegiac fashion; they’re the most graceful and unsettling of the compositions on this disc. But the landscape sound-tracts of Deserto Rosso are the most telling, with music almost removed from the frame as the sounds of industry collapse in on the film’s frayed figures. It’s all beautiful stuff, I suspect its extra-filmic sturdiness was built into its countenance: Fusco surely knew (or at least suspected) how little of his music Antonioni would actually end up using.

By Jon Dale

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