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Thursday, January 3, 2013

Banco Del Mutuo Soccorso: Darwin!


1) L'Evoluzione; 2) La Conquista Della Posizione Eretta; 3) Danza Dei Grandi Rettili; 4) Cento Mani E Cento Occhi; 5) 750,000 Anni Fa... L'Amore?; 6) Miserere Alla Storia; 7) Ed Ora Io Demando Tempo Al Tempo... .

Although the theory of evolution has always constituted a rich source of material for pop art, I am not quite sure if I actually know of any other concept album that would be entirely based around this subject. Of course, lots of artists, starting with The Hollies and ending with Viper, have had LPs out called Evolution, but they weren't really about evolution — they just used a cool word with a progressive ring to it. Hence, Banco can be commended not only for a formally pioneering artistic effort, but also for choosing a reality-based theme as a foundation for their concept, in an era when progressive artists generally preferred constructing fantasy worlds of their own. (Of course, for some people, even today, the story of evolution is little more than a fantasy world in itself — one terrific comment on Darwin! at RateYourMusic reads: «as much as I can't stand the Charles Darwin's theory of evolution and atheism, I'm glad it's in Italian! Because I don't under­stand a lot of it! GREAT MUSIC TOO!» — but that point of view is beyond our current scope).

I know relatively little about old Charles' musical preferences, but it is usually claimed that he had a taste for Chopin and piano-based music in general, so he might have been pleased to learn how deeply this Italian piano-based prog band was inspired by his findings. And much of this al­bum, indeed, consists of fabulously composed, arranged, and performed music. It is not my favo­rite Banco album — I would say that the basic musical themes on Io Sono Nato Libero are bet­ter fleshed out and even less conventional — but there is a good reason why it remains a critical fa­vo­rite and, essentially, serves as the band's calling card for all newcomers, and that reason has nothing to do with atheism or scientism. (Well, maybe it does... a little... but actually, that's a dif­ferent reason altogether).

Here, the band consciously purges out the last remainders of the «boogie» approach (such as were still evi­dent on ʽR.I.P.ʼ), and goes for an organic synthesis of pop, psychedelia, jazz, and Italian «lite clas­sical» — the latter with much more emphasis on the piano than on the vocals, and this means relying a little less on DiGiacomo's vocal trills. Direct influences of musica leggera are limited to the melodramatic ballad ʽ750,000 Anni Fa... L'Amoreʼ, DiGiacomo's chief moment of dubious glory on the record — he ends up sounding exactly like Demis Roussos in spots, which means that this is, at best, an acquired taste. In the «lush Mediterranean ballad» category, it may objectively rank quite high, but I would prefer just to hear the piano.

However, most of the rest of the album avoids excessively romantic pitfalls, which is only natural considering the decidedly non-romantic subject of natural selection that lies at the core of the al­bum's concept. ʽL'Evoluzioneʼ is a grand 14-minute panorama, the chief musical inspiration for which must have been ELP's ʽTarkusʼ, as it fluctuates between classically and «jazzily»-arranged parts, going from stately-majestic to jerky-paranoid and back. But these guys are no power trio, and their big advantage is not the tightness of their collective sound, but rather the textural diver­sity they bring in — pianos and organs are always the mainstays for the show, yet every now and then they drag out guest stars: Moog synths, chimes, clarinets, psychedelic guitars with flashing colors... creativity on the rampage, and, of course, one should expect no less from an anthem to the leading force in the establishment of organic diversity on Earth, right?

Actually, discussions of individual songs would only make sense here in the context of a long and detailed study — almost every track, no matter how short or long, consists of several sections, some of which duplicate each other mood-wise, and it makes much better sense to simply take it all in, like an extended ʽTarkusʼ or a compacted Thick As A Brick, especially since few of the themes are strikingly individualistically memorable on their own. Well, there is this dangerous-sounding synthesizer motif in ʽLa Conquista Della Posizione Erectaʼ... and this melancholic mu­sic-hall-derived piano melody in ʽDanza Dei Grandi Rettiliʼ... and this moody clarinet dirge in ʽMiserere Alla Storiaʼ... but they still tend to blend in unless you are paying lots of attention.

