BANCO DEL MUTUO SOCCORSO: BANCO DEL MUTUO SOCCORSO (1972)
1) In Volo; 2) R.I.P. (Requiescant In Pace); 3) Passaggio; 4) Metamorfosi; 5) Il Giardino Del Mago; 6) Traccia.
Every «international genre» with a «national flavor» always runs a certain risk of inheriting not only the finest, but also the dippiest features of that flavor. A very good case in point is the early 1970s Italian progressive rock scene. The proud Roman nation loved it all, from Yes to Genesis to Gentle Giant, as so many things there tended to borrow from their own musical traditions — and eventually joined the fray themselves: 1972, in particular, saw the debuts by two of Italy's most renowned prog acts, both with lengthy, flashy names, pompous-sounding to a foreign ear but quite tongue-in-cheek in reality (Premiata Forneria Marconi were named after a bakery, while Banco Del Mutuo Soccorso means «bank of mutual aid», and you can sort of see that in metaphoric form on the album sleeve).
The biggest problem of both bands, though — and I do understand that many might think the opposite — is that, being Italian, they, rather naturally, crossed the emerging UK-led school of symph-prog / jazz-prog / «avant-prog» / whatever with the world of Italian pop. In a way, Banco Del Mutuo Soccorso is what you get when you cross Emerson, Lake & Palmer with the Sanremo Music Festival. Within Europe, this seems to have been a specifically Italian thing: the small French progressive scene, for instance (Magma and the like), did not see the need to add Charles Aznavour to their influences, but Italians probably thought that there was no way to capture the musical market if they did not, in some way at least, pander to fans of musica leggera, which (no offense to my good Italian friends) is altogether one of the most awful music scenes to emerge in the XXth century, yuck yuck yuck.
Of course, the very emergence of bands like Banco was a step in a healthy direction. This is real progressive music — complex, demanding, occasionally gritty, with a strong will to search for new forms and solutions. The key(board) members are the two Nocenzi brothers — Vittorio on organ and Gianni on piano, forming a sparring duo that remains a relative rarity in the world of European art-rock (Procol Harum comes to mind, of course, but their keyboards were less flashy and more integrated into song-based forms). In addition, Marcello Todaro is a competent guitarist with a serious taste for «hard psychedelia», and the rhythm section of Renato D'Angelo on bass and Pier Luigi Calderoni on drums did their King Crimson homework well enough.
The weakest link in the band is the singer, Franceso di Giacomo. Every time he opens his mouth — and I absolutely literally mean every time — I want to turn this off and never ever hear it again. He has this shaky Italian tenor, quite devoid of individuality, far too cheesy and manneristic to stir up genuine emotionality, yet, obviously, far too weak and untrained to match the quality of a great opera singer. Most of the vocal melodies seem slightly tweaked from standard Italian pop clichés, and the resulting «ailing romantic» aura suffers accordingly.
But the good news is that di Giacomo is also the most expendable link in the chain. His vocal bits here and there are more like «solos» — twisted flourishes on top of the pudding, rather than being at the heart of the music. The focal point of the album, for instance, is the 10-minute ʽMetamorphosiʼ, where he only comes in towards the very end. The other two major compositions — the 7-minute long prog-rocker ʽR.I.P.ʼ and the 18-minute-long prog suite ʽIl Giardino Del Magoʼ (ʽThe Magician's Gardenʼ — hello, Uriah Heep!) — feature him more extensively, but still more like a bit player than an actual frontman. All of which means that the singing is an unfortunate evil side effect that one can learn to cope with in order to savor the real taste of the album. (Besides, if you happen to like Sanremo style...).
Because, in general, Banco Del Mutuo Soccorso is not about wearing your heart on a sleeve; it is about how one can generate a cobweb of jazz, classical, psychedelic, and pop motives in an uninhibited flight of fantasy. Far more indicative of its overall quality is the introduction to ʽGiardinoʼ, where Vittorio's steady bluesy organ riff is answered by Gianni's sprinkling glissandos — nothing particularly «virtuoso» about either, but the combination is fresh and exciting even for the overall innovative standards of 1972. And when Todaro comes in, doubling the organ with his light-heavy fuzzy tone, the freshness and excitement get reinforced with some much-needed crunch. Later on, we get acoustic guitar, clarinet, and harmonica-imitating clarino parts to add to the diversity, and in the end, the suite matches its title well — there is an atmosphere of «lite magic» throughout, not exactly one of celestial beauty (the band is relatively unskilled in the technical wonders of «atmospheric» production styles, and it all sounds as if it had mostly been recorded live over several takes), but definitely one of tasteful prettiness.
ʽR.I.P.ʼ shows that they can rock out as well, also in «lite» mode, but keeping up a respectable tempo, allowing the drummer to show some muscle, and coming up with gruff, mean-sounding bass lines against the background of which even quiet, mumbling jazz-rock «noodling» acquires an ominous sheen. But it is ʽMetamorphosiʼ that really represents the quintessence of the classic Banco sound: sounding almost as a free-form jam session, flying from one tempo and theme to another, with the piano, organ, and guitar conducting a lengthy trialog on several different subjects — including whether they like Bach more or less than Chopin, or Robert Fripp more than Dave Gilmour. For my ears, there are neither any passages of breathtaking beauty here, nor any moments that rock out to high heaven, yet it still sounds attractive, and all of the influences are combined creatively, rather than as direct, unimaginative rip-offs.
As far as my intuition is concerned, the album is very strictly «second rate» in terms of finding one's own voice, and the situation is further exacerbated by the lameness of the lead singer (who is absolutely not needed here at all) and the superfluous «conceptual» mini-links between the large opera, with boring atmospherics, pompous declarations, and dated sound effects. But none of that prevents it from getting a firm thumbs up — what the Nocenzi brothers lack in terms of technique and genius, they effectively make up for simply in terms of sticking together, and looking for various ways of making their instruments talk to each other, fight with each other, and sometimes fuck each other, in both the good and the bad senses of the word. All in all — a curious, pleasant experience, and about as 1972-ish as it ever gets.