June 24, 2019
Released In 1982
Released By L’Orchestra Records
I love a good playlist. The sequencing can inspire resonances between music that you might not consider related or carry a mood through time in a way an album may not. But I also see the playlist, or the mixtape before it, as a roadmap, which should send you off to find out more about the artists whose songs you like the best. I still remember hearing Warren Zevon’s “Johnny Strikes Up The Band” on a mixtape and knowing in that moment that I had to investigate beyond “Werewolves Of London” — and I’m glad I did! Sampler albums can work like this, too, introducing you to a label’s roster and inspiring you to track down more music.
One example might be Rough Trade’s legendary Wanna Buy A Bridge? compilation, which led me to (among others) The Raincoats and Young Marble Giants, bands that still move me today. I don’t remember any obstacles to hearing more, either, just a quick trip to J&R, Bleecker Bob’s, or 99 to pick up the album. But the Recommended Records Sampler was a different story. Consisting of arty post-punk and avant rock bands like This Heat, Henry Cow, Faust, The Homosexuals, et al, it was a fascinating snapshot of intersecting worlds of chamber music, folk, electronics, lo-fi rock, and other realms, often with a socially progressive edge. It was a globally-minded selection with bands from countries beyond the U.S./U.K./German hegemony of post-punk. But that also meant it was harder to follow up on songs, like the one Italian selection, “Reparto Novità,” from a band called Stormy Six. Even so, I quickly became obsessed with it.
I loved the way it began with suspended chords and dramatic accents from what sounded like electronic drums, a slow build-up reminiscent of Pink Floyd. The singer’s dry voice, accent, and use of language gave me a new angle on Italian even if I barely understood a word. There was some biting guitar as a slow-motion groove was established and things took on a proggy edge, not unlike latter-day King Crimson. For more than two decades, that was the only Stormy Six song I heard. But not for lack of trying! Yes, despite visiting record stores in multiple cities in Italy over three separate trips, not only was I unable to find an album or single by the band, there wasn’t even a glimmer of recognition from anyone I asked. I started feeling like I was being toyed with, like the time I tried to track down multiple albums by the Count Five that turned out to exist only in the mind of Lester Bangs.
I had pretty much given up until 2013, when I got an email from Other Music, the legendary (and now sorely missed) NYC store. They used to send out wonderfully detailed newsletters with rich descriptions of new releases and reissues. I always read every word, learning a lot even if I didn’t buy anything. I could hardly believe my eyes when they announced one of those Original Album Series box sets containing five albums by Stormy Six. I balked slightly at the price (I think it was $45) and then thought to check Amazon where I found it for $15.72 — sorry, Other Music!
While the slim set of CD’s was nicely done, with each album in a replica cover, there were no liner notes. I looked to Wikipedia and filled in some information about how an early lineup of the band opened for The Rolling Stones in the ’60s, then shifted to ideological folk-rock as part of the Rock In Opposition movement, and later moved towards prog, which is where I came in. I remember reading somewhere that on their early albums they were careful to avoid making the music too enjoyable lest it interfere with their strident political message. To be honest, those first couple of records are kinda dry, although they have their highlights, like “Stalingrado,” the opening cut from their 1975 debut, Un Biglietto Del Tram, or “La Canzone Della Fata Dai Capelli Turchini” from Cliché in 1976, with its shimmering guitar and mournful sax.
But it’s this album, originally released in 1982 and their final statement, where I think they hit their full stride — and it is glorious. “Non Si Sa Dove Stare” opens the record with some truly lethal bass from Pino Martini, who joined the band in 1978 and quickly became a secret weapon. Salvatore Garau’s underwater drums come in, followed by Franco Fabbri’s serrated guitar and a tense rhythm locks in, broken by an expansive bridge that almost soars. Then there are multiple sections, combining Tommaso Leddi’s keyboards and Fabbri’s guitars in all kinds of ways, and the song becomes a mini-suite before returning to the original themes. Clearly, the previous twenty years of work had developed their skills as composers and players to a fine point. This is also the only lineup of the original band that had no sax or violin player, which I think gave them more focus.