The important thing is that, like most of the really great complex prog albums of the early 1970s, this is not something that demands to be memorized upon first listen — upon first listen, we are simply supposed to admire the freedom, the genre mergers, the sincerity of intentions, and the playing dexterity (for that matter, some of the piano parts here could rank quite high on the Cho­pin / Liszt fan list). Then, eventually, the melodies will start sinking in, and who knows, in just a little while you might find yourself dancing along to ʽThe Dance Of The Great Reptilesʼ, even if it is really about as danceable as the average Thelonious Monk number.

Perhaps Darwin! is not really quite up to the task of providing an adequate musical soundtrack to the bearded one's scientific vision — perhaps Wagner or Mahler would be more suitable primary influences here than the comparatively «wimpy» romantic players of the first half of the XIXth century. In fact, without the album and song titles, or ready access to the album's lyrics with a bit of knowledge of Italian, no one will probably want to associate the shifting moods, styles, and to­nalities of the record with billions of years of mutation and selection. But, as you can see, if Dar­win's theory helps inspire this kind of genre-smelting progressive rock, it can't be all wrong even from a creationist's point of view. Thumbs up — for the influence of the erect position on classic Italian progressive rock, and for the best impersonation of the gene flow process ever attempted on a classically tuned piano.

Check "Darwin!" (CD) on Amazon


  1. How did they pick up the idea of making a concept album on the evolution in the first place? I bet ‘Darwin’ was intended as a kind of secular reply to Genesis’s early albums (e.g. ‘From Genesis to Revelation’). The Pretty Things engaged in similar one-upmanship with ‘Silk Torpedo’ after joining Led Zeppelin’s label. Since, in Italy, progress was synonymous with rationality in the 1970s, moving out of the magician’s garden into hard science may have been part of an effort to grow a national variety of prog rock.
    Igor Waterski

    1. Interesting theory. Also, the early 70's were the time of a revival of gospel themes in popular music, e.g., "Jesus Christ Superstar". The Beatles released "Let It Be" (the single, not the whole album), which had definite tinges of gospel. There was also Norman Greenbaum's "Spirit In The Sky", and various bits of Christian overtones to be found in Deep Purple ("Hallelujah"), Black Sabbath, and Grand Funk. So, perhaps a general rejection of corny gospel sentiments was a cause worth undertaking by at least one self-appointed spokesman/group in the progressive genre. Although, if you recall, Greg Lake had already taken a rather dubious swipe at God (the infamous "why did he lose--" line!).

    2. Aha... so that's why Lake later tried to redeem himself with 'I Believe In Father Christmas', proclaimed by Seinfeld ;-) as the first atheistic Christmas song.

  2. Now that's an excellent way to open an album - a mysterious, slightly haunting synth line, a short guitar solo a la Mick Box on The Spell. Di Giacomo uses his vibrato in a far economical way, actually not losing drama, but adding it. Oh yes, I recognize the influences of Tarkus as well. But why should I care if those influences are used with so much craftmanship? After all it's not a carbon copy at all. Same for Danza, which obviously is inspired by Jethro Tull's Bourree.
    Etcetera, etcetera.
    This might not be as good as the best prog albums ever (actually ELP didn't ever record a perfect one ever), but it comes very close. Tarkus the song I like better, but Tarkus the album probably not.

    1. Cover art reminds me of Can's "Tago Mago" for some odd reason. Maybe the typography for the word "Darwin"? I've still not actually heard these guys, but they do interest me.

      As for ELP, I'd say the closest they came to a "perfect" album was Brain Salad Surgery. "Tarkus" the song is probably their artistic pinnacle, though.

  3. I like some ELP but this album almost makes them redundant