A brief summary of Italian rock music

by Piero Scaruffi
excerpted from The History of Rock Music

TM, ®, Copyright © 2002 Piero Scaruffi. All rights reserved.

(Thanks to Tommaso Franci, Lorenzo Casaccia, Max Osini, Antonio Suriano, Fabio Tonti, Luca DiMeco, Alessio Gambaro, Davide Lavecchia, Eugenio Smisurato)


TM, ®, Copyright © 2003 Piero Scaruffi All rights reserved.

Italy was traditionally dominated by melodic ballads that stemmed from its folk tradition. The Sixties were largely spent adapting that tradition to the new rhythms that were coming from Britain and the USA. The first "rock" bands appeared, but were mainly cover bands. The first original singer-songwriter was probably Piero Ciampi, whose Piero Italiano (1963) displayed the influence of the French "chansonniers" and little awareness of the Greenwich Movement.

Italy's main contribution to the psychedelic era was Le Stelle di Mario Schifano, a musical event put together by decadent-futurist pop artist Schifano the same way Andy Warhol put together the Velvet Underground. They improvised a cacophonous jam, Le Ultime Parole di Brandimarte (with the instructions "to be listened with the TV on and no volume"), off their only album Dedicato A (1967), one of the most experimental tracks of the time.

The 1970s: Progressive-rock

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See also Progressive-rock

Italy hatched one of the most prolific schools of progressive-rock. Italy had no major rock tradition. The progressive school was an unintended consequence of two phenomena: a boom of classically-trained musicians and the 1968 student riots. In 1969, Italy was awash in young erudite musicians who wanted to change the world. They identified with the ideology of the hippies, but retained the language of Bach. Progressive-rock was born out of this contradiction. Notable albums include: the New Trolls' symphonic Concerto Grosso #1 (1971), Premiata Forneria Marconi's Storia di un Minuto (1972), Il Balletto di Bronzo's apocalyptic concept Ys (1972), mostly the brainchild of keyboardist Gianni Leone, Latte E Miele's Passio Secundum Mattheum (1972), Banco del Mutuo Soccorso (1)'s Darwin (1972), Pholas Dactylus' psychodrama Concerto Delle Menti (1973), Le Orme's Hammond-driven sci-fi saga Felona e Sorona (1973), Il Rovescio Della Medaglia's symphonic concept Contaminazione (1973), Museo Rosenbach's Zarathustra (1973), with the eponymous five-movement suite.
Predating all of these albums was Antonio Bartoccetti's project, Jacula, that concocted the gothic/decadent nightmare In Cauda Semper Stat Venenum (1969).

A sub-genre of Italian prog-rock was Italian jazz-rock, well represented by albums such as Osanna's jazz-rock nightmare Palepoli (1973), Arti & Mestieri's chamber jazz-rock workout Tilt (1974), and Perigeo's Genealogia (1974). Walter Maioli's Aktuala added ethnic flavors to jazz improvisation on their Aktuala (1973).

The greatest of the jazz-rock bands was Area (1), fronted by vocalist Demetrio Stratos, one of the most original singers of his age, whose Arbeit Macht Frei (1973) merged agit-prop lyrics, jazz-rock jamming, raw electronics, Middle-eastern scales, and Stratos' psychotic warbling. While the group evolved towards the quirky free-jazz of Caution Radiation Area (1974) and Maledetti (1976), Demetrio Stratos recorded experimental albums entirely devoted to the human voice such as Metrodora (1976) and especially Cantare la Voce (1978).

The late years of Italian progressive-rock yielded Pierrot Lunaire's Gudrun (1976), the brainchild of Arturo Stalteri, Picchio Dal Pozzo's Picchio Dal Pozzo (1976), that ranks with the best of the Canterbury imitations, Corte dei Miracoli's Corte dei Miracoli (1976), a double-keyboards tour de force, La Bottega Dell'Arte's Dentro (1977), that matched the instrumental prowess with memorable melodies, and Locanda delle Fate's Forse le Lucciole Non Si Amano Piu` (1977), a refined work that stands as a sort of swan song of the entire movement. Goblin specialized in soundtracks for the horror films of director Dario Argento, particularly Profondo Rosso (1975) and Suspiria (1977).

The 1970s: Singer-songwriters

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See also Songwriters

Italy boasted a prolific school of singer-songwriters (or, better, "cantautori"), who began to emerge in the years following the student riots of 1968, a sort of sociocultural divide for post-war Italy. Lucio Battisti's melancholy soul-pop ballads (co-written with lyricist Giulio "Mogol" Rapetti) pretty much defined the post-1968 era: Il Paradiso (1969), Un'Avventura (1969), Acqua Azzurra Acqua Chiara (1969), Mi Ritorni In Mente (1969), Emozioni (1970), Pensieri e Parole (1971) and Il Mio Canto Libero (1972).