After “Reparto Novità,” in a slightly different recording than the one on the sampler, we get the dense funk of “Piazza Degli Affari,” once again showing off the rhythm section, which drives the band to really cook. Ragionamenti is fragmented and introspective, jazz fusion with massed vocals, and Panorama opens with a gorgeous duet for bass and synth, further demonstrating their mastery of contrasting textures. “Roma” is as grandiose as the city, with one of the biggest choruses on the album and triumphant guitars. But even when they go big, there’s a sense of restraint that keeps things from going over the top.
As I listened to Al Volo for the first time, I was delighted that I now had nearly 40 minutes of the distinctive sound world of “Reparto Novità.” But I was also slightly saddened by the thoughts of what might have been had I heard it earlier. In a sort of musical butterfly effect, would Stormy Six have led me to other Italian wonders like Sensation’s Fix or Luciano Cilio, sounds of a similar era that also took me decades to discover? Who knows what paths I would have taken, perhaps even back to Italy for their 1993 reunion! But having a white whale to chase is also its own reward and I would be lying if I said I didn’t enjoy the hunt. And maybe, with the renewal of interest in prog rock of all kinds, Al Volo‘s time is now, perhaps even more than when it was released. Now that I’ve led you right to it, what do you think?
Psych-pop outfit turned prog-rock activist trailblazer.
Usually I write about my first experiences with an album. Good music takes me back to almost forgotten memories of sound, scent, emotion, thought, and I can know within minutes where I’m going to go with a review. Al Volo, though, gave me some pause in that I wanted to know what was happening behind those lyrics and actually, for maybe the second time ever, looked up the band before I wrote a single word. Sung in Italian, I was unsure of the content, but the cathedral overtones on many tracks, “Ragionamenti” in particular, drove me online. Stormy Six were apparently left-leaning during the Italian ’80s, which informs pretty much the whole album, giving a distinct political aspect of the songs. Because I don’t speak it, I was left with this almost urgent tone throughout the album that works so well with the kind of poppy prog lines that compose the musical tracks. There’s a kind of gloom and heaviness of the King Crimson type of prog rock that I loved this week, putting it on at work in a kind of thrummy, throbbing backlight to writing policy and reports. The stop/starts in the drum lines were giving me life, as it’s one of my favorite aspects of prog and was done well on this album as were the electronic highlights in several tracks. The gloominess that can drag down prog of that era and earlier is present here, but tempered by so many other tones that you leave feeling thorough, like watching a good film, but without being drug through the wringer of someone else’s emotions.
Laura Burroughs (@_thetwors)
Jestful Musical Erudite
Rock music of the early eighties has a very distinct vibe to it. There’s a post-disco cleanliness in the way the tracks are recorded/mixed/presented that would make Frank Zappa ashamed to be called a musician. There’s also an airy purity to a lot of the records in the era just before the heavily percussive, Genesis-influenced, industrial sound that would become absolutely ubiquitous for most of the decade. There’s a small pocket of time where the tunes still flaunted raw musicianship instead of showmanship, and Al Volo is part of that era. There’s such character in Stormy Six’s music, especially since it’s in a foreign language and we’re left to guess as to what they’re singing about. There’s a heavily emotional thread throughout records like “Reparto Novità,” “Panorama,” and “Roma.” If someone were to ask me for an elevator pitch for the album, I’d say something like: “Okay, first of all, I mean this in the best way possible. You know Jason Segal’s character in Forgetting Sarah Marshall? Remember that Dracula-inspired puppet show that he puts on at the end of the movie? Well, this could easily be the soundtrack to that show!” It’s dark. It’s dramatic. It’s playful yet serious without taking itself too seriously. And that’s exactly why we still love music from this particular era, oh, so much.
