Nichelodeon – Il Gioco del Silenzio

For all the prejudice held by some so-called experts against Italian progressive rock outfits – seen as purveyors of sickly sweet melodies and bombastic, often overdone compositions – the Italian scene offers quite a surprising range of options for those who like their progressive music to have something of an edge. While not as plentiful or high-profile as those hailing from other European countries (Belgium comes to mind), avant-garde bands and solo artists have been a prominent feature on the Italian scene since the golden days of the Seventies, with names such as Picchio dal Pozzo, Opus Avantra and even Area (often too hastily labelled as a jazz-rock band). In the first decade of the 21st century, Italy has produced a number of very interesting outfits on the more left-field fringe of progressive rock – even if some of them really have very few rock elements in their musical output.

Hailing from Milan, the current incarnation Nichelodeon is a seven-piece, almost a mini-orchestra, augmented by a number of guest musicians. Originally born as a project by composer/singer Claudio Milano – a highly qualified musician and visual artist with extensive international experience – with Francesco Zago and Maurizio Fasoli of Yugen (the band that made waves in 2007 with their debut release, Labirinto d’Acqua), unlike the latter and other outfits loosely placed under the RIO/Avant umbrella, Nichelodeon are a vocal-based act rather than an instrumental one. As a matter of fact, the term ‘band’ might be seen as somewhat restrictive when referring to Nichelodeon, who see themselves as a workshop open to the contribution of any artist willing to experiment. Consequently, very much unlike many modern acts whose activity is generally limited to the studio, a marked emphasis is placed on their live performances – as witnessed by Come Sta Annie?, the DVD released as a companion effort to Il Gioco del Silenzio, recorded in the spring of 2010 as a tribute to the 20th anniversary of ground-breaking TV series Twin Peaks.

It should be obvious from this short introduction that Nichelodeon are not purveyors of ‘conventional’ progressive rock. In the very thorough liner notes of the album, they describe themselves as ‘a chemical laboratory, engaged in performing audio-visual crafts’ – a description that, for once, does not ring like idle boasting.  Running at almost 80 minutes, Il Gioco del Silenzio (whose title refers to a very popular children’s game) is anything but an easy listen, occasionally even slightly uncomfortable, but always compelling. On account of its strong vocal orientation, it reminded me of the work of another Italian avant-garde outfit, S.A.D.O. –  Claudio Milano could indeed compete with S.A.D.O. vocalist Boris Savoldelli for the title of heir of the late, great Demetrio Stratos. However, while Savoldelli’s approach tends to be more ironical  (if not exactly light-hearted), Milano’s compositions are definitely intense, demanding a lot of attention on the part of the listener, and graced by highly literate, thought-provoking lyrics that are presented both in Italian and English.

Recorded live in the studio, Il Gioco del Silenzio is a dark, angular effort with a subtly subversive vein – chamber music for the 21st century, conceived as a homage to the European song tradition and unabashedly intellectual in its appeal. Fearlessly blending different musical influences – from folk to tango, from electronica to opera – with the support of a rich, inventive instrumentation, the 12 songs challenge the mind and the ear, creating intriguingly bleak landscapes of existentialist malaise and moral decadence reminiscent of the cultural climate of the early 20th century. Needless to say, reviewing such an album can uncommonly challenging. At times the mere listening experience can feel somewhat frustrating, since the music almost begs to be rendered in visual terms. As can be expected, Il Gioco del Silenzio is not always a comfortable listening experience – on the contrary, the sudden bouts of dissonance breaking up the melodic flow of a song, and the distinct creepiness of some sound effects create disquieting atmospheres that are very likely to put off those seeking more conventional, reassuring fare.

