Empty Days

Empty Days

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Threads of other projects on Milan, Italy's AltrOck label weave through the darkly beautiful music of 2013's Empty Days, as the album's 14 tracks slip back and forth from moody art rock to interludes of cavernous ambience. Francesco Zago leads the Empty Days ensemble as multi-instrumentalist, composer, and lyricist, while keyboardist Paolo "Ske" Botta, pianist Maurizio Fasoli, percussionist and theremin player Giuseppe Olivini, and vibraphonist Jacopo Costa -- all participants in AltrOck flagship avant-proggers Yugen -- make key contributions; Zago, Fasoli, and Olivini also collaborated on a similarly atmospheric album, 2009's improvisation-meets-ambient Kurai. And the appealing vocals of Elaine di Falco -- who appeared on the 2010 Yugen album Iridule -- once again make countless other singers seem strident by comparison, while sonic seasoning is added to Empty Days by sound/noise artist Pat Moonchy and guest cellist Bianca Fervidi. Zago penned English-language lyrics on AltrOck's vintage prog-influenced Not a Good Sign album from earlier in 2013, and he reprises that role here, with words that match the music's contemplative and sometimes ominous moods. Piano and vibes ripple and sparkle on the opening "Two Views on Flight," di Falco's multi-tracked vocals melodic yet fragmented as the music surges before the rising dynamic abruptly drops -- as if in sudden retreat from an anthemic chorus that is never heard. Di Falco sings "It's a strange spring/Shady omens," about swallows swooping through a courtyard as a fly crashes into a window and dies; spring brings newfound energy and exhilaration, but also the suggestion of something else waiting in the shadows.

The subtle and delicate "Words Lurking" builds upon a chordal motif recalling "Gymnopédie No. 1," with di Falco delivering Zago's words as a mysterious lullaby; then, widely dispersed piano and vibraphone ring out against submerged drones, deep rumbles, decaying tones, and washes of noise in "Kurai," summoning the darkness implied by the Japanese word while revisiting elements of the aforementioned earlier AltrOck project (without the reed skronk). The next track returns to song, with guest mezzo soprano Rachel O'Brien in a chamberesque version of John Dowland's "Flow My Tears," a classical outlier in style but congruent with the album's mood. "Coming Back Home," a highlight proggy tune from Not a Good Sign, is performed in a comparatively understated rendition, and, as in Iridule, other songs feature lyrics from Seamus Heaney and Vladimir Nabokov. An insect theme -- in this case Nabokov's "Butterfly of Doom" -- returns in the album's final vocal track, "A Dark Vanessa," by which time song and dreamy yet portentous ambience are thoroughly melded. The album slips away with the Tom Phillips-inspired "This Night Wounds Time," three minutes of reverberating piano and vibraphone over subtle Mellotron swells, followed by nine minutes of hidden soundscapes and silences. Song texts are redacted, Phillips style, in the CD booklet, and as Empty Days slowly fades away, one might imagine the sung words being blotted out in similar fashion, leaving an enormous void in their place.

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