(All Album Reviews by Reginod)
One band that I never thought I'd have the chance to see performing live and in person was PFM. That all changed the night of July 8, 2005, when the justly venerated masters of Italian symphonic rock headlined the Progressive Legends Showcase to kick off the years' NEARFEST-ivities. It was certainly a treat to all in attendance, but the show wasn't without its problems.
Before the show ever came to fruition, founding member and keyboardist Flavio Premoli took ill and subsequently couldn't make the trip; hence the band played without one of its cornerstones, although the role was filled ably by Premoli's understudy, Gianluca Tagliavini. During the show sometimes it seemed as if the band was struggling to get perfectly in sync, and perhaps the primarily American prog audience had a little trouble getting excited about the bluesy "Maestro Della Voce," not to mention that, for some in the crowd, drummer/vocalist Franz DiCioccio seemed to conjure up uneasy images of Phil Collins circa 1983 every time he stepped out from behind the kit.
Still, it was a concert that I will not soon forget. It was magical to actually behold Franco Mussida (one of the great unknown guitarists in rock music) practice his craft. Patrick Djivas was an anchor as a bassist and a more-than-able showman. And Franz DiCioccio is undeniably a dynamic performer, whether behind the drum kit or the microphone. Maybe the imperfections were part of what made the show such an unforgettable experience.
One aspect of the show was especially memorable for me; the band pulled out two chestnuts from their 1975 English-language only release Chocolate Kings. I wasn't expecting to hear "Out On The Roundabout" or "Harlequin," but there they were in all their live glory, and subsequently I was eager to revisit the full album.
The band's lineup had changed since their previous outing, 1974's Líisola di Niente, with the addition of vocalist Bernardo Lanzetti (late of Acqua Fragile) to the fold. His blustery, Gabriel-esque warble provided a more blunt presence behind the microphone than any of the other band members (who had shared vocal duties prior to Lanzettiís arrival) could muster. Perhaps he was also more comfortable singing in English, as the group was at the time making overtures toward a larger, Anglo-centric audience.
"From Under" is the first cut on Chocolate Kings, and it sets a high standard for the rest of the album. Like so much of PFM's material, it is a study in contrasting dynamics. A frantic tone is set in the beginning measures, with the band in unison playing a rapid descending figure, almost challenging each other to keep pace. In the final third of the piece, Paganiís violin states the graceful melody which (more or less) defines the piece, while DiCioccio and Djivas play at a faster pace, almost as if they're impatient to get to the closing section. Once they arrive, the full band picks up the pace during a long fade out.
The captivating "Harlequin" was a joy to hear live, and the studio version still resonates as well. There is a lot of delicacy and subtlety to be heard in PFM's music; this is a perfect example. Premoliís keyboard begins the piece with an unhurried elegance, joined by Mussidaís guitar and Paganiís flute. After the third verse is sung, DiCioccioís manic drumming gradually brings the band into much faster territory (in short, they rock the f@*# out). Mussida's dirty electric tone serves to complement some of Premoliís most memorable and dramatic synth work before the band slows it all back down to end the piece by restating the opening passage.
"Chocolate Kings" combines more straightforward riffing with a festive feel reminiscent of "… Festa" from the bandís debut Storia Di Un Minuto. It was released as a single, but failed to significantly garner any new fans for the band. It is the one cut that stands apart from the rest, as it is a somewhat left-of-center rocker on an album of symphonic gems.
"Out On The Roundabout" begins with Mussidaís deliciously subtle guitar (similar to the beginning of "Is My Face On Straight" from Líisola di Niente) and is joined quickly by Lanzettiís initial verses, then Premoli and Djivas, before DiCioccio arrives to pick up the pace once again. The challenge is to pick out all the delicate interaction between the band; in terms of chord structure this piece seems relatively simple, built around a G, F and A, but it explores so many sonic "tributaries" that the end result is more complex.
"Paper Charms" may be the least "immediate" of any of the pieces on Chocolate Kings, but it is rewarding in the end, like a dizzying visit to a surreal carnival, and it serves as an appropriate number with which to conclude the album. Like most of the other cuts, it juxtaposes slower sections with faster ones to dramatic effect. Along with Mussida, Premoli and Pagani flex their musical muscle, while Djivas and DiCioccio team up to provide the unique synergy which drives the band.
Ironically, despite the absence of Peter Sinfield from the songwriting process, Chocolate Kings boasts some of the best lyrics ever to grace an album of symphonic progressive rock. Marva Jan Marrow contributed to "From Under" and the title cut, but the band members (itís unclear to me exactly who) wrote all the other lyrics, a rather remarkable feat considering that English is not their native tongue. From "Harlequin," a brief example: "And everyone of us/ losers and lost and underdogs/ just scraps of our younger minds/ we danced all around the square/ jumped to his see-through horn/ screaming shouting forgotten lines/ shooting our rage again/ like arrows far past the pain." Who needs Sinfield's oft-tedious verse anyway?
I've read a lot of forum debate about this album, and many are polarized concerning its standing in PFM's discography. For some, nothing can equal the majesty of the band's first three albums. Still others seem to prefer the less symphonic, more free-flowing feel of the follow-up album Jet Lag. And the arguments are all valid and understandable. The unique, supposedly "Mediterranean" aura of the first three albums is compromised on CK, in favor of a symphonic sound more similar to the more popular British acts of the time. And Lanzetti's trilling can apparently be a bit grating to some ears. Indeed, itís easy to imagine the likes of a young Greg Lake singing on these pieces.
Still there are a few who regard CK as highly as any PFM album. Call it a flawed gem, but it still shines quite brilliantly all these years later. Thereís just more going on within these measures of wonderful music than can be adequately described in writing; just listen to it closely. No matter how you might rate it, you gotta admit that they just don't make 'em like this anymore.