Next April, Yes will embark on the second edition of their floating prog-rock festival, Cruise to the Edge. And they’re bringing along a highly impressive line-up of like-minded acts (including icons like Steve Hackett and Tony Levin). With this Spotlight series, we’ll explore some of the more obscure bands on the cruise, hopefully opening your eyes to some awesome talent below marquee level.
For this installment, Ryan is spotlighting Italian prog-rock outfit Premiata Forneria Marconi (aka PFM).
When I first saw the Cruise to the Edge line-up, I had a geeky prog-rock heart-attack. Trust me, I’m beyond excited to see Yes and Steve Hackett and Tony Levin — all of whom rank among my favorite musicians to ever play instruments. But the biggest eyebrow-raiser on the roster is Italian prog-rockers Premiata Forneria Marconi.
I must admit: I only recently started exploring this band’s rich catalogue. I’ve been enjoying a renaissance (no pun intended) these days with Italian prog-rock, and PFM are consistently labeled the Kings of Italian Prog, so I figured they were the best place to start. I was right.
The band (named after a local bakery) formed in Milan back in 1970, when members of the pop-rock outfit i quelli hooked up with violinist/flautist Mauro Pagani. From the outset, the band explored a sophisticated, eclectic brand of progressive rock that blended elements of jazz, folk, classical, and hard rock. Influenced strongly by their British contemporaries Genesis, Jethro Tull, and King Crimson, they released their excellent debut LP, Storia di un Minuto, in January 1972. Remarkably, an equally impressive follow-up, Per un Amico, was released in November of that same year.
These albums are cornerstones of progressive rock — not just Italian prog. (In fact, both are ranked in the top 30 all-time LPs over at prog-geek headquarters ProgArchives.) With lush flute and violin parts, an aggressive rhythm section, and ornate keyboards, the sound draws from their progressive stylings of their British brethren but with a more romantic (or Romantic, I should say) scope. It’s spellbinding stuff.
While Britain remained the artistic homebase of prog throughout the 1970s, PFM were one of many groundbreaking acts (along with Banco del Mutuo Soccorso and Le Orme) to bring an Italian spin to the genre. In fact, Greg Lake of Emerson, Lake & Palmer was so impressed by the band that he signed them to Manticore Records, who released 1973’s Photos of Ghosts (which featured old material reworked with English lyrics written by King Crimson collaborator Peter Sinfield).
The band found continued success throughout the ’70s, as prog’s cultural influence became saturated in the mainstream. In the U.S., PFM even opened shows for bands like The Beach Boys, Santana, and Allman Brothers Band. And even as the genre’s popularity waned, PFM soldiered on, releasing a number of solid LPs later in the decade (including 1977’s jazz-dominated Jet Lag). Though they’ve faced numerous member changes and subtle stylistic variations throughout the years, they’ve continued to tour and record ever since.
As a basic PFM primer, I’ve included a few selections below. First is one of my favorite studio tracks, ‘Appena Un Po,’ which is easily one of the most dynamic and expertly arranged prog tracks ever recorded. From the sublime mellotron opening to the metallic, violin-led midsection to the pastoral interludes, this is an outright epic.
Now that you’ve had a taste of their unique style, check out this 2010 show at the Prog Exhibition (featuring guest appearances from Jethro Tull’s Ian Anderson).