Francesco Guccini was an articulate sociopolitical chronicler who portrayed his generation's mood on Radici (1972). The intellectual tone of the era was also documented by keyboardist Lucio Dalla's pensive and lyrical ballads.

Fabrizio DeAndre` (1) was an epic bard, capable of bridging the French "chansonniers" of the 1950s and the Greenwich Movement of the 1960s, who crafted the pessimist Dante-esque journey in the metropolitan hell Tutti Morimmo A Stento (1968).

Alan Sorrenti crafted the free-form psychedelic concept Aria (1972), with a lengthy title-track in the vein of Tim Buckley, perhaps the most innovative piece of the Italian "cantautori". Something similar was achieved by Juri Camisasca's La Finestra Dentro (1973). Claudio Rocchi had predated both with transcendent and psychedelic title-track of Volo Magico N.1 (1971). The experimental side of the "cantautori" is also represented by Eugenio Finardi's Sugo (1976), backed by Area.

Franco Battiato (1) ventured into avantgarde music with Fetus (1972), Pollution (1973), perhaps his zenith, Sulle Corde Di Aries (1973), Clic (1974), that mix electronics, found sounds, collage techniques, rock instruments and catchy arias, thus bridging Italy's melodic tradition and Germany's Kraftwerk-ian expressionism in a visionary whole.

Paolo Conte (1), who had already written some of Italy's most memorable melodies (such as Azzurro, 1968), coined an understated style of crooning halfway between Leonard Cohen and Louis Armstrong, as well as an elegant style of arrangement that mixed freely Latin and African-American cliches. Albums such as Paolo Conte (1984) portrayed a unique philosopher-chronicler-bard.

More traditional (folk-ish) albums included: Edoardo Bennato's I Buoni e i Cattivi (1974), Francesco De Gregori's Rimmel (1975), Angelo Branduardi's La Fiera dell'Est (1976), and Roberto Vecchioni's Samarcanda (1977). The "rocker" of this generation was Rino Gaetano, with Mio Fratello e Figlio Unico (1976).

The greatest heirs to Italy's melodic tradition (and among the greatest in Europe after Abba) was probably the vocal trio I Ricchi E Poveri, who climbed the charts with Sara` Perche' Ti Amo (1981) and Voulez Vous Dancer (1983).

The 1980s

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See also Hardcore

Throughout the 1980s, Italy boasted one of the most vital hardcore scenes in Europe. The revolution started with Skiantos's demented Monotono (1978), Italy's answer to punk-rock, and with Gaznevada's Sick Soundtrack (1980), Italy's version of the new wave. The Confusional Quartet (1) mixed punk-rock, the new wave of the Residents and the Italian "varieta`" (vaudeville) on the madcap Confusional Quartet (1980), which stands out as both an aural experiment, a post-modernist experiment, and a melodic experiment.

Some of the most experimental punk bands of the 1980s were Italian. Raw Power (1) achieved an impressive fusion of hardcore and heavy-metal on Screams from the Gutter (1985). Negazione penned a classic of Italian thrash/hardcore, Lo Spirito Continua (1985).

Italy's new wave was, on the other hand, quite derivative of British pop/rock and often redolent of the national melodic school. Diaframma's Siberia (1984) and especially Litfiba's 17 Re (1986) offered melancholy lyrical psychodrama in the tradition of Italian romantic poetry.

Italian hardcore bands, instead, turned towards a mixture of vibrant tension, dark/noir atmospheres and political commentary. CCCP (2) left behind the stereotypes of punk-rock, and achieved a genre-defying convergence of hardcore, militant rock, ethnic folk, industrial music and chamber music while delivering a bleak vision of eternal angst. Affinita' Divergenze (1985) excelled in the eerie contrast between a harsh but spare instrumental background and Giovanni Ferretti's delirious cut-up texts and Brecht-ian vocals, while Epica Etica Etnica Pathos (1990), was a stylistic tour de force. They mutated into C.S.I. (Consorzio Suonatori Indipendenti), whose Linea Gotica (1995) was an experiment in chamber rock music.

The only band to match CCCP's avant-rock was Franti, that released only one album, Il Giardino Delle Quindici Pietre (1986).

Pankow's Freiheit Fuer Die Sklaven (1987) offered a dark expressionist version of "electronic body music", while Maurizio Bianchi engaged in some of the most extreme experiments on sound in works such as Symphony For A Genocide (1981).

Few songwriters stand out in the 1980s. The "rockers" of the era were Vasco Rossi and Gianna Nannini, while Adelmo "Zucchero" Fornaciari became famous as a sort of Mediterranean counterpart of Eric Clapton.

