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Thursday, July 6, 2017

Celeste: II

CELESTE: II (1977; 1991)

1) Il Giradino Armonico; 2) Bassa Marea; 3) Un Mazzo Di Ortiche; 4) Settottavi; 5) All'Ombra Di Un Fungo; 6) La Danza Del Mare; 7) Slancio Dell'Immaginazione; 8) Un'Anima Nell'Universo; 9) Nodissea; 10) Ala Del Pensiero; 11) Lontano Profondo; 12) Il Giardino Armonico (ripresa).

The unfortunate luck of poor Celeste seems to have been running out exponentially: where only two years had separated the recording of their first album from its commercial release (1974 to 1976), the second album had to wait on the shelf for fourteen years — recorded in 1977, it did not see the light of day until 1991, by which time the band had, of course, long ceased to exist. On a technical note, the original CD issue from 1991, consisting of but four tracks that actually consti­tuted the originally planned album, was quickly replaced by a much-expanded set that frames these recordings with a bunch of shorter tracks (1-2 and 7-12) that, if I get this correctly, are not even properly Celeste, but should rather be credited to Ciro Perrino solo, with a bunch of additi­onal backing players that may or may not overlap with the classic lineup of Celeste... not that it really matters, does it?

What really matters is to observe that the band, despite being so derivative and so «niche-oriented», had undergone a radical transformation in the years separating 1974 from 1977 — and not in the kind of direction that most progressive rock bands were taking (towards a more pop-friendly or arena-ready sound). The key word to describe Celeste was «pastoral», but only faint echoes of that sound persist in small corners of the four tracks that constitute the album; actually, the bonus tracks are far more «Celestian» (Celestial?) in that respect. All of a sudden, the band now puts its trust in jazzy bass grooves, smooth sax solos, cosmic synth melodies, and a near-complete lack of vocals (the latter change, in particular, is much welcome). It's as if somebody told them, «hey guys, you're cool and all, but too many people just fall asleep at your concerts», and they took it way too seriously.

The results are not altogether bad, and repeated listens make me realize that, just as the first album had a certain unique flavor with its injection of Italian serenity into progressive rock turbulence, so is their second record also hard to precisely categorize and pigeonhole. You could call it a jazz-fusion album, but it is not generic: there is still plenty of folk influence and a lot of «childish» elements, like the omnipresent vibraphones that make the music far cuddlier than your average Brand X could ever sound — check out the beginning of ʽSetteottaviʼ for proof; I doubt I have ever heard that sort of tinkly-innocent vibraphone melody on any fusion album. And the first part of ʽLa Danza Del Mareʼ is more like free-form smooth jazz than true fusion, anyway.

The down side is that, unfortunately, this kind of music requires tons of energy if it really wants to make an impression — and Celeste already made us suspect that this band is about anything but energy. So every time they seem to have their minds set on establishing a tight, fast, complex groove (the bass player is probably the most dedicated participant here), it ends up disintegrating into an atmospheric puddle, out of which wobbles a boring sax or flute or keyboard solo. Add to this the less than perfect production values (ʽAll'Ombra Di Un Fungoʼ, in particular, sounds like a bootleg quality track — I honestly hope that this was not the actual version they'd submitted to the record company, or I would have shelved the results as well), and you can easily understand why Celeste II does not share the «cult» reputation of its predecessor.

Each of the tracks has its cute, quirky moments and overall potential, but the way they do go on, there was hardly any need to extend all of them to mammoth lengths — most of the time is simply given over to unfocused jamming rather than proper development of the established themes; and these guys do not have much of a seasoned jazz pro pedigree to genuinely hope that this unfocused jamming may result in spontaneous magic. Particularly tedious is the quasi-free-form space jamming in the first part of ʽLa Danza Del Mareʼ, next to which even early Grateful Dead (far from a favorite of mine) will seem to possess exemplary inspiration. (The second part, tougher and funkier, is more listenable in general, but even that one comes and goes without any particular purpose that I could nail, fading out before it even begins to make sense).

As for the shorter bonus tracks that are closer in spirit to the original Celeste, I did not perceive much memorability there, either; at least they are reasonably short, either as soft jazzy waltzes with prominent flute parts or as folk-poppy ditties that are still more about atmosphere than hooks. Not that much to get excited about, either; all in all, the entire package, at best, qualifies as tasteful background muzak, and I can see very well why no record company was in any rush to see it on the market. It does seem funny, though, how this is all extremely accessible and thoroughly «anti-commercial» at the same time.

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