What happens if you take the best things of almost 50 years of psychedelic music and space rock, a bit of jazz rock and add a bit of 21st century technology and composition techniques? Depending on who you are, it could go two ways: either it becomes a mess or you end up with something bordering brilliance. If you are Marco Ragni, you end up with an album called Mother from the Sun, that easily fits the second way.
When Nick Katona of Melodic Revolution Records asked me if I wanted to review the album, I had never heard of Marco Ragni. That's a risk of course - reviewing something you don't like is not a fun thing to do, and in cases like this, it likely doesn't help the person asking for the review. After listening to a single demo track (Into the Wheel of Time) I agreed to review, because I was surprised by what I heard. First of all because I really liked the music, but also because this happened around the time Pink Floyd's The Endless River was released. I was having discussions on what that band could have delivered if they had composed new material in 2014 instead of releasing recordings made 20 years ago. What I heard in that first track of Marco Ragni's album seemed to be one of the possible answers to that question. It was, and it wasn't, because of course Pink Floyd is Pink Floyd, and Marco Ragni is Marco Ragni. Reality is that Ragni does put down a fine piece of psychedelic progressive rock with this album, that addresses the struggle Man's dealings with Mother Earth. It is a double CD, of which disc one addresses the gradual destruction of our planet by human behaviour, and the rising consciousness of this fact, and disc two goes on about what happens once Man re-establishes the balance between his behaviour and the rest of nature, after going through a process of inner growth. All of this is laid down musically in a style that is related to, but different from that of bands like Pink Floyd and Eloy, that also shows some jazz rock influences , but is at times also a bit heavier than aforementioned bands - in a way that resembles Porcupine Tree at the time of The Sky Moves Sideways.
It is worth noting, before looking at the tracks, that Marco Ragni is a multi-instrumentalist, and takes care of all lead vocals, bass guitar, keyboards, mellotron and drum's programming (no real drummer on this album, unfortunately), and a large part of the electric and acoustic guitar playing. On acoustic guitar, Giovanni Menarello and Davide Gazzi play along on some tracks, while Enrico Cipollini plays electric guitar on two tracks. Enrico di Stefano plays saxophone on four tracks and Luigi Iacbone adds a flute on three others. Backing vocals, where applicable are taken care of by Marco's girlfriend Allesandra Pirani (who also wrote a large part of the lyrics), Pamela Anna Polland, Silvia Mazzetto and The Bizarre Talisman Choir.
The opening track of Disc One (The Rise and Fall of Human Heart) is the same one I heard as a sample of this album Into the Wheel of Time. It immediately feels like a modern era Pink Floyd, with the keyboard opening that develops into a solid guitar solo. The vocals are slightly high pitched, and maybe on the edge of Marco's range, but not unpleasant to listen to. At the end of the track, we are treated to very nice saxophone solo, with a slight jazz rock touch to it, accompanied by guitar and bass.
This is followed by Sea of Vibes, the first of three very long tracks (15+ minutes) on this album. This one does honour its title, it literally is a sea of vibes. The acoustic guitar intro and the first two verses reflect happiness and bliss, followed later by fear and a form of despair. All of this is reflected in the music - the acoustic guitar part is followed by a guitar solo, and a sort Porcupine Tree like soundscape in which guitar and keyboards guide us through the different vibes. The anger of the guitar at the end matches the despair of the last verse 'I haven't strength to face you, I haven't planned to change this flow'...
The acoustic one minute interlude Panting again brings to mind Pigs on the Wing, in terms of sound, but only slightly. It leaves Man catching his breath after a first realisation that something is going wrong.
I called Painting an interlude, because it separates Sea of Vibes from the second long track on the album, Haven of Marble. This one is about the damage Man does to our planet, and reflects some of the discussions between those involved and those opposing it. It starts on in a melodic, mellow way, but develops into another soundscape that ends with an angry guitar solo. The final verse, accompanied by acoustic guitar seems to bring hope, while the sound of a clock suggests time is ticking away. The ending is instrumental, with another saxophone solo accompanied by keyboards, leaving us in a slightly minor mood.
Faint Memory then is another short piece, with acoustic guitar as the main instrument, accompanied by background sound effects. Man starts to regain his feelings for Mother Earth.
The Light is Burning is the second short piece, which tells how Man realises his mistakes, accompanied by a late '60s guitar sound, and a matching psychedelic guitar solo. It is followed by Turning back the Clock, which features multiple voices (all Marco's) in the lyrics, accompanied by acoustic guitar. Man finds out what really matters: "Only now I realise, I've been wrong the whole time"
That is the bridge to Disc Two, entitled The Awakening of Conciousness. This disc opens with the 22 minute long track, Far Beyond the Line. Spacey keyboards and guitars accompany the vocals that descibe Man's 'awakening of conciousness'. Once the vocals stop, the acoustic guitar and flute (or is it a synth on this track?) allow the listener to visualise for himself what man has done and has to do next. Then, a sudden electric guitar seems to reflect Man pulling out his own hair in despair while finding out how to continue. This leads to a 1980s Gilmouresque guitar piece accompanied by church choir like chants, which is then followed by Man's desperate confession of past mistakes, accompanied by acoustic guitar again. After the confession, a long instrumental part starts, with a slick guitar solo, and saxophone and keyboards building another psychedelic soundscape. The vocals and electric guitar return for a final verse, about Man returning to active duty as maintainer of our planet, and a somewhat trippy instrumental part. The multi-vocal chanting and screaming at the end is a surprising part, that does not and at the same time does fit the track.
After this challenging piece, a short instrumental The First Time I Saw the Sun with piano and electric guitar leading, brings us back to quieter atmospheres, paving the way for Skies Painted by the Wind. As the vocals tell how Man sees that his efforts to re-establish balance with nature are working, the flute underneath an acoustic guitar mimics the wind that paints the sunny sky.
The positive mood now continues into In the Air. The acoustic guitar is replaced by a picked electric one, but the flute remains, as Man walks through the fields and talks with the earth, the wind, the sun and the rest of nature. Marco Ragni's bio mentions his interest in the Californian hippie culture of the 1960s - this song would have fit in that time and place perfectly.
The walk through the fields ends with Man breathing and enjoying the air, in the short acoustic and electric guitar piece Breathing that again features some very nice saxophone work. With filled lungs, Marco continuous singing in a lower register (closer to his natural voice, from the sound of it) on Northern Light. The way this is sung, combined with the fuzzy guitar sound somehow bring the feeling of balance, man becoming one with nature again: "Feel me, I'm a part of you". This carries on into the short outro Mother from the Sun, in which programmed strings and a simple guitar accompany the closing lyrics.
The final word of the lyrics is "Begin", and that is what I did after the record ended - begin again, for another listen. Partly to make sure that I heard correctly what I heard, partly to find out if there was more to be heard. This album is so long, and so much is going on that it is easy to miss things, but also to discover new things on every listen. In a way, this is one of the nicest albums I've heard in the past 10 years, and it will get a lot more playing time for sure. Highly recommended for fans of Pink Floyd, Porcupine Tree, psychedelic rock in general, or Marco Ragni himself.