Story of a Renaissance man as seen through melodic prism and shrouded in mystery and imagination courtesy of Roman collective who like their fantasy stray into the controversial.
A martyr for free thought, Giordano Bruno’s tragic fate might seem a perfect material for rock opera, yet it takes a mature ensemble to strike a perfect balance between truth and fantasy and construct an alluring music drama – and that’s exactly what O.A.K.’s mastermind, multi-instrumentalist Jerry Cutillo and his colorful guests did in the year when this group crossed the quarter-of-a-century mark. Tongue-in-cheek and challenging in equal measure – as reflected in Ed Unitsky’s artwork, fox being a symbol of heresy in Catholic tradition – the album they delivered can’t pretend to break any new ground but, typically for Italian groups, the songs on the record go beyond superficial mellifluousness and dig into serious matters without ever letting go of a tune. As a result, what could become a morality play, bringing past to modern justice, turned out as a testament to both historical figure’s significance and the band’s creative courage.
Bookended with two parts of “Campo dè Fiori” to set the scene and let the flames create melodic light and shade for the various stages of Bruno’s life – his European trips given a national hue thanks to Italian, English and German lyrics – the album doesn’t concern itself with pop stylistic, opting instead for broad orchestral strokes and electric detailing to convey the mood of events. The jazzed-up “La cena delle beffe” does rock, steeped in a steady beat, and there’s a great, organ-oiled groove, though, to the likes of “Liber in Tiberi” where David Jackson’s saxes fuel the moderately theatrical vocal lines, while Cutillo’s own flutes flutter around the spiritual space of “Circe” filling it with folk uplift and infusing it with transient anxiety before guitars swell and subside again.
Such solemn progress leads to “Diana/Morgana” and the arrival of two deeply emotional voices – Sonja Kristina and Valentina Ciaffaglione’s – that are dipped in piano ripples until the vast elegiac vista is opened for all to see – and rejoice, as snippets of speech and laughter appearing here and there add to the spectacular atmosphere which will turn to serenity once Richard Sinclair’s soft singing and four-string rumble gently propel “Dreams Of Mandragora” towards baroque balladry. Anchored by another bassist, the great late Maart Allcock, and carried by Jarry’s reeds, Saint-Saëns’ “Danse Macabre” has been sent back in time – but “Sandali Rossi” has been brought to the present tense as the ensemble’s return to their beginning, when this number found its place in O.A.K.’s repertoire.
Still, “Wittenberger Fuchstanz” clings to pure prog prototype, cosmic synthesizers building tension to release romanticism that’s bound to fade away, yet “Un valzer pe il Mocenigo” reveals more improvisatory approach, a sort of chamber freedom – hermetic and claustrophobic, if throbbing with excitement. The same can be said about the record as a whole: a solid, many-layered work defying tragedy in the name of art.