Reviews in this issue:
- Premiata Forneria Marconi – Photos Of Ghosts
- Premiata Forneria Marconi – The World Became The World
- P.F.M. – Chocolate Kings
- PFM – Jet Lag
- P.F.M. – River Of Life ~ The Manticore Years Anthology • 1973 -1977
Premiata Forneria Marconi – Photos Of Ghosts
Tracklist: River Of Life (6:59), Celebration (3:52), Photos Of Ghosts (5:22), Old Rain (3:41), Il Banchetto (8:35), Mr. 9 ‘Til 5 (4:10), Promenade The Puzzle (7:30) Previously Unreleased Bonus Tracks: Photos Of Ghosts [Instrumental Mix] (5:22), River Of Life [First Mix] (7:07), Old Rain [First Mix] (3:41), Il Banchetto [First Mix] (8:35), Mr. 9 ‘Til 5 [Instrumental Mix] (3:55), Celebration [Single Edit] (2:13)
With their fame and fortune growing at a rapid rate in the early 1970’s, Emerson, Lake and Palmer made the decision like several bands before them (and since) to form their own record label, Manticore. The name was taken from a mythical beast that featured on their 1971 Tarkus album and without doubt the labels most significant signing (apart from ELP themselves) was Italian band Premiata Forneria Marconi in early 1973. Greg Lake witnessed the band’s talents when he was present at a launch party in Rome in December 1972 for their second and then latest album Per Un Amico. Although they were already hugely successful in their home country it was the patronage of ELP and Manticore that brought them to the attention of an international market, particularly in the UK and USA. The band’s name (which was taken from a bakery in their home town of Milan where they rehearsed) was also abbreviated to a more user friendly ‘PFM’.
A significant factor in PFM’s international popularity was that the four studio albums released under the Manticore banner Photos Of Ghosts (1973), The World Became The World (1974), Chocolate Kings (1976) and Jet Lag (1977) all featured English lyrics. The man responsible for providing the new lyrics to the first two releases was King Crimson and ELP associate Pete Sinfield who also handled production duties. Sinfield like Lake was immediately impressed by the band and most importantly despite the new lyrics he recognised the importance of allowing the band to retain their Italian musical identity which had provided the initial attraction.
Their breakthrough album Photos Of Ghosts was basically an adaptation of Per Un Amico with several modifications. Sinfield provided all new words (with the exception of Il Banchetto which remained in Italian) and also added lyrics to Mr. 9 ‘Til 5 originally an instrumental entitled Generale. Celebration (which remains the band’s best known tune to this day) is a re-arranged version of È Festa from their 1972 debut album Storia Di Un Minuto whilst the instrumental Old Rain was written specifically for the new album.
The combination of Sinfield’s lush production and the virtuoso line-up of Flavio Premoli (Hammond organ, piano, harpsichord, Mellotron, Moog, vocals), Franco Mussida (electric guitar, 12-string guitar, acoustic guitar, vocals), Mauro Pagani (violin, woodwind, vocals), Franz Di Cioccio (drums, vocals) and Giorgio Piazza (bass) resulted in a stunning slice of classic 70’s prog that ranks amongst the best releases from this era. PFM were not just another prog band (there was certainly plenty emerging at the time), their level of sophistication put them amongst the prog elite which included ELP, Yes, King Crimson, Jethro Tull and Genesis.
This is clearly evidenced in the symphonic majesty of the opening River Of Life right through to the meticulously structured and concluding Promenade The Puzzle. In between is the infectious Celebration a hit single that never was, the poetic title song Photos Of Ghosts, the lyrical charm of Old Rain and the stately grandeur of Il Banchetto. The penultimate Mr. 9 ‘Til 5 sounds like a collision between ELP and Gryphon and if you ever wondered where Greg Lake got the idea for the spiky lead guitar break in ELP’s Still...You Turn Me On then look no further. Most significantly, despite the reworking of each song, the elaborate arrangements present in tracks like Photos Of Ghosts and Promenade The Puzzle could have only originated from an Italian prog band.
In addition to Sinfield’s involvement another distinctive feature of Photos Of Ghosts is the artwork. The pastel colours and pastoral English scenes are a far cry from the surreal imagery that graced the covers of Storia Di Un Minuto and Per Un Amico. Ironically, the only flaw in an otherwise perfect album is Sinfield’s lyrics (or at least the band’s interpretation of them) especially the patronising Mr. 9 ‘Til 5. Despite being very harmonious, the vocals are heavily accented and the English lines are often mannered. This Esoteric re-master goes someway to remedying the situation by including instrumental versions of Mr. 9 ‘Til 5 and the title song. Otherwise the previously unreleased bonus tracks included here are virtually indistinguishable from the released versions. That aside, the glorious melodies, classically inspired arrangements, stunning musicianship and rich harmonies make this for me PFM’s crowning achievement.
