Ten masters of the land’s most un-native musical genre
By Diego CARMIGNANI
The Land of Song with San Remo as its patron saint, Italy is not really a house of rock. Rock as an attitude, absolutely: demolish the rules, sweat on stage, shoot straight for the gut and on to the heart, happily join in “sex and drugs”. Its rock scene has always been like an underground beehive teeming with activity, an underground phenomenon, but has emerged into the light of day. This last stage of a decades-long musical journey has gone through highs and lows, excellence and shooting-stars. If today we can speak of rock revival, it has not arisen from a state of deep coma. Our quality music more or less has its center in influential (socially and politically) songwriters like De André and De Gregori – both a popular blessing and a curse for a healthy development of rock – but international acclaim comes from other fronts, such as the celebrated progressive ‘70s rock of bands like PFM or Banco del Mutuo Soccorso. The crucial year was 1997, when the “post-everything” album Tabula rasa elettrificata of CSI conquered the top of the Italian charts: a synthesis of anxiety and energy, the diary of a trip from a decadent West to Mongolia, recorded by a band that used to be called CCCP. A triple somersault for the country of “Volare”: the time had come, and slowly but surely, steadily these successful exceptions became the norm and began to rule. Below are ten suggestions for your listening pleasure, between the usual suspects and wonderful newcomers, selected from a gluttonous mass of Made in Italy products worthy of export: I invite you to sail your ship into the rocky waves and navigate your way to pleasure island.
Proud captains of the national rock team, born in 1986 and centered around the charisma and talent of Manuel Agnelli, Afterhours have had a distinctive international scope since their first album in English, later proven by their fraternal collaboration with Greg Dulli of the Twilight Singers, whose musical style is very similar to theirs. With meaning and purpose throughout their phases, Afterhours have raced three generations of fans through almost abrasive dark lyrics, gentle ballads and hymns. We bestow on them the title of trailblazers who have paved the way for the national revival of rock: from the live collective experience of “Tora! Tora!” in 1990 to their most recent compilation / tour “Il Paese è reale.”
Creators of the cornerstones of typical 1990s rock, Marlene Kuntz first and foremost represent the translation of what was coming out of the States at the time (Sonic Youth and the Pixies) in the local alternative rock scene, but are also the guardians of the redhot coals of their countrymen CCCP / CSI, whose bassist Gianni Maroccolo later became part of the Piedmont band. Reinvented in a less corrosive (and significant) form in the 2000s, Marlene survive as the most daring performers of the end-of-the-century fever pitch, probably the last truly significant musical era throughout the world.
A handful of super-prepared musicians, armed with a plethora of varied and valuable experience, revamped the soundtracks of the “Italian detective film” sub-genre, which today we call “Tarantinoesque”. It is here that Calibro 35 began, debuting in 2008: since then, they have ascended on multiple levels, landing on a now-solid identity, honing technique, inspirations and influences, while always keeping in mind the lessons of the sub-genre pioneers Morricone and friends. Today, among music being exported is Calibro, with publications and exhibitions in Japan and the U.S., a sign of how certain soundtracks can be a valuable and lasting accompaniment to our lives.
Elio e le StorieTese (EELST)
Irony is a serious matter and EELST exist to prove it. For more than twenty years they have ridden the crest of the wave and become known to the general public thanks to their many appearances on TV. The band from Milan is a music machine without peer, capable of combining humorous lyrics / gag (we are talking about the crests of the genre, not about jokes) to a musical eclecticism that has no univocal origin: Frank Zappa, Earth, Wind & Fire, opera, disco, metal and their Italian predecessors Skiantos. Their live shows are always multi-dimensional, where the concert ends up as stand-up comedy while the spectators’ chants mingle with convulsive laughter.
