In spite of its name (an homage to Ingmar Bergman’s 1978 film, Autumn Sonatain the English translation, which marked Ingrid Bergman’s final appearance on the big screen), Höstsonaten -one of the many projects in which bassist/composer Fabio Zuffanti (known to US prog fans for his work with Finisterre and La Maschera di Cera) is involved – hails from the Italian port city of Genoa. Its self-titled recording debut came in 1996, followed in 1998 byMirrorgames, and then by the four albums comprising the Seasoncycles(Springsong, Winterthrough, Autumsymphony and Summereve), released between 2002 and 2011. Though Höstsonaten is a solo project rather than a conventional band, every one of its albums has been conceived as a group effort with the contribution of a number of talented Italian musicians, some of them members of Zuffanti’s other projects (such as Finisterre, La Maschera di Cera and Aries).
Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s iconic 9-part poem, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner(published in 1798 as part of the ground-breaking first edition of Lyrical Ballads), is one of those literary works that seem to have been created expressly to be put to music, especially in a progressive rock setting. A riveting tale of guilt, atonement and redemption set largely at sea, it epitomizes Romanticism with its heady blend of Christianity, pantheism and Gothic horror (masterfully captured by 19th-century illustrator Gustave Doré, one of whose etchings is reproduced at the end of the CD booklet). Most rock fans will be familiar with Iron Maiden’s stunning, 13-minute rendition that was included on their fifth album, 1984’s Powerslave. Indeed, Iron Maiden’s epic (by many considered a full-fledged example of progressive rock) was the original inspiration for Zuffanti’s own interpretation of Coleridge’s poem – which first appeared in Höstsonaten’s first two albums (as Part I and Part II). However, Zuffanti was not satisfied with the results, and decided to expand his vision and present the poem in its entirety (while the Iron Maiden song condensed Coleridge’s story, quoting the poet’s words only briefly), even if split between two albums, with Chapter Two’s release planned for 2013.
The ambitious scope of The Rime of the Ancient Mariner (as well as its respected literary source) will remind dedicated prog fans of the the numerous Colossus Project CD sets released by Musea Records in the past decade or so. Zuffanti himself has frequently collaborated with those endeavours, and graphic artist/drummer Davide Guidoni (one of Colossus Project’s mainstays) has contributed his accomplished artwork to the disc. Coleridge’s original text is interpreted by four different singers plus a reciting voice. As good as the vocal performances are, however, the music is the real strength of the album, effectively conveying the dramatic development of the story – from the joyful departure of the ship to the culmination of the tragedy caused by the Mariner’s wanton killing of the albatross, the “bird of good omen” that steers the ship through a deadly ice field.
The instrumental “Prologue” sets the scene with ominously tolling bells and the haunting sound of the waves, then builds up to a rich tapestry of keyboards (manned by Luca Scherani of La Coscienza di Zeno) laced with violin and Matteo Nahum’s stately, melodic guitar. Though the Genesis influence hovers on the whole album, Zuffanti also introduces heavier elements to bolster the work’s quintessentially dramatic nature. Part I (with vocals by La Maschera di Cera’s Alessandro Corvaglia, assisted by long-time Zuffanti collaborator Carlo Carnevali) is the most consistently symphonic episode, juxtaposing lush keyboard textures, choral mellotron and melodic guitar with the lyrical touch of the violin and the pastoral sound of the flute, and then gradually increasing the intensity quotient, leading to the mournful, melancholy mood that accompanies the killing of the albatross. After a deceptively subdued opening, Part II quickly builds up to a powerful climax, with roaring Hammond organ and synth slashes complementing Davide Merletto’s vocals, while some sax inserts add interest, and the eerie, rarefied sound effects at the end aptly convey the plight of the ship becalmed in the middle of an empty ocean.
Part III (at 16 minutes the longest track on the album) marks a definite change of pace, often veering into prog-metal territory and bringing to mind the melodic yet powerful style of bands such as Symphony X. Marco Dogliotto’s clear, assertive tenor (reminiscent of a less histrionic James LaBrie) navigates the shifts in the narrative with confidence and flair, while Silvia Trabucco’s violin alternately soothes and roars, sparring with guitar and organ in almost aggressive fashion. The slow, inexorable approach of the ghost ship is rendered in a chillingly understated way; then the music gains momentum once again to describe the death of the ship’s crew. Piercing bagpipes at the opening of Part IV convey the plight of the Mariner, alone on a ship with the corpses of his mates, whose staring eyes curse him. Corvaglia’s vocals blend with Simona Angioloni’s pure soprano, and the folksy suggestions are reinforced by the use of typical Celtic instruments such as the tin whistle and the bodhran, as well as the accordion, which perfectly complement the wistful, romantic note of the violin. Then, grandiose mellotron and powerful riffs, propelled by Maurizio Di Tollo’s imperious drumming, lead to the climactic moment of the Mariner’s redemption.
The Rime of the Ancient Mariner – Chapter One keeps to a restrained running time of about 58 minutes, and I have to applaud Zuffanti’s choice of splitting such an ambitious endeavor in two parts, rather than releasing a double CD that would have probably been indicted as overly pretentious. Displaying all the symphonic splendour of the golden age of prog, with a tantalizing sprinkling of folk and jazz influences and occasional forays into metal territory, the album manages nevertheless to sound modern (though obviously not “innovative”), avoiding the unabashedly retro stance of some highly praised releases of the past couple of years. Moreover, the lasting appeal of its literary source removes that whiff of cheesiness that often accompanies such ambitious productions. Highly recommended to fans of classic symphonic prog, with particular regard to the Italian school, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner – Chapter One is a very accomplished effort, and a loving homage to one of the milestones of English-language literature.
1. Prologue (7:00)
2. Part I (12:25)
3. Part II (9:09)
4. Part III (16:52)
5. Part IV (13:30)
* Fabio Zuffanti – bass guitar, Moog Taurus bass pedals, cymbals, tambourine
* Luca Scherani – Mellotron, Minimoog, Korg Sigma, Hammond organ, grand piano, Fender Rhodes and Wurlitzer electric piano, * accordion, mandolin
* Maurizio Di Tollo- drums
* Matteo Nahum – electric, acoustic and classical guitars
* Silvia Trabucco – violin
* Joanne Roan – flute
* Edmondo Romano – bagpipe, soprano sax, tin whistle, bodhran
* Alessandro Corvaglia – lead vocals (Parts I and IV)
* Carlo Carnevali – recitation, vocals (Part I)
* Davide Merletto – lead vocals (Part II)
* Marco Dogliotti – lead vocals (Part III)
* Simona Angioloni – lead vocals (Part IV)