Conclusion: 10 out of 10
Premiata Forneria Marconi – The World Became The World
Tracklist: The Mountain (10:46), Just Look Away (4:03), The World Became The World (4:48), Four Holes In The Ground (6:23), Is My Face On Straight (6:40), Have Your Cake And Beat It (7:26) Bonus Tracks: La Carrozza Di Hans [UK Single Version] (6:00), Four Holes In The Ground [Unreleased Single Edit] (3:22), Celebration [Unreleased 1975 Single Version] (2:37)
When 1973’s Photos Of Ghosts entered both the UK and American charts, a follow-up was inevitable. PFM’s third Italian album L'isola Di Niente was released in 1974 and their commitment to Manticore ensured that the English language version The World Became The World appeared later that same year. Interestingly, the title track was actually a re-arranged version of Impressioni Di Settembre from the debut album Storia Di Un Minuto which never received an official USA or UK release. Pete Sinfield was again responsible for the new lyrics but on this occasion he attempted to incorporate the political agenda that was present in the bands original songs. A change in personal saw the versatile and talented Frenchman Patrick Djivas replace Giorgio Piazza on bass. Djivas’ jazz sensibilities were perfectly in tune with the direction the band would soon be heading.
If anything, TWBTW was even more ambitious than its predecessor. The Mountain, which provides the albums strident overture, opens with a massed operatic choir that isn’t as unusual as it sounds given that PFM originate from the home of opera. When the band finally enters it’s with all guns blazing in contrast with the tranquil acoustic guitar and flute arrangement that opened the previous album. The aforementioned title song that follows is a Moog and Mellotron extravaganza that comes very close to sounding like a remake of King Crimson’s In The Court Of The Crimson King.
Elsewhere the elegant and socially conscious Just Look Away predates the subject of Phil Collins’ Another Day In Paradise by 15 years and includes a gloriously catchy violin and flute theme from Mauro Pagani. If the multi-textured Four Holes In The Ground and Is My Face On Straight hark back to the widescreen romanticism of Photos Of Ghosts then the concluding instrumental Have Your Cake And Beat It is a sign of things to come. Following some tricky jazz-fusion exchanges it plays out with a monumental guitar led coda that still sends shivers down this reviewer’s spine to this day.
The bonus tracks include an energetic single edit of Four Holes In The Ground and a bizarre 1975 version of Celebration which has to be heard to be believed. With over prominent hand claps it sounds closer to Sweet and Chicory Tip (remember Son Of My Father?) than PFM and was obviously remixed to pander to the UK singles market at the time but wisely went unreleased. Also wisely Esoteric haven’t attempted to replicate the original and elaborate LP sleeve for TWBTW which included a cutaway section in the middle of the outer cover. This always got snagged no matter how carefully you tried to slide it back amongst the rest of your record collection.
Like its predecessor, The World Became The World was another huge international success for PFM prompting a triumphant tour of Canada and the USA that same year. Recordings from these shows formed the basis of the excellent live album Cook (released in Italy as Live In USA) which provided a welcome stop gap whilst fans awaited the band’s next move.
Conclusion: 9 out of 10
P.F.M. – Chocolate Kings
Disc 1: From Under (7:31), Harlequin (7:50), Chocolate Kings (4:41), Out Of The Roundabout (7:55), Paper Charms (8:32)
Disc 2: Live At Nottingham University, May 1976 - Previously Unreleased Paper Charms (10.21), Four Holes In The Ground (14.27), Acoustic Guitar Solo (5.26), Out Of The Roundabout (7:39), Chocolate Kings (5:15), Mr. Nine ‘Til Five (4.20), Alta Loma Five ‘Til Nine / William Tell Overture (15:31)
By the time their 1976 studio album Chocolate Kings came around PFM were recording only in English and this time without Pete Sinfield. He and the band had parted company amicably leaving Mauro Pagani to provide the majority of the lyrics. They also brought in a full time vocalist named Bernardo Lanzetti. Although superbly performed, the rest of the bands singing had always been conspicuously accented whereas Lanzetti had a clearer command of the English language. It also allowed the instrumentalists to concentrate fully on their playing. Sounding not unlike a Mediterranean version of Roger Chapman, I personally found his strident and grating vibrato at odds with the PFM’s intricate music.