Active since 1996, the hybrid rock + electronic band called Subsonica gathers together the best of the creative hotbed of Torino, in many ways the modern capital of alternative music. The reason for the overwhelming success of the band is the perfect synthesis created by its leader Max Casacci: a mix of urban subculture and imaginative dance, melody and experimentation, underground political social centers and mainstream large arenas. More than a classic band, Subsonica are indeed a multi-tentacled creature, charged with pulsing electrical shockwaves, always open to collaborations and fed by five (very different) talents, its tentacles entering and exiting from the parent to go hunting for other projects. A single intermittent but always positive current.
Along the journey between refined songwriters and epic orchestral power slashes, the evolution of Baustelle has had the good luck of brushing along diverse borders but has never been in short supply of the dandy style that marks the singers of outright decadence: a narration dominated by the irritability and bad-tempers of young love, flows among alcoholic nostalgia, murder ballads and fetishes as capable of sweeping one away to stylish Parisian bistros as to a polluted beach in the province. Each disc rises and falls, as bipolar as the two voices of the group, Rachel Bastreghi and Francesco Bianconi, a combination of male and female voices that resembles and brings to mind Serge Gainsbourg.
Teatro degli Orrori
The din of guitars and fiery passionate words as an antidote to awaken consciences. The resounding success of this band, having gone out with a delayed bang about ten years ago, personifies the verve of its front-man Pierpaolo Capovilla: the vocal stylings of Carmelo Bene, rebellious spirit of Pier Paolo Pasolini and the restlessness of the 2000s. Gloomy, by definition, Teatro degli Orrori represent the cultured face of our rock, navigating between typically Italian criticalities and literary references of all genres, drawing on and paying homage to the likes of Huxley, Mayakovsky or Ken Saro-Wiwa. At the center of their lyrics is our contemporary culture offered in all its unpalatable rawness and handed down to posterity.
From an irreverence bordering on embarrassing come Tuscany’s Zen Circus. With a rebel yell originating from the depths of the underground political / youth social centers, they have reached the highly-creative ranks of their influential punk-rock predecessors such as Brian Ritchie of the Violent Femmes, partner on the album “Villa Inferno.” After their first works in the English language, their viscerally indie-punk attitude joined to Italian, to produce ruthlessly cruel and sneering messages aimed at a nation mired in vice and devastating shame. An urgent mission best accomplished through the auspices of rock.
Bud Spencer Blues Explosion
In the footsteps of the White Stripes and taking their name from the genius of Jon Spencer (not to mention good old Bud), drummer Cesare Petulicchio and guitarist Adriano Viterbini are a duo riding astride through traditional blues and dynamic punk, unique in renouncing the sacredness of the lyric to beautifully tranfer the sounds of the Italian language to totally alien landscapes. A furious cover (“Hey Boy, Hey Girl” by The Chemical Brothers) set the duo in motion, since then becoming more closeknit, and highly sought-after, at their best in live performances, full of sharp dialogues and highly sophisticated improvisations. Two horses intended for a much larger stage.
…A Toys Orchestra
Colorful talents from the rock of southern Italy (precisely, from Campania), the band led by Enzo Moretto has just a couple of songs in Italian, while the rest of their repertoire is a continuous pursuit, in the British language, of multiple references, with a taste of pop-rock that makes them highly amenable, but never prisoners of the rules. In time, their Beatleseque sound gave them a master key to access a range of sound that goes from psychedelic electronics to more experimental songwriting, with a production rarely seen, omnivorous and like that of the contemporaneous Arcade Fire. It is not a coincidence that the individual members of the Toys are courted left and right as session musicians.
About the Author
Born in Rome in 1980, Diego Carmignani has worked as a journalist specializing in pop culture, especially music and cinema. He has written and interviewed for journals, newspapers, magazines and websites, as well as TV, and co-authored several books. He has worked for National Public Radio and Radio Rai, and is currently a radio host for several radio stations: Isoradio and FD4. He helped to relaunch allmusic radio. “People have the bad habit of judging other people and nations according to their taste in music.”