The band cite a wide range of very diverse influences, from contemporary academic music icons such as Luciano Berio and Luigi Nono to monuments of highbrow European songwriting like Kurt Weill and Jacques Brel. On the other hand, the names of Red-era King Crimson, as well as seminal RIO/Avant outfits Henry Cow, Art Bears and Univers Zéro will ring most familiar to progressive rock fans; indeed, something of the darkly mesmerizing textures of Daniel Denis’ outfit circa Heresie can be detected while listening to Il Gioco del Silenzio. However, here the instrumental component, while not by any means secondary, is put at the service of Claudio Milano’s commanding vocal exertions. Milano’s extensive training and experience of vocal styles often quite far removed from the Western tradition  (“Il Giardino degli Altri” offers a taste of his love for ethnic chants, as well as hypnotic tribal percussion patterns) fits the moods and atmospheres evoked by the musical background like a glove. His voice, lyrical, aggressive and manic in turns, sets the pace and almost bends the instruments to its will – as shown most clearly by the positively arduous “Ombre Cinesi”.

With only a couple of exceptions, the tracks tend to be rather long (though not in an ‘epic’ sense); four of them (“Fame”, “Malamore e la Luna”, “Amanti in Guerra” e “Ciò Che Rimane”) were previously featured on Nichelodeon’s debut album, Cinemanemico (2008). Combining traditional song forms with all-out experimentation, they showcase Milano’s maddeningly versatile vocals over a rarefied, occasionally strident instrumental background of unremitting intensity. On any account, describing any of the songs in detail would be a difficult and thankless task – by and large, it might be stated that they are quite similar to each other, even without actually sounding alike. The red thread of tension running through the songs keeps listeners on their toes, enhanced by the dramatic use of hammering piano chords, sound effects and vaguely sinister reeds. Milano’s voice dips and soars in the space of a few minutes, as shown immediately by the first couple of songs, “Fame” and “Fiaba”, as well as the dramatic “Claustrofilia”, highlighted by snippets of guitar soloing in true rock style. Closing track “Ciò Che Rimane” (together with “Malamore e la Luna” the longest number on the album, clocking in at almost 9 minutes) also features some noteworthy guitar work, as well as a vocal performance that made me think of Demetrio Stratos and Area.

Though definitely a tad too long for my standards, and certainly anything but an easy or relaxing proposition,  Il Gioco del Silenzio is one of the most interesting releases of the past year. It also provides further proof that – in spite of the many practical hurdles facing musicians that do not subscribe to a mainstream view of things – the progressive scene is very much alive in Italy, and has a lot to offer to devotees of genuinely challenging music. A particular mention should also be made for the austerely elegant packaging, including some stunning photography of the band and distinctive cover artwork by painter Valentina Campagni.

Tracklist:

1. Fame (3:53)
2. Fiaba (6:57)
3. Claustrofilia (5:27)
4. Malamore e la Luna (8:59)
5. Amanti in Guerra (5:56)
6. Ombre Cinesi (5:38)
7. Apnea (7:15)
8. Il Giardino degli Altri (8:16)
9. La Corsa dei Trattori (ghost track) (1:44)
10. Se (7:59)
11. Lana di Vetro (7:55)
12. Ciò Che Rimane (8:59)

Line-up:

* Francesco Chiapperini –  alto and soprano sax, clarinet, flute, EWI
* Andrea Illuminati – piano, melodica, bombarda
* Claudio Milano – vocals
* Andrea Murada – percussion, didjeridoo, noise effects, flute, rhythmic vocals
* Max Pierini – electric upright bass, ocarina
*  Luca Pissavini – electrified viola, synth, toy instruments, “Matilda” noise machinery, field recordings, no-input mixer, duduk, theremin
* Lorenzo Sempio – electric guitar, baritone guitar, guitar synth and effects

With:
* Carola Caruso – backing vocals (6), vocals (2)
* Stefano Delle Monache – electronics and laptop (6)
* Estibaliz Igea – opera soprano singer (5)
* Luciano Margorani – electric guitar, noises (4)
* Luca Olivieri – synth, noises (3), glockenspiel (11)
* Claudio Pirro – classical guitar (1, 2)
* Antonello Raggi – electronics, laptop (10)
* Marco Tuppo – synth (11)

Links:

http://www.myspace.com/nichelodeonband

http://www.claudiomilano.it

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