Whilst Sinfield’s lyrics may have not been missed his production skills in my opinion were with the band along with long time associate Claudio Fabi taking full responsibility. Gone are the lush Moog and Mellotron soundscapes of old, replaced by a starker and more attacking sound. If anything however the band’s playing was even more impressive with a fluid intensity normally attributed to the likes of King Crimson and Gentle Giant as well as capturing the frantic nature of PFM’s live performances. The opening From Under is a prime example with a tumbling and rhythmic urgency very like GG and early Spock’s Beard. The main theme played on flute and later violin has a haunting quality driven by Di Cioccio’s thunderous drumming although Djivas’ Ripper bass sound is rendered a tad brittle by the stark production.
The tranquillity of Harlequin harks back to the bands earlier style although this eventually gives way to an infectious, galloping organ and bass riff overlaid by synth and guitar. The title song Chocolate Kings is a strident Gentle Giant meets Jethro Tull affair and despite the caustic subject matter the sing-a-long chorus has a good time feel about it. Out Of The Roundabout on the other hand highlights the disparity between the jarring vocals and the splendidly nimble instrumental work, especially the rippling acoustic guitars. The concluding Paper Charms has a hypnotic quality to begin with utilising atmospheric Moog, flute and organ. There is also a passion in Lanzetti’s delivery that even I found quite moving. It develops into another bombastic affair with some very Yes like moments circa Tormato. Mauro Pagani’s fiery jazz inflected electric violin towards the end echoes the legendary Jean-Luc Ponty.
Esoteric have pushed the boat out by including a bonus disc recorded during the Chocolate Kings tour at Nottingham University on 1st May 1976. Not surprisingly material from the current album provides the core of the set and given that it was originally recorded for local radio the sound is well above par. PFM (unlike say Yes or Genesis) were never overly concerned about providing a truly accurate representation of their songs in a live environment leaving plenty of room for soling. This is apparent during Four Holes In The Ground and the climatic Alta Loma Five ‘Til Nine where Pagani’s violin tour de force has to be one of the longest solos ever committed to disc. Even Franco Mussida’s otherwise masterly Acoustic Guitar Solo sounds mostly improvised (although it probably wasn’t). Whilst the individual playing throughout is strong, overall the busy and complex arrangements sound ragged in places with the songs often performed at a much faster tempo than their studio counterparts. For the record, two different songs from the Nottingham set appear on the recent River Of Life ~ The Manticore Years Anthology.
Despite its apparent qualities, when Chocolate Kings was released in April 1976 it wasn’t as immediately accessible as the band’s previous albums and as a result the sales in Italy in particular were down on previous releases. It was a similar story around the rest of the world although PFM still enjoyed moderate success in the UK. Pagani possibly saw this as a sign of things to come because following the tour he jumped ship in pursuit of a solo career.
Conclusion: 8 out of 10
PFM – Jet Lag
Tracklist: Peninsula (2:38), Jet Lag (9:13), Storia In "LA" (6:27), Breakin In (4:09), Cerco La Lingua (5:34), Meridiani (6:00), Left-Handed Theory (4:13), Traveler (5:46) Previously Unreleased Bonus Track: La Carrozza Di Hans (Live) Recorded At Nottingham University In 1976 (14:45)
In 1976 changes were in the air for PFM beginning with a deal with Elektra-Asylum Records for the distribution of their US releases. They also moved to California to record their fourth and what would be their final English album. 1977’s Jet Lag was a conspicuous change in musical direction for the band adopting an American flavoured jazz-fusion style influenced by the likes of Chick Corea’s Return To Forever and the Mahavishnu Orchestra. Pagani’s replacement, Los Angeles violinist Gregory Bloch played a significant role although they didn’t completely abandon their roots with elements of traditional prog still evident. Sound wise it’s a far smoother offering than Chocolate Kings although in my view musicianship had taken precedence over melody.
That’s not to say the album is without merit. Things get off to an elegant start with Peninsula, a classical guitar solo piece beautifully played by Franco Mussida. The title song Jet Lag is a perfect marriage between the band’s prog heritage and their jazz-rock aspirations. The latter style is particularly evident in Patrick Djivas’ funky fretless bass groove and Flavio Premoli’s electric piano doodling. The bubbly instrumental intro is also very similar to the Prologue from ELP’s underrated Memoirs Of An Officer And A Gentleman (released the following year). The instrumental Storia In LA features keys and violin exchanges in a spaced out, mellow vein whilst both Breakin In and Cerco La Lingua rejoice in their lively instrumental exchanges with Bloch’s violin very much to the fore.
