The creative force behind Subtilior is keyboardist Michele Epifani, leader of Italian prog rock band Areknamés, but Subtilior's Absence Upon a Ground has little in common with the music of Epifani's comparatively conventional prog outfit, which, with its organ-, synth-, and Mellotron-laden compositions and English-language vocals, seems inspired by classic '70s prog rock. In contrast, Subtilior moves in a more "serious" avant-gardist direction, wholly appropriate for the project's avant-prog-focused AltrOck label. Although he plays keyboards on Absence Upon a Ground, the album focuses primarily on Epifani as composer of two lengthy suites that walk a line between avant-prog rock and contemporary classical music. The first suite, "Absence," consists of 13 movements generally ranging in length between two and three minutes; the second, "Upon a Ground," features three parts, each of four to six minutes in duration. The first suite is performed by an octet of violin, clarinet/bass clarinet, vibraphone/marimba, grand piano, electric guitar, electric bass, drums, and Epifani on Hammond organ; the keyboardist switches to electric piano and synthesizer on "Upon a Ground," joined by six other musicians on tenor saxophones, cello, electric guitar, electric bass, and drums/percussion. Along with Epifani, guitarist Stefano Colombi and drummer Luca Falsetti play on both suites; otherwise, the musician lineups on "Absence" and "Upon a Ground" are different, and thus, a total of 12 musicians play on the album as a whole.
Epifani's contemporary classical intentions seem clear from the very start of "Absence," whose brief movements, despite the foundation provided by drummer Falsetti and electric bassist Antonio Marrone, often skew away from conventionally persistent rockish grooves and dynamics. Epifani takes great care in mood-setting, capitalizing on the timbral possibilities of his acoustic-meets-electric ensemble and demonstrating command of a wide harmonic palette as comparatively dense passages emerge from disquieting ambient-flavored underpinnings. There are sharp stops and starts, startlingly sudden unison flareups, and herky-jerky momentum, but the individual movements (e.g., "Primo Frammento," "Epicicli I," "Terzo Frammento," and especially the concluding "Clos") often reach their peaks of activity at a comfortable distance from their conclusions, which slide away into uneasy calm and silence. The album's mixing also tends toward modern classical norms -- Falsetti's drums are fully integrated into the ensemble with a role not unlike that of a classical percussion section, although he also occasionally rocks when the composition calls for it. Throughout the album, structural elements and percussive wood block accents may suggest the influence of a modern classical piece like Varèse's Intégrales, although with its dual tenor saxes and Epifani on electric piano, "Upon a Ground" has an almost Miles fusion flavor at times (along with the album's roughest, noisiest moments). A noticeable tinge of Varèse may actually suggest that Epifani is yet another AltrOck artist falling under the shadow of Frank Zappa, whose own championing of Varèse is well known. In any case, regardless of influences, Absence Upon a Ground is one of the label's most stunning, sophisticated outings yet. ~ Dave Lynch