I remember where I was and what I was doing when I decided what I was going to say about Stormy Six’s deeply odd Al Volo. I was at the gym and CNN was playing on one of the TVs. The story was the breaking news of Iran shooting down a United States drone. My reaction was the bitterly sarcastic, “Oh, good.” Now, given that this could be seen as an act of aggression (or, worse, war), I should have had a much more urgent or emotional response. But in the last two and a half or so years, I’ve just become (slightly) numb to the events of the day. I am not proud of this. The constant inundation between 24-hour news and social media, coupled with this particular president, makes it overwhelming. You get to the point where you just don’t wanna deal with it anymore. When I listen to Al Volo, I find it tense and paranoid. The dancier numbers, the laid-back songs — everything about this album has at least a twinge of worry. Really, the whole record reminds me of this joke about the phrase “Anything is possible” that Hasan Minaj made two years ago at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner. Sometimes you can’t be sure what’s gonna happen next while listening to Stormy Six in much the same way you can’t be sure what’ll happen next in reality, or even what reality is. This album sums up my experience(s) in 2019 about as well as any album has in recent memory. It’s a strange record for strange times. What a great pick.
Sitting among my father’s record collection is a K-Tel record known as Rock ‘82Rock ‘83 and, if I am not mistaken, Rock ‘84 as well. I remember this record well because unlike the rest of my father’s collection, to which I wouldn’t give the time of day until my late teens, Rock ‘82 was… well … rock. Not just any rock, but a wide range of popular bands from English speaking countries who had made it to the top of the charts that year. In those pre-a-la-carte days, we depended on record labels such as the now legendary K-Tel for what were essentially the world’s first vinyl mix-tapes. On the back half of this record, two songs stood adjacent — Red Rider’s “Lunatic Fringe” and Rush’s “Tom Sawyer.” Both had an unusually melancholic bent and while some may know Red Rider as the former band of “Life Is A Highway” singer Tom Cochrine, that single had not even a hint of that level of optimism. These two tracks were my first introduction to what I would later learn is “prog rock” — a format of rock music which tended toward the arty, and the “out there” far reaching experimentation of long songs and epic structures which didn’t fall back on hooks and repetition as much as they moved forward and evolved … well … progressively.
It strikes me as I was introduced for the first time to Stormy Six that in that same year there was another band in a non-English speaking country who was following a similar musical path as Rush and Red Rider. I suspect K-Tel would probably not have even been aware of this sextet of Italian rock musicians who were breaking ground with a brand of innovative prog rock music which played all the right notes to set them up for worldwide success. Sadly, in that world, getting discovered wasn’t as easy as it is today. Their 1982 album Al Volo was actually fairly late in their career and all the albums which came before it only served to hone their style and their target. Even ABBA, whose songs were formulated to be globally appealing, had to record them in English to break into North America. Rush remains a Canadian institution today and are also beloved at least in the US and UK. But Stormy Six are beloved themselves, both here and all over parts of the world I haven’t had the luxury of visiting. Many of the sounds of Al Volo make me nostalgic for that time and its production styles and values. That flat clipped snare drums, the bass which borders on deep funk, and the almost-distant reverb on guitars — you could argue that it’s a record of its time and if introduced to someone today may not hold the same appeal as a modern prog rock record. As with any subgenre of rock, however, there are those who loved every aspect of this sound and its rich history. In Al Volo and Stormy Six’s contribution to the global scene, the internet finally pulls back the covers and allows the world to see a wider range of popular prog rock which doesn’t copy the western world but brings something new to the table. Much in the same way Rock ‘82 gave me just a little glimpse of what good looks like.
This was the last studio record for Stormy Six, capping off a lengthy career on a towering note.