It’s interesting to note how much Premoli’s keyboard technique has adapted for this album, embracing a lean, freeform approach far removed from the lush symphonic textures of Photos Of Ghosts. Tellingly, throughout Jet Lag his synth playing adopts a tone that (deliberately I feel) evokes the sound of a tenor saxophone. The instrumental Meridiani on the other hand allows Mussida to demonstrate his guitar dexterity underpinned by Djivas’ prominent bass pattern and Franz Di Cioccio’s expressive drumming. Left-Handed Theory is fast and rhythmic where in my opinion Lanzetti’s vocals are more of a hindrance than an asset leaving the final song Traveler to provide a suitably uplifting conclusion.
The token bonus track on this Esoteric reissue is an extended version of La Carrozza Di Hans, another recording from the 1976 Nottingham University concert. The song is a perennial favourite from the band’s debut album Storia Di Un Minuto and has received numerous live airings over the years. Despite its length this is a frantic interpretation the brings to mind King Crimson in full flight and contains the obligatory but still impressive drum solo from Di Cioccio before playing out with a snippet of The World Became The World.
Becoming increasingly homesick, it wasn’t long before PFM returned to their native homeland where the subsequent 1978 album Paspartù saw a return to Italian lyrics. But that’s another story. By this point the Manticore label had folded as did the band’s short lived American record deal. This was truly the end of an era for PFM (and prog in general) but to the band’s credit they left behind an impressive legacy which included at least two exceptional albums. In between the usual break ups and make ups a further nine albums would appear over the years culminating in 2005’s highly regarded Dracula and an appearance at NEARfest in 2009.
All four of the Manticore reissues reviewed here have been perfectly restored by Esoteric with their usual meticulous attention to detail in terms of re-mastering, extras and packaging. Whilst Photos Of Ghosts, The World Became The World, Chocolate Kings and Jet Lag all have much to commend them; my final ratings reflect that with each successive release (in my opinion at least) it was a case of the law of diminishing returns.
Conclusion: 7 out of 10
P.F.M. – River Of Life ~ The Manticore Years Anthology • 1973 -1977
Disc 1: River Of Life (6:59), Photos Of Ghosts (5:21), Il Banchetto (8:35), Promenade The Puzzle (7:28), La Carroza Di Hans [Previously Unreleased On CD] (6:02), The Mountain (10:46), The World Became The World (4:50), Just Look Away (4:03), Four Holes In The Ground [Live] (7:02), Alta Loma Nine Till Five [Live] (15:43)
Disc 2: Is My Face On Straight [Live, Previously Unreleased] (16:22), Harlequin (7:50), From Under (7:31), Chocolate Kings (4:41), Dove Quando [Live, Previously Unreleased] (5:16), Out Of The Roundabout [Live, Previously Unreleased] (7:42), Celebration [Live, Previously Unreleased] (6:06), Storia In L.A. (6:26), Jet Lag (9:11), Traveller (5:43)
During the 1970’s three Italian bands in particular made a considerable contribution to the progressive rock scene, Banco, Le Orme and Premiata Forneria Marconi (or PFM as they are better known). Boasting skilled musicians and beautifully melodic music, these bands were the equal of most every UK act at the time earning each the respect they deserved. PFM’s popularity in particular stretched far beyond the Italian borders making them one of the most internationally successful prog acts of the decade. A significant contributor to their success was the reissue of their albums with English lyrics which shrewdly circumnavigated the xenophobia that dictated the US and UK record markets.
Following their formation in 1970 and two hugely successful albums in their home country, the quintet of Flavio Premoli, Franco Mussida, Franz Di Cioccio, Giorgio Piazza and Mauro Pagani came to the attention of one Greg Lake and swiftly signed in 1973 to ELP’s fledging Manticore label. Taking material from those first two albums Storia Di Un Minuto and Per Un Amico (both originally released in 1972), ex. King Crimson lyricist Pete Sinfield was assigned the task of providing new words and remixing the music. The result was the stunning Photos Of Ghosts which appeared in 1973 and provides the first four songs here. Benefitting from a beautifully clean and lush sound it remains for me one of the best albums of the 70’s with the likes of King Crimson, ELP, Yes, Jethro Tull and Genesis all being conspicuous role models.
The majestic opening track River Of Life in particular stands out with its orchestral grandeur of swirling Mellotron and Moog bringing Yes’ And You And I to mind. Unfortunately Sinfield’s lyrics have not dated as well as the music with lines like “River of life, rain was your berth” sounding a tad uninspired now. Also despite the rich harmonies, the heavily accented vocals particularly during the title song Photos Of Ghosts reveal just how alien English was to the band. Sung in their native tongue, Il Banchetto sounds far more natural and in addition to some lengthy synth excursions it features a glorious Keith Emerson style piano solo from Premoli. Only previously available as the B side to a 1974 single, La Carroza Di Hans is a bit of a rarity and a live workout of an instrumental that appeared on their debut album.