The 1990s

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Italy's rock scene boomed in the 1990s. Surprisingly, Italy, the homeland of melodic music, turned out to be one of the major international centers for post-rock. In general, the sonic model was a mixture of Big Black, Sonic Youth and Fugazi, while the themes coined a sort of neo-existentialism, very much concerned with the psychodramas of ordinary kids. It all sounded like a brain scan at the edge of a nervous breakdown.

Starfuckers (1) merged rock and electronic sounds on the ambitious aesthetic manifesto of Sinistri (1994) and especially on Infrantumi (1997), a blend of free-jazz, cubism, dissonant avantgarde, musique concrete and Faust-like structures that was well summarized also on Infinitive Sessions (2002).

Massimo Volume's subtle second album, Lungo I Bordi (1995), was an oneiric and noir journey into a Fugazi-esque hell.

Marlene Kuntz's existential noise-rock on Il Vile (1996) sounded like a synthesis of European and American moods.

The spectrum was as broad as in the USA itself, ranging from Three Second Kiss, that devoted For Pain Relief (1996) to free-form noise-rock, to Giambeppe Succi's Madrigali Magri, that penned melancholy "songs" on Negarville (Wallace, 2000).

Afterhours' stylistic tour de force of Hai Paura del Buio? (1997) achieved an eclectic fusion of hardcore, grunge, folk and pop.

With their third album Different Section Wires (1998), Uzeda (1) cemented a dark noise-rock style that was both brutal and lyrical, fierce and mercyful, physical and psychological, centered on dynamic tribal-jazzy rhythms.

The post-rock renaissance of the 1990s somehow emancipated the rest of the nation, fostering innovation in many different genres.

The prog-rock school was abandoned and replaced by new sound paradigms such as Epsilon Indi's ambient exotic monolith A Distant Return (1992), or Timoria's melodic concept Viaggio Senza Vento (1993), their fourth album. Elio E Le Storie Tese, a six-member unit, became Italy's most relevant disciples of Frank Zappa with Elio Samaga Hukapan Karyana Turu (1989).

A sign that Italian prog-rock was about to stage a major come-back was Eris Pluvia's baroque Rings Of Earthly Light (1991), particularly its five-movement title-track. Deus Ex Machina indulged in a vehement, torrential fusion of classic, jazz and rock, that slowly became more cerebral as they progressed from the rock opera Gladium Caeli (1991) to the jazzy fantasias of Cinque (Cuneiform, 2002). Finisterre's Finisterre (1994) saluted the revival of Italy's prog-rock school with an unusual balance of classical piano and rock guitar. Bluvertigo delivered the progressive cauldron of Metallo Non metallo (1997) before turning towards synth-pop.

Templebeat continued the mission of Pankow on Media Sickness (1996). Technogod fostered an industrial-rap-rock fusion with Hemo Glow Ball (1992).

Assalti Frontali, the leading hip-hop posse of Italy, unleashed the confrontational manifestos Terra di Nessuno (1992) and the hardcore-tinged Conflitto (1996).

Almamegretta coined a new form of world-music on Sanacore (1995), an ambitious encyclopedic revision of traditional codes that bridged the ancient folk tradition of Napoli (Naples), electronic dance music, dub production techniques and Middle-Eastern scales.

Ordo Equitum Solis (a duo of guitar and vocals) crafted sets of solemn, melancholy folk ballads redolent of medieval music such as Solstitii Temporis Sensus (1990).

On the folk side of things, Italy boasted Mau Mau's world-music orgy Sauta Rabel (1992), Modena City Ramblers's punk-folk romp Riportando Tutto A Casa (1994), and Ustmamo`'s dream-poppy Ust (1996).

Among pop musicians, Tiromancino were probably the least derivative (La Descrizione di un Attimo, 2000; Amore Impossibile, 2004). Baustelle's Sussidiario Illustrato Della Giovinezza (2000) and Perturbazione's In Circolo (2002) were among the albums that reinvented Italian pop music.

The New Century

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At the turn of the century, Italy's post-rock scenes had become one of the most vibrant in the world.

Ossatura indulged in a mixture of abstract electronic soundscaping, free-jazz improvisation, concrete collage and progressive-rock on Dentro (ReR, 1998).

The Dining Rooms (Stefano Ghittoni and Cesare Malfatti) ventured into trip-hop with a cinematic twist on Subterranean Modern Volume Uno (1999).

Yuppie Flu's Days Before The Day (2003) offered charming folk vignettes arranged with analog electronic keyboards.

Maisie (Alberto Scotti and Cinzia La Fauci) penned the dissonant and cartoonish divertissement The Incredible Strange Choir Of Paracuwaii (1999) under the aegis of Captain Beefheart and Dada.

Quintorigo's postmodern chamber workout Rospo (1999) was Italy's best attempt at classic-jazz-rock fusion since the heydays of progressive-rock.

