The modern era has seen all things `retro' embraced, so there's been no shortage of vintage Seventies Italian Prog-rock bands making long-belated comebacks in this modern day. One of the more unexpected ones has been Acqua Fragile, most known for their association with (then) future Premiata Forneria Marconi vocalist Bernardo Lanzetti on a few of their albums from 1975's `Chocolate Kings' onwards. Adored by some, completely dismissed by others perhaps because of the reason that they performed in English and their music didn't have a lot of the purer theatrical and classical characteristics that often are part of the identity of the Italian prog groups, Acqua Fragile were a tricky one to navigate. Their two studio albums, a self-titled work and `Mass Media Stars' between 1973-74 were hardly poor, but perhaps not quite special enough to compete with the truly important names of Italian rock music at the time.
Fast forward over forty years later, and three of the core original members - drummer/percussionist Piero Canavera, bassist Franz Dondi and singer/guitarist Bernardo Lanzetti - have surprised Italian prog fans with a brand new work, 2017's `A New Chant'. Some things remain the same - it's still mostly sung in English, so more traditional Italian prog-snobs (yours truly included!) should be warned! - but it's everywhere else that counts where the band step up in a big way. With help from some other musical contributors, the trio offer a confident album jammed full of so many rich little instrumental details that twist the tunes in all sorts of interesting directions (and parts of which are probably the most genuinely `Italian' sounding of their music to date). The disc avoids drifting constantly into lazy `old man' pleasant AOR, it welcomely isn't afraid to make a bit of rumble and noise here and there, and is ultimately the most lavish and sophisticated Acqua Fragile work overall.
Right from opener `My Forte's Mediterranean-flavoured ringing acoustic guitar notes around lively drumming, sparkling piano and teasing slivers of handsome orchestration, it's clear that this is the fanciest Acqua Fragile has ever sounded. Best of all, vocalist Bernardo, once rather grating with a Family/Roger Chapman-esque bleating harshness on the Seventies AF and PFM discs, is now so much more subtle, full of colourful personality and deeply charismatic, meaning he's never sounded better as a singer, and it instantly helps make this rich and evocative opener an even lovelier surprise.
Acqua Fragile here happily embrace how Bernardo's voice has often been compared to the Peter Gabriel-fronted era of Genesis in the past, so a few pieces throughout the album drift closer to those years of that wildly influential group, if sometimes offering a kind of sound that suggest where they might have headed if that frontman had hung around after their ambitious double `...Lamb' album. The first of these, `The Drowning', broods with murmuring bass ruminations, careful veils of Mellotron-like majesty and plenty of slow-burn guitar soloing, perhaps taking the piece closer to the spectral gothic pantomimes that current Steve Hackett Band vocalist Nad Sylvan offers on his ravishing solo albums. It also calls to mind the fondly remembered The Night Watch `Twilight' album and band from the late Nineties that would morph into The Watch years later.
`Wear Your Car Proudly' is surprisingly heavy with endless twisting ragged guitar turns, delirious synth soloing and an overall frenetic driving wildness, and `Tu per Lei' is a sole piece that is performed in Italian (despite constantly singing in English throughout much of his career, it's always a wonderful when Bernardo performs in his native language!) and holds a rousing singalong group chorus that culminates in grandiose fanfare pomp (and dig that drowsy Moog wafting around the final seconds!).
`Rain Drops' is an elegantly haunting ballad carried by accordion, piano, careful orchestration and Bernardo's overly emotional romantic crooning full of longing, and the punchier up-tempo `All Rise' races with a boisterous repeating refrain that wouldn't have sounded out of place on the early I.Q and Neo-Prog albums (and listen for that teasing thick bass solo in the middle that's not nearly long enough!). `How Come' is an impossibly pretty and exquisite little acoustic ballad interlude, and the deceptively lyrically dark and surreal title track `A New Chant' lifts dreamily into the heavens with a rousing chorus delivered with all the deliciously histrionic passion constantly found on so many Italian progressive works!
There's so much to recommend about `A New Chant'. It's hardly the most challenging of Italian prog collections, but, like Maxophone's recent and very worthwhile `La Fabbrica Delle Nuvole', it's full of gorgeous playing, captivating vocals and adventurous, energetic rock pieces full of variety and rife with the most luxurious of instrumental flourishes. It also proves that many of these so- called `oldies acts' still have very vital and exciting music to offer when they put the effort in, so whisper it (chant it?!) - `A New Chant' just might be the best Acqua Fragile album so far, but it is absolutely one of the most genuinely unexpected yet welcome surprises in Italian prog music for the year.
Three and a half stars, rounded up to four.