Album Remarks & Appraisals:
"The release of Kaleidoscope (MoonJune, 2007) brought Italian progressive/fusion group D.F.A. (Duty Free Area) back into the spotlight by reissuing, in remastered form, its first two out-of-print discs - Lavori in Corso (Scolopendra, 1996) and Duty Free Area(Mellow, 1999). But unlike many reissues, bringing early material back into release to flesh out an existing discography, Kaleidoscoperepresented the group's entire repertoire to date. While the guitar/keys/bass/drums quartet did release a third disc, Work in Progress (MoonJune, 2001), recorded live at NEARFest 2000, there was no new material to be found. Despite creating no small stir in the progressive rock community upon its arrival, D.F.A. fans have had to remain content with its small but memorable thirteen-song repertoire for a decade.
Until now. The aptly titled 4TH is the group's first studio disc in nine years, its six complex yet accessible new songs all the more remarkable for D.F.A. being a part-time group that rarely gigs.4TH is not only the group's best release to date, it's a carefully constructed album that - in its marriage of Italian prog preceded by groups including the jazz-informed but largely symphonic Premiata Forneria Marconi, responsible for progressive rock classics Per Un Amico Numero Uno, 1972) and L'Isola di Niente (Numero Uno, 1974), and the lithe lyricism of British Canterbury groups Hatfield and the North and National Health - continues to carve out a strong niche for a group laying waste to claims that the best groups are full-time affairs, gaining voices and chops through constant recording and touring.
It's also an album of no insignificant growth. 4TH's nearly 19-minute centerpiece, "Mosoq Runa," begins and ends with keyboardist/co-composer Alberto Bonomi's gentle, Mediterranean-tinged acoustic piano, supported by guests Zoltan Szabo (cello) and Maria Vicentini (violin, viola) - a potentially neoclassical move were it not for harmonies more reminiscent of Hatfield's Dave Stewart and Phil Miller. Unfolding gradually, the rest of the group isn't in the pool until nearly the five-minute mark, but drummer/co-composer Alberto de Grandis' well-tuned kit and in-the-pocket yet orchestral groove with bassist Luca Baldassari drives a lengthy melody, played tag-team style by Bonomi, with his array of beautiful-sounding analogue synths, and Silvio Minella's overdriven guitar. Within its ever-shifting rhythmic and harmonic landscapes there's plenty of room for powerful solos from Minella and Bonomi, making it a powerful epic of composition and improvisation that shows just how far the group has evolved in long-form writing since Lavori in Corso's "La Via."
D.F.A.'s references remain clear, but there's also a certain gravitas about the opening "Baltasaurus" and the rest of 4TH's episodically constructed tracks that's distanced from Canterbury's often wry tone, and a contrapuntal complexity that's equal parts Gentle Giant. Still, the almost indefinable Italian flavor of this largely instrumental group, particularly evident on "The Mirror" (one of only two vocal tracks), gives it a voice all its own. Thirteen years since inception, and despite its diminutive discography, D.F.A.'s reputation as one of the best of the new breed of progressive/fusion groups remains intact." -AllAboutJazz
The Wire (p.73) - "[T]he payoff is the exquisite 'La Ballata De S'Isposa 'E Mannorri', derived from an Urzulei folk tune on Sardinia."
Personnel: Alberto De Grandis (vocals, drums, percussion); Silvio Minella (electric guitar); Maria Vicentini (violin, viola); Zoltan Szabo (cello); Alberto Bonomi (flute, piano, grand piano, Fender Rhodes piano, synthesizer); Luca Baldassari (bass guitar).
Recording information: Sottoilmare Recording Studio, Italy (02/2008-05/2008).
The "Canterbury" musical style is uniquely wedded to a time and place -- late-'60s to mid-'70s England for the most part -- and so groups from other times and places that may be influenced by the Canterbury sound are usually described in just that way: "Canterbury-influenced" rather than real Canterbury. Well, with the arrival of 4th by the Italian quartet D.F.A., maybe it's time to consider that real Canterbury music can be played anytime, anyplace. For this album nails the most adventurous aspects of the Canterbury sound -- particularly that of Canterbury supergroup Hatfield and the North circa 1975's The Rotters' Club -- so completely and expertly that it's nearly impossible to view the album as a mere tribute or knockoff. And not a ripoff, either -- 4th is too fabulous to describe with such a pejorative. On the lengthy instrumentals here (and instrumentals dominate), keyboardist Alberto Bonomi, guitarist Silvio Minella, drummer Alberto De Grandis, and bassist Luca Baldassari unite in melodic statements that are knotty and angular enough to hold surprises for the listener while never sacrificing flow and momentum. The musicians plunge into intricate long-form compositions, such as the opening 14-plus-minute "Baltasaurus," that twist and turn and keep the changeups coming one after the other. With a solo burst here, a unison line there, counterpoint snippets, thematic reiterations, and dynamic advances and retreats, this is music to get lost in for anyone so inclined, and is also utterly absent aimless noodling or a lack of direction, thanks to so much of it being so thoroughly composed.
Bonomi alternately recalls Dave Stewart on the Fender Rhodes, Alan Gowen on synths, and -- to cite a more current reference -- the muscular yet nimble Hammond voicings of Tomohiro Ueno from Japan's Pochakaite Malko, while also interjecting some lovely, spacy Jimmy Hastings-style flute here and there. Meanwhile, Minella is clearly enamored of Phil Miller's sustained guitar tone, and drummer De Grandis (also principal composer throughout) and Baldassari form a powerful, tight yet fluid rhythm section. This music is not designed for the typical youthful listener of early-21st century post-grunge indie/alternative rock, and those constitutionally disinclined to "prog rock" would no doubt find something not to like here. Truth be told, one does wonder why so many proggers, D.F.A. included, seem enamored of words like "Dreaming melody/Rising from the sea/You dive/And float my soul to the sky." But in the case of 4th the vocals really are few and far between, and De Grandis' singing of the aforementioned lyrics on "The Mirror" is soon replaced by some of his jazzy wordless harmony vocals later in the track. Also consider the engaging vocals delivered by the trio of female singers from the Sardinian world-folk group Andhira on the closing ballad "La Ballata de S'Isposa 'e Mannorri," which recalls a real tragedy in the island's past. In this context, the three singers sound a bit like the Northettes mixed with the timbral qualities of a late-'70s/early-'80s Mike Oldfield vocal chant. As on the intro to "Mosoq Runa" midway through the album, cellist Zoltan Szabo and violinist/violist Maria Vicentini add a chamberesque quality to "La Ballata"'s conclusion, which ends the disc on a beautifully understated note. On balance, then, 4th's shortcomings seem so slight that one is inclined to greet the album with unabashed enthusiasm. For anyone waiting well past 30 years for a worthy successor to The Rotters' Club, here it is. ~ Dave Lynch