Minimal duo My Cat Is An Alien delivered a post-rock version of Tim Buckley's sublime dejection on the totally improvised three-part jam Landscapes Of An Electric City (1999).

A Short Apnea (former Afterhours' guitarist Xabier Iriondo, guitarist Paolo Cantu` and vocalist Fabio Magistrali) blurred the borders between post-rock, free-jazz and electronic avantgarde in the three jams of their second album, Illu Ogod Ellat Rhagedia (2000).

Bron Y Aur played a devastating kind of improvised post-rock on Bron Y Aur (2000) and Between 13 & 16 (2001).

Giardini di Miro` (1) assembled an intriguing combination of hypnotic instrumental textures, deconstructed melodies, dilated psychedelic improvisation, and melodramatic soft-loud glacial/vibrant dynamics on Rise and Fall of Academic Drifting (2001).

Notable was also Yo Yo Mundi's instrumental post-rock puzzle Sciopero (2001).

Zu (1) revived the school of jazzcore from the perspective of the post-rock generation with the brutal, free-form instrumental music of Igneo (2002).

Jennifer Gentle (1), perhaps the premier psychedelic band of Italy, penned the surreal folk-pop of Funny Creatures Lane (2002) for rock quartet, strings, accordion and sitar.

To The Ansaphone's To The Ansaphone (Heartfelt, 2003) harked back to the angst-filled no wave of the late 1970s (Pop Group, Contortions, DNA).

Larsen were among the most creative groups to try and bridge the aesthetics of post-rock and glitch electronica with the austere, brooding, hypnotic atmospheres of Rever (2002) and Play (2005).

In the new century, Italy was still a fertile territory for post-rock, electronic and digital experiments, as proven by Uochi Toki's Vocapatch (2003), Claudio Rocchetti's The Work Called Kitano (2003), Technophonic Chamber Orchestra's Nemoretum Sonata (2004), Stefano Pilia's The Season (2004), Uncode Duello's Uncode Duello (2004), In My Room's Saturday Saturn (2005), Allun's Onitsed (2005), Punck's Nowhere Campire Tapes (2005), and Sinistri's Free Pulse (2005), former Starfuckers.

Outside post-rock and, in general, avant-rock, Italian bands delivered substantial contributions to garage-rock, such as Julie's Haircut's Fever In The Funk House (1999), dance-pop, such as Subsonica's Microchip Emozionale (1999), pop-revisionism, such as Baustelle's Sussidiario Illustrato della Giovinezza (2000), etc.

The sloppy, demented, eclectic garage-folk of Bugo (Cristian Bugatti) bridged Beck and Jon Spencer Blues Explosion on La Prima Gratta (1999) and especially the double-disc tour de force Golia & Melchiorre (2004).

Italian heavy-metal had never been particularly interesting, but at the turn of the century a number of works heralded a mature era: Rhapsody's Symphony Of Enchanted Lands (1998), summarizing the quintessential of operatic symphonic metal, Ephel Duath's Phormula (2000), a magisterial fusion of jazz and metal, Void Of Silence's Toward The Dusk (2001), Forgotten Tomb's Songs To Leave (2002), etc. Ufomammut's ultra-heavy space-rock expressed itself via both the visceral Godlike Snake (2000) and the progressive Snailking (2004).

the Italian dynasty of singer-songwriters ("cantautori") was continued at the turn of the century by Ivano Fossati, with Discanto (1990), Carmen Consoli with Confusa e Felice (1997), Cristina Dona`'s Nido (1999), and Vinicio Capossela's Canzoni a Manovella (2000).

Germany | Japan | Italy | France | Scandinavia | Latin America | Africa | India | Jamaica

Recommended Discography (7/10 and higher)

  1. CCCP: Affinita' Divergenze (1985)
  2. Area: Arbeit Macht Frei (1973)
  3. Starfuckers: Infrantumi (1997)
  4. Uzeda: Different Section Wires (1998)
  5. Zu: Igneo (2002)
  6. Raw Power: Screams from the Gutter (1985)
  7. Franco Battiato: Pollution (1973)
  8. Giardini di Miro`: Rise and Fall of Academic Drifting (2001)
  9. Confusional Quartet: Confusional Quartet (1980)
  10. CCCP: Epica Etica Etnica Pathos (1990)
  11. Area: Caution Radiation Area (1974)
  12. Jennifer Gentle: Funny Creatures Lane (2002)
  13. Banco del Mutuo Soccorso: Io Sono Nato Libero (1973)
  14. Paolo Conte: Paolo Conte (1984)
  15. Fabrizio DeAndre`: Tutti Morimmo A Stento (1968)
  • Appendice: Storia della critica rock italiana di Mario Ruobbi
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