Sarastro Blake – New Progmantics (2013)

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Sarastro Blake’s new album title, which makes fresh broth out of the New Romantics and Progressive Rock labels, can only hint at the well of emotion surrounding these songs.

This Italian amalgam, led by singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Paolo Pigni, combines the stirring inspirations of old verse and wonderous paintings with a sound pallette that takes in splashes of color from the lighter moments of Moody Blues, Jethro Tull (if only because of Luca Briccola’s penchant for flirtatious runs on the flute), Genesis and Yes.

There was the sense coming in, though, that the delicate emotions surrounding New Progmatics might give something away in pacing. All of this, in other words, was starting to sound a little soft and spongy. But Pigni and Co. find a broader, if never exactly outsized, complexity in the music — and right from the first: Filippo Pedretti’s darkly intriguing fiddle work opens the Pigni original “The Lady of Shalott,” which quickly assumes a spritely cadence from Luca Briccola and Mirko Soncini on bass and drums, respectively. Keyboardist Nick Magnus (a longtime Steve Hackett collaborator) then adds a trickling underpinning to Pigni’s unguarded vocal.

It might cry out for a rumbling, math-rock interlude in another era. But Sarastro Blake makes it work by fastidiously exploring shades, rather than brusque splashes of color. The Justin Hayward-esque “Scotland, the Place,” for instance, is powered a panoramic guitar riff from songwriter Pigni, offset nicely by these expressive electric piano asides from Dave Lawson. All of that serves to underpin the song with a deep background of churning fervor, even if it all happens under a Dostoevsky sky.

A pair of Yes alums stop by, first for Lord Byron’s three-part “Stanzas for Music” (Rick Wakeman) and then for the Pigni original “Flaming June” (Billy Sherwood). In the first, Wakeman’s old-world arpeggios are intwined nicely with Briccola’s flute during Sarastro Blake’s stirring initial segment, one which then gives way to an episodic journey that would have fit in nicely while crossing any 1970s-era topographic ocean. “Flaming June,” meanwhile, boasts a modern edge familiar to anyone who’s followed Sherwood’s more recent explorations of techno-worry. The Alan Parsons Project’s David Paton contributes vocals to “Stanzas,” as well.

“Clare’s Song,” with its sun-flecked passion, is balanced nicely by the baroque stoicism that surrounds the Shakespearean “Sonnet 116,” featuring guest vocals by Serena Bossi. Pigni’s nylon work on “Prelude to the Highlands” offers a exquisitely constructed moment of respite, before Amanda Lehman (another Hackett collaborator) voices Robert Burns’ sweetly nostalgic “My Heart’s in the Highlands.”

Richard Sinclair is featured on “Remember,” a New Wave-inspired take on Christina Rossetti’s shattering farewell tale. New Progmatics then draws to a close with Sarastro Blake’s newly remastered version of “Solitary Bench,” from Pigni’s days in Mogador.

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Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso has written for USA Today, American Songwriter, All About Jazz, and a host of others. Honored as columnist of the year five times by the Associated Press, Louisiana Press Association and Louisiana Sports Writers Association, he oversaw a daily section named Top 10 in the U.S. by the AP before co-founding Something Else! Nick is now associate editor of Ultimate Classic Rock.
Nick DeRiso
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