Paradiso A Basso Prezzo
02. Ai Raggi del Sole Morente (14:28)
03. Danza di Zingara (17:04)
04. Spleen XVII (7:41)
05. Caino nel Tempo (6:07)
- Ugo Wuillermin / piano, acoustic guitar, flute, vocals
- Paolo Manfrin / keyboards, vocals
- Maurizio Baldassari / guitar, vocals
- Sergio Cardellina / bass
- Guidi Gressani / drums
Recorded live at Arc-en-ciel, Saint Vincent on December 26, 1973
I dream about nights like this. Those of us who are hard core fans of Italian prog (RPI) often think about the magic year of 1973. While the early 70s were a difficult time socially for Italy, musically speaking this was an absolute high point (time and place) for progressive music. We RPI fanatics in other parts of the world, too young to have been there, fantasize at the thoughts of seeing the big Italian prog festivals of the day, when bands like this would get up on a stage for a chance to play their opus of the ages to huge crowds of open-minded young people. As a fan of the rough and tumble "difficult" branch of Italian prog, I dream of the chance of hearing the most challenging RPI bands play live in that time period. Those shows are not exactly easy to find. And while this show was not recorded at one of the well-known open-air festivals, it is a fantastic live document of a magical RPI night from 1973. Thank God yet again for Mellow Records for the rescue of this show.
History and influences: The time was December the 26th, 1973, the place was Arc-en-ciel, Saint Vincent, in northern Italy. Guido Gressani (the band's drummer) tells me the crowd was good-sized and the band was tense, as they were there to perform their concept album in its entirety. The one hour long set on this CD was to be their grand conceptual work entitled "Pika Dòn Hiroshima" and they had interest from Number One Records to release it. Unfortunately the band split up in 1975 before they were able to do so-and while it is tragic that this material never had benefit of a studio recording, I cherish this live show. Paradiso a Basso Prezzo ("Cheap Heaven") was influenced by the usual suspects of Crimson, Floyd, Zappa, Genesis, and Tull, along with fellow Italians Area, Orme, and PFM. Among many live performances they toured with The Trip-Guido remembered fondly how the band was treated as "superstars" even though they were the supporting act. He recalled jamming with Giulio Capiozzo (Area) and Franz Di Cioccio (PFM) at other shows while waiting for their sets to begin. The band formed in 1971 and the first line-up of Maurizio Baldassarri/guitar, Dario Cardellina/bass, Corrado Pivot/drum, Paolo Manfrin/keyboard, and Gianni Bruna/vocals lasted until 1972. The final line-up which is present on the album saw Sergio Cardellina assume the bass, Guido Gressani take over the drums, and Ugo Wuillermin handle e-piano, flute, acoustic guitar, and vocals. Bruna appears in a small role on the PBP album. They always performed original material and never were into covers like many bands begin with. The material for the album was written by Baldassarri, Wuillermin, and Manfrin. The group split up in 1975.
Music: This live album consists of 5 highly exploratory extended tracks ranging from 6-17 minutes in length. At different moments they can remind me of psych-era Pink Floyd, New Trolls (Tempi Dispari album), Deep Purple, Il Giro Strano, The Doors, or even Krautrock sometimes. Preludio e catastrofe opens the album with chirping birds followed by the most cacophonous guitar screechings of Baldassari, creating something of a dark-moment Zeppelin/Crimson/Doors feel. Thematically it's an interpretation of the universal questions of life, death, and man's spiritual meaning. Gressani and Cardellina do a nice job throughout of keeping the rhythm grounded during the moments of craziness foisted on them by the other musicians. I'm not sure where Baldassari and Manfrin find some of these cryptic sounds but they can get really "out there." Ai raggi del sole morente (Beneath the rays of the dying sun) is my favorite track and I consider it a masterpiece. This track reminds me very much of the powerful live versions of "Saucerful of Secrets" the Floyd used to perform around 68-70. A spoken word intro by former vocalist Gianni Bruna floats over classic RPI-flavored piano play, as dramatic crescendos ensue. Then a weaving flute comes into a very murky section that builds tension, finally exploding with the intense banshee vocals of Ugo Wuillermin, who I kid you not, can hit the high-end screech just like Ian Gillan. It is really strange how much this repeating e-piano (I think) low/high chord pattern sounds just like the part in "Don't Leave Me Now" from The Wall, though this music preceded it by 6 years. The whole track beautifully finds music for what feels like the process of dying, a very eerie and poignant affair. The track climaxes with a sweeping "Saucerful" sound of a descending organ runs and more spoken word narration by Bruna. Chilling and exciting RPI track it is. Next comes the 17 minute monster that is Danza di zingara (Gypsy Dance) and this is the one for those who lit up in the parking lot. This is a jazzy number with a relentless bass riff which goes on forever and reminds of the trippy fusion the likes of the "Tempi Dispari" Trolls or even Cincinatto. Gressani nails some amazing drum fills and the jamming is very spirited. The last 4 minutes are the most interesting with spacey keyboards coming in waves and finishing with the birds again. Spleen LXXVII sounds like it has a harpsichord opening (though one is not credited) moving to brisk keyboard/flute workouts. This is followed by sad vocals and some nice organ/flute work evoking haunted dark-ages forests and regal renaissance vibes. Caino nel tempo closes the album with wonderful classical piano and vocals a la Quella Vecchia Locanda, then to a heavier Deep Purple-like rock before flute interludes take us to a fade ending that sounds as if it was cut early. I have to wonder if there was a bit more to this recording that got chopped off. Unfortunately, Guido tells me this single Mellow release is the only recorded work of this sadly underappreciated band. Overall the music searches and is for people who enjoy the process of musical exploration over more obvious attempts at composition that is easily assimilated. In other words, you won't be humming these tracks after one play but if you like weirdness you'll sure as hell be intrigued.
Sound: There are two ways to view the sound quality of this rare live recording. Glass half empty or glass half full? Sure, by today's standards this is a real mess. Recorded in a somewhat primitive manner there are plenty of technical problems, not the least of which is very audible crowd noise in the soft spots. Thankfully it is talking and not screaming, still I'd love to choke these kinds of people who can't shut their piehole when artists are trying to perform for them. There are also moments of over-saturation that occur, yet I happen to be a glass half-full kind of guy regarding sound quality of archival recordings. I am thankful that someone (Mauro and Ciro again) had the insight to release this amazing music, warts and all. I accept the sound issues as part of the price for a chance to hear a very rare and very good RPI band perform live during the peak of the movement. The highs and lows of the frequency range are intact so in that sense this is a much better recording than other archival efforts like Giro Strano, the problem here is simply some glitches and those in the crowd chatting away. Bottom line, if you love this kind of music, don't let the "oh the sound is bad" wussies scare you away from a great time.
Conclusion: The rather brief booklet contains lyrics and five great stills of the band members, including Baldassarri playing his Les with a bow and Wuillermin playing two saxes at once. The rear panel photo shows PBP on the steps of the ancient Roman Theater at D'aosto. Today Mr. Gressani is an architect who still performs in a jazz quintet and collaborated on compositions with PBP keyboardist Paolo Manfrin. I thank Guido for taking the time to communicate with me about this special time. I heartily recommend this live recording to anyone into the "difficult" branch of RPI or anyone who likes a rather rough and tumble mix of different styles with improvisation. Not for those who like it safe or soft. It's 4 stars for this writer.
Q: What are your thoughts today looking back on the special period of Italian prog of the early '70s?
Guido Gressani: "I think that the period of Italian progressive of the early '70s was a magic time: the people were open to any musical proposal and the musicians invented the musical language---every band was special!"