Discovering the World of Italian Psych Rock

Italian-Psych-600

Italian artists have produced innumerable contributions to culture over the past few millennia—opera comes to mind, Michelangelo and da Vinci too—but the country’s vibrant psychedelic rock scene doesn’t receive quite as much appreciation. Granted, none of it quite lives up to the Sistine Chapel, but even the country’s prog bands have bubbled above the radar, largely thanks to Goblin’s synthesizer-laden horror soundtracks. But there’s just as much goodness to be found in prog’s sister genre.

Of course, Italy has a rich musical tradition that dates back centuries, providing fertile ground for inspiration. Puccini’s operas, Vivaldi’s baroque symphonies, and Verdi’s bombastic classical compositions all feed into Italian rock as much as The Beatles or The Rolling Stones. Nowhere is that clearer than in the bands that popped up in response to the burgeoning psych rock scene in the ‘60s and their antecedents.

As with the rest of the world, the late 1960s and ‘70s were decades of upheaval in Italy, marked by both violent battles between political extremes as well as great social progress. Art reflected that reality—just look at the nihilistic Spaghetti Westerns of Sergio Leone and Sergio Corbucci, or the giallos by Dario Argento and Mario Bava that made normal life seem filled with uncanny horrors—to say nothing of the brutal, amoral polizieschi crime films of Enzo G. Castellari and Ruggero Deodato. The psychedelic rock bands of the time may have fought back against the darkness with whimsy instead of cynicism, but they too were touched by the ténèbre.

That approach continues to this day. Modern Italian psych rockers pull from foreign sources like The Flaming Lips, Kyuss, and Earthless, but still remain steeped in the traditions of their home country. Below, we’ve compiled a list of some of the varied touchstones of the genre for you to check out, as well as a look at the wide variety of groups carrying the torch today.

Le Orme

Le Orme would go on to become one of the more popular of prog rock acts in Italy (their third album, Felona e Sorona, is considered one of the pillars of the genre), but their debut, Ad Gloriam, bursts at the seams with flower power. Released in 1969, hot on the heels of The Moody Blues, Sgt. Pepper, and Woodstock, it’s a masterful dose of baroque pop. The heavy use of harpsichord and flute gives it a delicate vibe firmly rooted in Vivaldi suites. While the melodies range from infectious to silly, the whole thing presents an intriguing document of the mindset of Italian youth in the late ‘60s. It may be a long way from Haight and Ashbury geographically, but it’s very close spiritually.

Saint Just

It’s hard to imagine Claudio Simonetti and his conspirators in Goblin didn’t hear the off-kilter, creepy intro to “Il Fiume Inondò” before they composed the score to Profondo Rosso. Saint Just only released two albums in their short lifespan, but their debut ignores all the arbitrary distinctions used to slice up experimental rock. While you can hear touches of Fairport Convention’s acid folk, Genesis’ weirdo prog, and Catherine Ribeiro + Alpes’ avant-garde psych, Jenny Sorrenti’s warbling and the unpredictable nature of the songs make this the perfect example of continental creativity. The gossamer melodies hide shadows.

Ennio Morricone

Budgetary constraints meant that Italian filmmakers couldn’t go the traditional orchestral route for their film scores, which required an incredible amount of creativity from the composers they hired. Ennio Morricone, with his background in jazz and avant-garde, gamely rose to the challenge. His compositions for the Man with No Name trilogy—which used samples and vocal melodies in place of the instruments he couldn’t afford—broke new ground in the medium, and he only got better (and more experimental) from there. He even did the soundtrack for Bava’s campy spy romp Danger: Diabolik in full-on psychedelic rock mode. While those films aren’t represented in his excellent compilation Crime and Dissonance, the collection is otherwise a fantastic showcase for his more out-there work. The creepy-crawly acid guitar on “Giorno Di Notte” alone warrants his inclusion here.

Sensations’ Fix

Sensations’ Fix usually get lumped in with prog for ease of description, but they blur the line between prog and psych. As the name implies, they offer music that appeals to the heart more than the mind. Music Is Painting in the Air scoops up tracks from their five albums, along with outtakes, and cuts from founding member Franco Falsini’s one solo effort. It’s gorgeous stuff, delicately skipping through space. At times, they recall Tom Petty hosting an underwater tea party; at others, they’re an alternate score to one of Argento’s nightmare visions of Rome. Call this whatever you want, but Sensations’ Fix’s spirit of optimism and exploration is a marvel to behold.

Squadra Omega

Squadra Omega

Carrying the polyglot tradition of their predecessors into the 21st century, Squadra Omega craft hypnotic journeys that incorporate pretty much all of the above influences plus more traditional Mediterranean instrumentation. Morricone’s discordant strains pay a visit for dinner; the rhythm section swings the pendulum back and forth until you have no choice but to follow, the horns announce the end of days. No voices ruin the bliss. Psychedelic rock originally referred to drug music, but Altri Occhi Ci Guardano only needs half that equation to induce an altered state (the music, of course).

Giorgio Cesare Neri

Basically Sensations’ Fix if virtuoso blues guitarist Robin Trower was in the driver’s seat, Logos is a solo album in the truest sense of the term: Giorgio Cesare Neri played pretty much everything on it. But mostly guitar. Lots of guitar. While his clean tone falls more on the prog rock side of the spectrum, Neri draws from a full palette: He takes trips into space, he experiments with hypnotism, he rolls out some lovely classical piano. A flute even makes an appearance. The work feels very personal—clearly a passion project. And he does it all with barely a word spoken.

