I'm not sure RIO (Rock in Opposition) is truly an existent mode any more, but, if it isn't, it should be, and Barbez's Bella Ciao is one very good reason why. Let's inspect a little history first.
The RIO crowd initially was a gaggle of highly talented musicians plying their craft with decidedly zenith artistic skills and political spins, though most progrock crits ignore that second part. I suspect even the progenitor groups are embarrassed by it as well, however, given what soon followed. From aestheto-philosophical halls issued incredible talent, and the movement actually had a true genesis point: a concert on May 12, 1978, that featured Univers Zero, Samla Mammas Manna, Henry Cow, Stormy Six, and Etron Fou Leloublan. After that, because this was a club type thing, three later groups were inducted: Art Zoyd, Art Bears, Absak Maboul. An exceedingly impressive crowd and Chris Cutler was one of its central-most figures.
When I wrote for the Expose and Progression magazines, I used to argue with Cutler back and forth (and have to say he doesn't put up a very good fight), but also with the just as extremely talented David Kerman (ditto in spades) but never found any solid ground to stand on with the pair. Too easily offended, they fled any discussion at the least sign of dissent from herdthink, an ironically salient trait of what has constituted the Left, which they helped populate in this regard, for far too long, a sector badly needing to re-inspect Godwin to regain anarchistic/socialist anchor points.
This had been, unknown to me at the time, a main weakness all along, as shown only a year after the RIO gaggle's birth when, in trying to organize ongoing efforts after a second concert, no one could decide whether to shit or get off the pot on anything. Two more fests came about but the entire shmegegge disappeared before 1980 rolled around—a, heh!, "movement" of two years duration. They just don't make Lefties like they used to.
RIO eventually lost any sense of political identity, and the epithet's now fairly carelessly applied to quite a few groups of superior achievement loosely in a quasi-avant-garde semi-location. The real sigil, though, seems to be a failure to achieve market success to any appreciable degree despite, and because of, the aforementioned exceedingly intense artistic intelligence. In that, Barbez, currently a 7-member coterie, is almost incestuous in its similar virtues, presenting in Bella Ciao an extraordinary collection of 11 songs of enviable complexity, variety, and finesse. As the band's disc is on the Tzadik label and partly bases in John Zorn's eternal quest for Jewish Identity (I don't think he's read Shlomo Sand's The Invention of the Jewish People yet) as well as a commemoration of the Italian Resistance, Barbez stands a good chance to be more RIO than any extent group.
The title song is a secondary Internationale and 70 years old, here dynamically rearranged for latterday dissidents against fascism (capitalism under another name) yet sounding eerily as though Goblin had re-conditioned it for a Dario Argento flick with Jon Anderson tackling the lyrics—but really either Pamelia Kurstin or Catherine McRae, as far as I can tell—amid melody, dissonance, and chaos. My thesis regarding all this sort of thing is that progrock and progressive musics are actually the populist phase of a still evolving neoclassicalism (a very good reductionist Marxistic argument can be made in this direction), and that shows as much here and now as was the case when Michael Sahl and Eric Salzman issued their landmark Civilization and its Discontents in 1977 (re-released in 2013, here), though that LP is markedly differentiated from what Barbez is doing. That is, a new baroque is still being formed even after decades and shows no signs of stable formalization, which is a damn good thing because it leaves the door rather widely open.
Barbez, then, is the continuation of what the RIO'ers too quickly and much too facilely abandoned, its work riven with methodologies and modes far far beyond the fields we know and as much within the advent of new classicalism as Glass, Xenakis, Kurtag, Sven Turre, and God only knows who else. The songs are panoramas of near and far phantasmagorias and peaceful Byzantine side alleys (as well as a street or two you might well know, may even live there) and the narratives are rich with experience, conjecture, and painterly expansiveness, as bizarre as the Viennese Fantasists and gorgeously pastoral as the Hudson School. Broach Bella Ciao only in those times when you're feeling academic, demonic, jaded, adventurous, hopelessly abstracted, and sidereal all at once. Any other approach will only bring you to dazzled grief…and, hm, that might be just another way to look at things.
Edited by: David N. Pyles
Copyright 2013, Peterborough Folk Music Society.
This review may be reprinted with prior permission and attribution.
Website design by David N. Pyles