PFM’s next album L'isola Di Niente appeared in 1974 followed several months later by Manticore’s English language version The World Became The World. By this juncture they had replaced Piazza with new bassist Patrick Djivas but otherwise the line-up remained intact. Rather than supplying completely new words as he had done with Photos Of Ghosts this time Sinfield adapted the bands original and often political lyrics with little satisfaction to either party. As a result it would be the last time that they would work together. Following the epic The Mountain with its operatic choir, the title song is a symphonic throwback to the River Of Life whilst the lyrical Just Look Away harks back to an earlier acoustic Genesis with beautiful violin and flute from the multi talented Pagani. Disappointingly album closer and possibly my favourite PFM tune Have Your Cake And Beat It failed to make it onto this collection.
Disc one concludes with two tracks from 1974’s excellent Cook, still one of the best live albums ever and recorded in New York’s Central Park during the bands tour of the US that same year. In contrast to their meticulously structured studio albums, live PFM were a different beast altogether with a freeform approach that indulged plenty of soloing. Four Holes In The Ground is a hyperactive workout of the song that featured on their last album with bass and guitar interplay delivered with lightning dexterity. Similarly the semi improvised Alta Loma Nine Till Five is a tour de force of showy musicianship where I’m sure Mussida’s guitar and Pagani’s violin will have put the American audience in mind of the Mahavishnu Orchestra. It concludes with a dazzling interpretation of Rossini’s William Tell Overture which proves to be a real crowd pleaser.
Disc two opens with a true rarity, a previously unreleased live version of Is My Face On Straight recorded at the Central Park gig but excluded from the Cook album due to space constraints. The studio version appeared on The World Became The World and here it gets the extended treatment where Premoli swops his keyboards for an unlikely accordion solo.
Musicians first and singers second, when they came to record 1976’s Chocolate Kings (represented here by a trio of songs that made up side one of the original album) they decided to employ the services of full time vocalist Bernardo Lanzetti. Although he had a strong command of the English language it has to be said I was never a fan of his voice with a grating style not too dissimilar to Roger Chapman particularly during the title song. The music was also less elaborate and more spontaneous this time around with the lyrical Harlequin and the stately From Under being the best of the bunch for me. In addition to Pagani’s haunting violin theme, Di Cioccio provides some impressively explosive drumming during the latter whilst the organ and violin exchanges in both songs bring Kansas readily to mind.
Next up is yet more previously unreleased live rarities this time recorded at Nottingham University during their 1976 UK tour. Dove Quando, which was also a highlight of Cook, is a delicate affair with dreamy electric piano and flute whilst Out Of The Roundabout (from Chocolate Kings) also features electric piano this time sparring with acoustic guitar. No PFM collection would be complete without the playful Celebration and although the live performance here is a tad rough around the edges it compensates with its sheer drive and energy.
By the time 1977 and PFM’s fifth studio release Jet Lag had come around, violin and woodwinds virtuoso Pagani had departed to pursue a solo career. Recording in Los Angeles, they employed the services of local violinist Gregory Bloch in what was effectively a departure for the band being an exercise in American style fusion and mellow jazz funk. During the instrumental Storia In L.A. they create a cool vibe whilst the lengthy title song is best remembered for Djivas’ sublime fretless bass playing. The concluding Traveller on the other hand is a fitting reminder of the bands melodic-prog past.
This was effectively the end of an era for PFM. Not only was Jet Lag their last release for Manticore (the label would fold that same year) it was also their last with English lyrics and their final truly progressive rock album before adopting a simpler mainstream style. In their wake they left three exceptional albums (two studio and one live) for Manticore although for many the Italian originals of Photos Of Ghosts and The World Became The World remain the preferred versions. Although I’m normally unaccustomed to sitting on the fence in this case I can happily live with either version. One thing’s for sure, without the English adaptations PFM would have never gained the same international success.
These days there isn’t an awful lot of 70’s prog that excites me in the same way as it did back then and generally speaking I prefer to listen to more recent stuff. PFM however are an exception and for me this remarkable collection from Esoteric provides the perfect opportunity for a nostalgic and joyful trip down memory lane. I also admire the way in which compiler Mark Powell has manipulated this anthology so that each disc has 10 tracks and an identical playing time of 76 minutes and 51 seconds, or is it pure coincidence? Now if only he’d managed to unearth a live version of Have Your Cake And Beat It, then for me the trip would have been truly complete.
Conclusion: 9 out of 10