Bear with me — I promise the answer to the following question has everything to do with Stormy Six’s Al Volo album. Here goes: Why are spells conjured in archaic languages? I’ll start my answer with another question: Why did the Italian chanting in “Ragionamenti” make me think about magic in the first place? While images of animal sacrifice and menacing Eyes Wide Shut masks were dancing in my head, what really resonated was how practical — responsible even — it is for witches and wizards to craft spells using unrecognizable speech. You don’t want muggles accidentally turning each other into toads with the words they use on a daily basis, right? In the world of magic, linguistic obscurity lends security. So what does obscurity lend to prog rock? Why all the shifting time signatures, asymmetrical song structures, and subtle variations? (Hats off to opening track “Non Si Sa Dove Stare,” which sets a brisk pace in this respect, with approximately one zillion sonic twists and turns.) It’s not about showing off as musicians, and it’s not just about the depth that complexity can add. In the context of prog, obscurity can be a powerful community-building tool. To a first-time listener, the gait of “Piazza Degli Affari” may seem erratic, but to an Al Volo veteran, each beat is in its right place, and repeat listening yields all the neurological rewards of musical expectations fulfilled. Once you’re plugged into the arrangement, you’re in. The more I thought along those lines, the more familiar this kind of open-door secret society seemed. That’s just what I found at Phish shows — an enthused cohort singing along to stories set in the mythical land of Gamehendge, thousands of people expecting the same unexpected musical twists and turns. It’ll take a few more listens for me to count myself as part of Stormy Six’s in-group, but I’m grateful for the insight Al Volo afforded me — both into prog in general and into why my first “Divided Sky” made for such a meaningful concert moment.
I’m unsure about how to describe the sound of this album, because the music shifts and drifts all over the place. Some of the guitar tones and spacey arrangements remind me of Rush, while other times I think of Journey in terms of the sonic aesthetic. It was the ’80s, I suppose. I (and more than a few other people, I imagine) didn’t understand the lyrics since they’re in a language that’s not my own, but the melodies made me intrigued enough to learn about what the singer was saying. It’s nice to be exposed to music from different cultures. The United States is notorious for putting certain music on a pedestal while pretending other genres and underground groups don’t exist, or refusing to acknowledge their influence on the mainstream. It’s nice to be exposed to music that probably never got a decent look. Honestly, the ’80s has never been my favorite decade of music, probably because of the prevalence of synthesizers and the haircuts and a number of other reasons that I can’t think up right now, but the use of technology on this album is definitely something to applaud. Technology in music is a delicate thing, but you can tell on this record that the use of machines didn’t diminish or cover up the level of musicianship. Honestly, using technology is an artist’s best shot at doing something new and innovative, as technology is always moving forward and growing, so it’s always very cool to see musicians who care about keeping up. As a recording artist, there’s a lot to be learned from Al Volo.
My two-year-old’s favorite book right now is probably Dear Girl. She asks for it every single night, and gives a little toddler sigh every time I say, “No, we just read that last night” or “We’re going to read it tomorrow.” (Don’t worry — her disappointment is cut off by the mention of a Curious George book instead.) It’s a really fun book to read to a two-year-old, especially when you get to the page with a rainbow that says: “Dear girl, don’t ever lose your sense of wonder.” (Check it out for yourself here.) Perhaps I love this book because I worry that she will lose her sense of wonder one day, as the reality of the world becomes apparent to her. Hopefully, she’ll be like the members of Stormy Six, a band that seemed to clutch to their sense of wonder and transform into something powerful and moving… and political it seems, judging by the band’s track record. Al Volo is a sweeping opus of prog music, one that doesn’t fall into the pratfalls of the genre (especially the 1980s ones) and leans as heavily on curiosity and the fantastical as it does tension and anxiety. Despite all the foreboding elements bubbling underneath each song, the record gives me hope. It shows that even songs tackling hard issues can still flaunt a sense of wonder. It shows that technical masters like Stormy Six still obviously daydream in order to create some of these lofty compositions. Stormy Six never lost their sense of wonder — they didn’t even come close. They just refined and sharpened it into a versatile musical tool that helped make Al Volo deeply intriguing… and chock-full of musical wonder.
Ghost Dance by The Pine Hill Haints
Chosen By Laura Burroughs