Lee Van Cleef

Named after an actor whose weathered visage perfectly reflected the harsh desert landscape of the dozens of Spaghetti Westerns he starred in, Lee Van Cleef (the band) started as a joke, but the strength of their musicianship is no joke. This Naples-based unit spikes their jam with Black Sabbath heaviness in the right way—they don’t overlook that oft-copied band’s rarely-copied funk. They send wave after wave of smoke billowing in the listener’s direction, using guitar fuzz to shape it into pleasing forms. Their skill at knowing exactly when to build and release the groove rivals the music of Earthless. Nothing funny about that.

L’Ira Del Baccano

“L’Ira Del Baccano” loosely translates to “Wrath of the Racket,” and we ain’t talking about the tennis kind. This Roman quartet excels in controlled improv, working on their longform compositions in a live setting and then honing each song down to its core awesomeness for LP purposes (and, clocking in at 40 minutes exactly, this was clearly meant to be listened to on vinyl). At times reminiscent of Pink Floyd or Hawkwind, at times borrowing from Tool’s rhythmic punch or The Mars Volta’s “anything goes” spirit, they effortlessly bridge the old and new school in the same way that Italian psych bands of the ‘70s did with rock and more traditional forms. Theoretically, there’s a concept, but there are no lyrics to assist in unraveling it. But that’s no concern—you’ll be too busy getting lost in the jams to notice.

Black Rainbows

This power trio looks scuzzy as hell, and their music matches their denim vests and unwashed manes. Their sound owes a big debt to Fu Manchu, Monster Magnet, and Hawkwind, so much so that their last album was called Hawkdope. One suspects they enjoy recreational marijuana. As you might have guessed, they fall squarely on the stoner side of things, but what’s stoner rock but psych rock filtered through Black Sabbath and Black Flag? While Stellar Prophecy doesn’t predict any new star systems, Black Rainbows’ heavy use of organ (an Italian music staple) helps keep this spaceship on the right course. Set the controls for the heart of the sun.

Dustrider

Dustrider

With a name like Dustrider, it’s not too much of a stretch to imagine that these Romans have a few Kyuss CDs in their BMX packs. You can also tell that by listening to them. This instrumental heavy psych trio sets out across the desert to visit landscapes from Sergio Leone films, spewing smoke from their resting mufflers the entire way. They don’t take quite as delicate a touch as the Italian psych bands that came before them, but when you wash off the mud you discover the same adventurous approach that propelled those predecessors.

Jeff Treppel

12 Comments

  1. Posted July 13, 2017 at 1:45 pm | Permalink

    Thanks this is pretty thorough..will share wtih some psych loving friends.

  2. Posted July 14, 2017 at 1:44 am | Permalink

    More, just to name a few:

    In Zaire: https://inzaire1.bandcamp.com/album/visions-of-the-age-to-come-2

    La Piramide di Sangue: https://boringmachines.bandcamp.com/album/la-piramide-di-sangue-sette

    Heroin in Tahiti: https://boringmachines.bandcamp.com/album/heroin-in-tahiti-sun-and-violence

    Julie’s Haircut: https://julieshaircut.bandcamp.com/album/invocation-and-ritual-dance-of-my-demon-twin

    The Winstons: https://thewinstons.bandcamp.com/album/the-winstons

  3. Posted July 14, 2017 at 5:41 am | Permalink

    Shout out to Go!Zilla! Come back to Scotland some time!

  4. Posted July 14, 2017 at 7:44 am | Permalink

    https://ephesianzapproject.bandcamp.com/ hi guys!!
    Here some Space ambient music from #Italy

  5. Montie Davis
    Posted July 15, 2017 at 12:02 pm | Permalink

    Don’t forget Giöbia – https://giobiagiobia.bandcamp.com/track/this-world-was-being-watched-closely

  6. steven gibaldi
    Posted July 15, 2017 at 3:30 pm | Permalink

    Juju: https://juju-spell.bandcamp.com/album/juju
    One of the best!

  7. Jeff
    Posted July 15, 2017 at 10:14 pm | Permalink

    Jeff, great article, but it’s impossible to ignore the Italian Occult Psychedelia (nowadays): Lay Llamas (Rocket Recordings), JuJu (FuzzClub), In Zaire (Tannen), La Piramide di sangue (Sound of Cobra) and many more…

  8. E.W.C.Bokma
    Posted July 15, 2017 at 11:38 pm | Permalink

    Also AMAZING psych from Italy; One of my most favourite groups: Neokarma Jooklo!!
    Sadly nothing by them on Bandcamp (Other than Jooklo Duo’s “Warrior” (More of a heavy free-jazz thing (Still awesome though)).

    Neokarma Jooklo Trio:

    Neokarma Jooklo Experience:

    Thanks for this killer article!! Gonna have to check these artists more…

  9. Posted July 16, 2017 at 7:23 am | Permalink

    Post-progressive dreamscapes from Italy:

    https://wkorc.bandcamp.com/

  10. Eugene O' Regan
    Posted July 16, 2017 at 1:53 pm | Permalink

    Ufomammut could warrant a place on this list.
    Soundtrack for the week sorted!

  11. Zauler
    Posted July 18, 2017 at 1:50 am | Permalink

    Psychedelic – Krautrock from Turin Italy
    https://mulbo.bandcamp.com/album/mulb

  12. Muff
    Posted July 25, 2017 at 10:11 am | Permalink

    Nice article. Actually in Italy there are still a lot of good bands that are not in this article, some of those are very famous here, some are not: there are Uzeda, Zu, Teatro degli Orrori, Fuzz Orchestra, Area (’70s), Demikhov, Sudoku Killers, Zeus!, and many others.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: