There is no comparison for the first live musical experience of one’s wide-eyed youth; an aggressive guitar chord ringing out through the venue the moment it’s strummed, the thud of drums pulsing through our bodies, a singer belting out a lyric that feels like it’s being directed solely at us. The feeling of coming face to face with the awesome power that live music wields is positively electric, etching itself permanently on our memories and weaving its way into our spirit. It’s often the first time we really fall in love with something that will always love us back. Such was the scenario on a family holiday in 1976, when sixteen year-old Andy Tillison’s world was forever changed by one virtually unknown Italian rock band and their demo cassette.
Strolling in the direction of the exotic music emanating from a nearby Roman concert hall one afternoon, the curious Tillison happened upon the first band he’d ever laid eyes on in person as they rehearsed, and the sights and sounds captured him completely. He managed to meet the musicians and, incredibly, be shown around the stage, trying his hand at the banks of keyboards and even engaging in his first ever jam. He recounts the memory with a palpable wonder, as though no time has passed:
The band was called Allium, and though obviously talented enough to leave a lasting impression on the spellbound lad (45 years lasting, to be precise), they apparently never made it to a studio to record a proper album as many of their compatriots did. But the existence of their demo tape suggests they had planned to, and any knowledge of why they didn’t seems forever lost in the mists of time. But they bestowed a copy of that cassette upon Tillison to take home to England with him, and it became a beloved favourite and a source of pride as he elevated the band to mythic status, regaling peers with the tale of how he’d rubbed shoulders with them. This was the stuff of legend, whether inflated by youthful boasting or not.
But heartbreak struck circa 1978, when Tillison’s tape deck was swiped in a burglary, and I’ll give you one guess as to what tape was inside at the time. So not only would he never see the band again, he’d never hear them again either. Perhaps most cruel is that the thieving swine who nicked it probably gave it five seconds’ chance and promptly tossed it, unaware of its true value. This beloved, irreplaceable memento, thoughtlessly torn from its rightful and loving owner, was now but a memory, a chapter of the past. It’s not like Tillison could simply track down the band and ask for another copy, nor could he pop into the record shop and mosey on over to the Allium section.
Fast-forwarding to the brave new world of 2021, we find Tillison drawing on his deeply imprinted memories and crafting a musical love letter; a debt of gratitude to that forgotten group of musicians who set his own musical career in motion, and a tribute to that memorable day all those years ago. Allium: Una Storia is an imagining of the type of album the band might have gone on to make, based on Tillison’s recollections of their music – his own compositions expanded on by bandmates Jonas Reingold and Roberto Tiranti, and words from Antonio De Sarno, who considered the type of lyrics Allium might have penned at that time. Intrigued? I was too. Read on…
This unique and rather splendid little oddball of an album actually goes a few strides further, blossoming into an homage to Italian progressive rock on a broader scale. The vast Italian scene of the 1970s was comprised of bands who ranged from worldwide popularity, like PFM, to a great many obscure groups who managed to record just one album before dissolving (we could spend all day naming them; suffice to say its worth the effort to explore them). These bands produced music in a variety of styles: symphonic, jazzy, pastoral, whimsical, operatic, theatrical… and often highly dramatic. Anything went in those days; long instrumental sections, passionate vocals, bizarre artwork, and lyrics which ranged from romantic to political to nonsensical. Sometimes they borrowed from sounds popularized on a more international level, other times the rich traditions in the music were unmistakably Italian.
The band exhibit many of these characteristics on Allium: Una Storia, and manage to nail the general vibe of that time and place while retaining a high level of originality. The rosy piano opening to the 17 minute epic Mai Tornare is added to gradually, with Tiranti throwing in a nod to Area’s Demetrio Stratos right off the hop. This will be the first and most obvious of many such nuggets, but I’ll leave the rest to the listener to enjoy discovering. Reingold handles both guitar and bass, with Tillison not only tickling his usual array of keys, but occupying the drum throne as well. The track traverses numerous peaks and valleys within its long instrumental sections, with spirited and melodic vocals from Tiranti that shift seamlessly between blithe and fervent. So far, so great.
With such adventurous compositions, Reingold’s playing, the infusion of jazzy themes, and the addition of saxophone, the music runs the risk of sounding like ‘The Tangent does Italian Prog’, but it never comes across that way. There are no carbon copies here, or outright lifting of melodies. Rather, the obvious love for the Italian style and the attention to detail lends an air of authenticity when one closes their eyes and simply lets the music wash over them. Could this be a long-lost Italian prog rock album we’ve somehow never heard? If I didn’t know better, I’d say yes. The band actually went to great lengths to ensure this album was recorded the way it would have been in 1976. Cutting off their own access to modern techniques and equipment, they operated as though they were recording specifically in Milan’s Phonogram studio, considered state-of-the-art then. This also involved using old instruments and vintage sounds (as a bonus, Reingold’s own modern-sounding ‘2021 remix’ is included, so it’s the best of both worlds from that perspective).
Ordine Nuovo kicks off the second half (or ‘side two’ if you prefer). A comparatively short 8 minutes, the track’s stirring, atmospheric opening leads to plaintive piano before a wonderfully jazzy segment takes over and vocals are finally introduced midway. Tillison, relishing his dual roles, does his finest Hancock & Williams at one point, and I grinned ear to ear. It should be mentioned that the jazz element was a substantial part of some of the greatest Italian bands of the day (and of some modern ones who stand on those giants’ shoulders). This component is sorely absent from much latter-day progressive rock, but Tillison, knowing full well its importance, has always braided it liberally into his own compositions. Excellent stuff, and on any other album, Ordine Nuovo might be a favourite track, but it happens to be sandwiched between two even more excellent (and considerably longer) pieces here.
Album closer Nel Nome di Dio is the best of the three tracks, full stop. The arrangement is spectacular, the genre hallmarks plentiful, and the playing is dazzling, including those performances by Tillison and Reingold on instruments neither are normally associated with (and the ones they are). I’ve often taken the opportunity to mention what a fantastic player Reingold really is, and I’ll do it again right now. He manages to impress as always with his skill, but adopts a different tone here to that of his usual tastes. He could jolly well be on every album I hear from this point forward and I wouldn’t complain. From the peculiar recurring acoustic riff to vocal workouts, lively Hammond organ and more surprisingly impressive drumming from Tillison, this track delivers on all levels. After numerous spins, I have yet to find the opportunity to even try to find fault, such is the enthralling nature of this delicious piece.
Allium: Una Storia arrives as a dynamic and engaging tribute, sure to place high on my ‘Best Of’ list come year’s end. It doesn’t matter which particular Italian bands are your favourites – if you’ve read this far, this album is definitely for you, as it is for me. It’s a warm homage to a bygone time, a vanished band and the legendary scene they were almost a part of. As someone who admires the musicians they unwittingly inspired, and whose music I have taken great joy and comfort in, I feel I owe Allium my own nod of thanks as well. And I hope that wherever they are, they get to hear this album somehow, and discover that they’re not so forgotten after all.