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16 June 2009

Area - 'Arbeit Macht Frei' (Cramps)

Here's the thing about the Discloated Underbite Spinal Alphabetised Encourager Template: every once in awhile, without realising it, you'll find yourself immersed deep into the Impenetrable Prog Gauntlet. It's hard to see the end of it, since there's so many weird angles and changes, and often a good explorer has been known to disappear in the darkest regions of the IPG, never to be seen again. Even though it's against official Policy, I'm gonna warn you that the last record we looked at (Arbete and Fritid) actually was the secret entrance to one such Gauntlet, which is dominated by a gang of mostly Italians called Area. Area subtitled their name with "international popular group" which was perhaps meant to be ironic. They were stridently political, but I don't understand Italian and I have no idea what it means to be stridently political in Italy, since I just assume that everyone is at least somewhat political. After all, fascists and commies are still fire-bombing each other in the streets every week. Therefore, I'm incapable of dissecting the layers of irony and/or passion captured by the title and artwork. I like to think of Area as "prog as fuck" because they employ many of the concepts that have created our idea of Progressive Rock in the 1970s: jaw-droppingly fast contrapuntal riffs, complex neo-classical song structures, the occasional tendency to go super dorky with flutes, 6-string bass or smooth saxophones, and a willingness to fuck around and break rules. How much the latter concept is explored generally has a direct correlation with how much I like a band, because I'm not really that interested in flashy showmanship. Arbeit Macht Frei has showmaship a-plenty, though there's significantly less investment in the rulebreaking category than their later records. But it's a debut album, and a grand statement for sure. Vocalist Demetrio Statos doesn't overpower the band, though his dramatic opera voice may not be for everyone. This is the only Area record I would put in the same box with commercial prog like Yes and Crimson; there's definite group jamming and heavily affected instrumentation (though the guitar and keyboards, which do have great tones, don't leap away from Western tuning or anything). It's only the last song, 'L'abbattimento dello Zeppelin' that hints at the gradual rejection of rock music that is to follow - the contrabasson gets a little bit more free (perhaps in reference to the title), and the guitar solo sounds like it's off a Wooden Shjips record. Statos's weird mumbling/yelling in the middle is layered over some sparse, surreal free improv and it's just weird, man - til the rock kicks back in, or does it? Open up the gatefold cover and it explains all. A photo of a concentration camp bearing the titular inscription, across from a handgun emblazoned with the Area logo - it's like Marco Ferreri's object from Dillinger e morto going head to toe with the forces of fascism, through the music of Area. Or something. I noticed that the musicians all look very tired in the photo; I guess it's hard work playing that fast and intricately.

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