Sunset. After missing the last bus, she walks back tentatively to the house she has rented for the summer. A house with memories of holidays long ago. She shuts the door. In the half-light, something catches her eye. A chair has been moved, ever so slightly. And the darkness is deepening. This can’t be good.
So goes the opening horror-tinged narrative to The Art Of Bleeding, the eighth studio (and first conceptual) album from Milan’s symphonic prog heavyweights The Watch. The quintet have garnered much acclaim for operating largely from the Foxtrot-era Genesis blueprint while carving out a niche with grand and sumptuous compositions of their own. Unlike the ‘clone’ bands out there who tend to lack substance and fall by the wayside once the novelty has worn off, The Watch have delivered an impressive catalogue of original material that carries on the tradition of 1970s Genesis, as though these are lost albums being discovered decades later. They employ twinkling 12-strings, booming bass pedals, vintage keys, swelling dynamics, and Gabriel-esque flute & vocals. But while their peers shoehorn such techniques into dull copycat music in an effort to give it some oomph, The Watch weave them throughout their inspired works with the same kind of grandeur as the young Brits did those many moons ago. And of course, they also like to step outside that box and allow themselves to be taken in different directions, including the occasional modern sound unheard of in the early 1970s. Flashes of other notable influences colour these pieces as well (I’d wager a lot of IQ fans would also like The Watch).
For the first time since 2010’s Planet Earth?, the band have chosen not to include a Genesis cover song. The previous few albums have sported a handful of them: Stagnation, In The Wilderness, Let Us Now Make Love, Going Out To Get You, and even The Hermit, from Steve Hackett’s debut solo album Voyage Of The Acolyte (with the man himself guesting). Certainly not pedestrian choices there! Yes, they go deep; it’s not just any band that would incorporate The Light (a curio from an ancient bootleg tape) into their live set.
With this penchant for performing Genesis-soaked concerts and recording these studio covers, the past decade or so has felt like The Watch were drifting away from prioritizing songwriting. Having witnessed them myself in Hamilton, Ontario in 2012, I can attest that my favourite parts of their excellent show came when they performed their own material, which scratches the ‘Genesis itch’ just as well for my tastes (one piece blended so seamlessly into Entangled that I wasn’t even sure where the line had been drawn between original and cover). Sure, it’s fun to see ancient chestnuts from those early Genesis albums, and if a band can pull off songs like Supper’s Ready and The Fountain Of Salmacis, it’s hard to blame them for doing so. But this band is so much more than that, and it’s their own art that’s most worthy of attention; ability to play others’ material – no matter how beloved – should come second. Long story short: while the Genesis stuff sells tickets and gets them noticed, The Watch’s music is simply too good to be overlooked.
Three years in the making, The Art Of Bleeding arrives as one of the strongest entries in their catalogue. Andrei Nicolescu’s cover artwork is like something from a Dario Argento film poster, and certainly suggestive of the themes contained within. It’s fair to say that the whimsy inherent in early Genesis is one aspect that doesn’t often carry over into The Watch’s music. This is a particularly dramatic album – even for them – but they pull it off masterfully. Beginning with a slow fade-in, An Intro transitions into the moody Red with a synth vibe reminiscent of John Carpenter, eventually exploding into an energetic track that pulls out all the stops: Rickenbacker, Hammond, mellotron… even a blood-curdling scream! Definitely one of the strongest album openers of their career.
The dark tale Abendlicht follows, relating the thoughts of a suicidal man in the year 2065 (‘It is a hundred years since Rubber Soul…‘, croons Simone Rossetti during one gentle section, ‘…What we have now is everybody’s fault, it is the future we all stole‘). The song paints a grim portrait of a future Earth grappling with a shifting climate. It’s curious the way The Watch can take such bleak subject matter and make a bouncing toe-tapper of a prog song from it, but there you have it.
Concert mainstay The Fisherman has been around since 1997’s Twilight (the lone album by Rossetti’s precursor band The Night Watch), and has been re-recorded for inclusion here, similar to what they’ve done on past albums with the re-working of tracks like Soaring On and My Ivory Soul. By far the most Genesis-like song in this new batch, The Fisherman is always a welcome piece, although it’s unclear how it fits in to the rather broad concept of ‘cathartic violence’ here. Either way, the fresh coat of paint is an improvement on the original recording.
Heavy mellotron strings accent the sludgy, hypnotic riffs of Hatred Of Wisdom, a twisting track that briefly glances in King Crimson’s direction. The lyrics center on the way fear can become resentment and even murderous rage, like the horrific burning alive of so-called witches and heretics in ‘an age before electricity or science’. Sounds fun, right? Oddly enough, there are sunnier, major key sections in the piece which provide balance. The track is a good example of what The Watch can do when they steer further from the Genesis influence and craft something that band never would have.
Okay, so there is a cover song here after all, but it’s too distant a Genesis connection this time to be counted among the aforementioned. Howl The Stars Down is a brooding but beautiful piece from former Hackett band member Nick Magnus, a terrific artist in his own right (seriously, check out some of his stuff, you won’t regret it). Originally the piano-based closer to his 2010 album Children Of Another God (and performed live by Magnus with Rossetti in the past), it’s transposed here to acoustic guitar, but otherwise left intact. The striking piece is well positioned before the dramatic one-two punch of the final tracks.
The Tony Banks-flavoured beginning of Black Is Deep eventually opens up into a fully fledged prog instrumental, furious synths giving way to breezier, melodic guitar parts and Marco Fabbri displaying his always impressive drumming. It’s a cracker, but I would have liked it to have gone on a touch longer – at less than four minutes, it feels unfinished – but it’s great stuff while it lasts. The album’s opening melody provides the backbone to the final track Red Is Deep, which develops into a rocking piece about the violent revenge of New Guinea’s indigenous people on relentless loggers (Love Me Do, these songs ain’t). Stretching out these stirring melodies is a technique they employ to great effect – as they did with the spellbinding Disappearing Act from Seven – and it is an equally compelling way to close The Art Of Bleeding.
Ultimately, this 45 minute slab of symphonic prog cake is the strongest they’ve served up in years. Maybe the best since Vacuum, way back in 2004. Recent releases have had some tremendous individual tracks, but this one holds up as a complete listen without a weak link. For them to produce such inspired new music without sounding like a tired rehash of what’s come before is most heartening. If you haven’t been keeping your eye on The Watch, perhaps now you will. As a tribute act, they are excellent, but it’s when they put pen to paper and design commanding compositions like these that they rise above the rest of the pack.
Simone Rossetti: vocals, mellotron, synthesizers, flute
Giorgio Gabriel: electric guitars, 6-12 strings acoustic guitars, classical guitar
Marco Fabbri: drums and percussions
Mattia Rossetti: bass guitars, bass pedals, 6-12 electric guitars, vocals
Valerio De Vittorio: keyboards, Hammond L122 organ, mellotron, synthesizers