Arm on Stage: Sunglasses Under All Stars
If I had to tell you everything I knew about Italy, the list would be pretty short. In fact, since it won’t take too much time, here you go:
-The food there is often delicious
-The country is shaped like a Louisiana shaped like a boot
-Rome happened there
-The people are passionate about basically everything, from sports to religion to the way you’re eating your dinner (hint: they want you to eat more)
None of that however is important to this review.
The only thing I knew about progressive rock in Italy before today was that there wasn’t a whole lot of the former going on in the latter. Sure, there have been Italian prog rock bands in the past, but very few of them made an impact internationally (the ones that did have very awesome names though, such as “Premiata Forneria Marconi”, which translates to “Award-winning Marconi Bakery”). In the grand scheme of European nations and their production of popular progressive rock bands, Italy isn’t exactly in the top 5. Or 10. Or…you get the picture.
So when I was introduced to the Italian group Arm on Stage (www.myspace.com/armonstage) I really didn’t know what to expect. According to the literature on the band, Arm on Stage is the group effort of four different musicians who met for 10 days in an mountain cottage with the goal of collaborating on a record that blended all of their interests and distinctive sounds into something new and original. While the ‘lock yourself in a cabin in the middle of nowhere’ strategy might be a good premise for a romantic novel or horror movie, it struck me as a little odd for a band, especially one that had never produced a record together before.
The album they produced, Sunglasses Under All Stars, catches my ear for a number of reasons. The atmosphere created by the first track, “The Guardian”, is both relaxing and slightly haunting. The electronic, offbeat intro gives way to a smoother, bluesy groove that pulls you out of an Italian frame of mind and places you in a foggy Georgian swamp. Folco Orselli’s vocals across the entire album are another point of interest. I can’t tell if he’s shy or just struggling with his English, but I wish he would just relax and sing out the whole time, because every time he lets loose he bring a valuable aural texture that is sorely missed otherwise. Lastly, a note to the engineer who mixed this, TURN UP THE BASS. I say this less as a criticism of the overall sound, and more as an endorsement of bassist Alessandro Sicardi’s efforts that are going largely unnoticed, especially on tracks like “Desert Coffee” where his performance can transform the entire song if you mess around with the EQ.
My overall impression of the album is that there are a lot of interesting ideas here that don’t get fully developed over the course of the record. The album has potential sprinkled throughout, but never do I feel like any one track fully evolved. Some tracks start out strong but then don’t grow, and other tracks probably could have been re-tooled to create greater contrasts for the listener. Too often I found myself intrigued by the first 45 seconds of a song, but 2-3 minutes later not much else had happened and the song was over. Also the lyrics, which were written in Italian, translated by a 3rd party, and then sung in English, are pretty damn confusing, even for a progressive rock record. I’m guessing a native English speaker never got a chance to review the lyrics, otherwise lines like “Then I cave down/Saving all my insane side/And never be late/Looking at my feet up to down” would probably have been retranslated. Again, I imagine this was more a product of the band not putting as much time into creating the album as one might hope they would, especially considering it was their first.
The album did grow on me over the repeated listens I gave it, so maybe my first impressions were the product of my ignorant American ears hating everything not from America. Regardless, I’m hoping that if Arms on Stage makes another album they take another more conventional approach to writing the material. I think they could produce something much more developed if they want to.