I was also contacted by Nicola Randone and found myself very honored to be doing a review of his latest and sixth opus. I have been aware of his career and even came close to pulling the trigger on his past album Hybla Act 1, due to the high ratings and blushing reviews. But for whatever motive, the gun never went off, a sad realization when one witnesses the passionate charm of this marvelous 2014 release! Nicola continues the fine tradition of Sicilian RPI artists such as Malibran, Conqueror, Coral Caves and the legendary Franco Battiato. The ever-lasting main RPI characteristic is the intercourse between symphonic classicism and Italian folk songs (canzone) which gives the music a dense power and a glorious historic tradition, and Randone certainly comes through in living colour. Nicola also handles keyboards, ably assisted by the famous Beppe Crovella of Arti+ Mestieri fame, a supremely talented player who adds some blitzing lines on Hammond organ. There is a lot of support vocals as well, from opera soloist (Carmelo Caruso) to female lead (Maria Modica) as well as Carlo Longo providing harmonic assistance. Lead guitarist Marco Crispi flashes some sparks when required and the Rabito-Cascone rhythm section is rock-solid. This 2014 release is the first act of a trilogy called “Canzoni sulla Via” (Songs on the Road”) searching to define the experiences of author Nicola Randone’s pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela, a spiritual journey that transcends religion. Hence some of the tracks have Spanish and not Italian names, an interesting twist. I will go through each track, as each piece represents a phase or juncture in Nicola’s voyage. Storytelling, a fine Italian tradition!
The rousing title track “Ultreia” showcases Nicola’s theatrical voice, here growling, there cajoling, always telling some deeply felt emotion. Birds, thunder and pastoral singing, with flute and Jew’s harp in tow start off this number, detonated by a synth and guitar line that repeats the gloriously grandiose theme. Nicola has a tremulous voice, a tad like Alessandro Corviglia of la Maschera di Cera fame, which gives the various themes credibility and profound expression. Wailing backing voice, rippling piano, voice effects that include breathless panting and as many twist and turns than a roller coaster. A bluesy guitar spot just kills this one! Amazing piece that introduces some bleating goat effects.
“La Cabra Negra” (the Black Goat) is fueled by some testosterone riffs, a harder edge and inspired playing. Colliding rhythms mathematically precise until the main theme kicks in, featuring a rousing male/female duet that explodes out of the speakers. Smoking organ tirades, spooky synths, more Jew’s harp and unexpected leaps and bounds, this is one hell of a ride! The guitar solo offers some liquid speed, hints of Vai or Satriani (two Italian American guit-slingers) that catches by surprise. Wow!
The rapturous “Il Canto della Vita” (Song of Life) is an effortless ballad with flute fluttering mightily, a thoroughly gorgeous track that sustains the feeling with a dizzying guitar solo that drips with sizzle and spark. The shrieking keyboard backdrop initiates a sense of chaos among the linear sentiments expressed by both male and female voices.
The supremely delicate “Mariposas” (Butterflies) follows suit, a supremely well-crafted adventure with slight medieval tinges amid the deep modern orchestrations (that sensational wind-swept synth lead!), the guitars and bass carving slivers of Mediterranean passion (Spanish speed riffs). This is a highlight track of the finest RPI caliber.
Laden with all kinds of voice effects, the short “Soy Peregrino” (I Am a pilgrim), is a shockingly poignant onslaught, bitter guitars up-front and devastating, but an unfathomable operatic voice enters the fray to sling this one into maximum overdrive. The guitars screech, the drums pound and the mind wanders way beyond the horizon.
“Qui Ed Ora” (Latin for Here and Now) is another exalted affair, male and female vocals tenderly intertwined, sublime mellotron squalls, slightly dissonant keyboard and guitar utterances, all coalescing to titillate the senses. This is where traditional old-school RPI meets edgy modern treatments (whooping synths, gurgling bass and loopy rhythms) to delicious effect, a truly progressive expression of creative genius. Bombastic, opulent and compelling, the arrangement takes complicated routes as opposed to the straight line. Fascinating!
“El Trovador Enamorado” (The smitten troubadour) relates to the famed “Chanson de geste”, those epic medieval love poems expertly delivered by the troubadours of the times. Sung in Italian, the theme expressed is the classical yearning for love, the ultimate in spiritual journey.
“Rosa” is Maria Modica’s platform to sing her heart out in a typical Italian song style, the voice forward and confident, slashed by violin-led orchestrations, rifling organ and sweet bombast. Crispi gives his axe quite a glistening workout, drizzling sparkling notes all over the place, sudden ukulele and ribald feast singing kick in as if participating in some camp-fire sing along. The whistling traveller seems to be engulfed in his own little bubble.
Hah! An English title “So Close, so Far Away” though sung in Italian, you have to love the chutzpah! Nicola’s tired and raspy voice catches the mood perfectly, a happy weariness that impels the tired traveller to keep on the road, on his quest to find some inner and unknown salvation. Beppe Crovella literally abuses the Hammond organ, giving it a torrid Greco-Roman wrestle. Crispi is no slouch on the fret board, shoving this piece along with gusto and I daresay some vitriol. Tremendous feeling by all involved. Glockenspiel to finish off. “Dove vai?”.
The grandiloquent “Hasta la Vista, Diego” has a muscular Schwarzenegger-like bass propelling this one forward, exuding a crunchy, hard-assed and urban mood, almost close to fellow Italian maestros Universal Totem Orchestra. This is no mellow fluff but a cinematic blur of genius, everything flowing with raging Orff-ian splendor, that slight dissonant zeuhl hint we all love. The music displayed is totally unpredictable, utterly creative and manically personal. A romantic piano lovingly relaxes the television announcer into a perfect fade away. Brilliant!
“La Iglesia de la Virgen Blanca” (Church of the White Virgin) is a more linear rock song, a gifted piece lush with guitar pyrotechnics, bombastic orchestrations and thrilling synthesizer forays. That Carmelo Caruso voice certainly evokes a Mephisto-like feel, as if the devil was chasing his tail. Holy molly, what a pot-pourri of emotions, all wrapped in a tremendous shroud of creativity!
This bleeds directly into the final masterpiece, “Santiago”, a lush paradise where a stirring mellotron coalesces with ornate piano and that booming opera voice once again, giving this send-off some exalted foundation, buttered with a vast arsenal of slick little details, as vocalists Caruso and Modica exchange passionate vows. Its highly woven material, finely detailed and complex.
Repeat listens will flesh out even more detail, which will only provide countless future returns, the hallmark of a true prog winner. Once again, I must lash myself 100 times for not being aware sooner of such a talent! If there was an artist deserving of more attention than Randone certainly fits the bill. Time for me as well as all of you, to catch up with this innovative and original RPI stalwart.
4.5 Travelling minstrels