There is hardly a single misstep in the Vinicio Capossela discography, but Marinai Profeti e Balene may be his definitive masterpiece. It is certainly his most ambitious work to date, a double CD inspired by the classics of world literature about the sea and its frightful spawning of amazing creatures, human, animal, and mythological. Appropriately for an album of such Napoleonic scope, its brilliant cover shows a positively deranged Capossela in a bicorne hat, doing his best impression of a mad sea captain. The first CD, "Oceanic," is roughly dedicated to the universe of Herman Melville, with lyrics taken from both Moby Dick (in the seminal Italian translation by Cesare Pavese) and some short stories, but also includes songs based on Céline's Scandal aux Abisses, The Book of Job, Conrad's Lord Jim, and a few Capossela originals. The second Cd,"Homeric and Mediterranean," jumps back several centuries, as it is devoted to Greek mythology and populated by characters from The Odyssey. Not to be undone by its mighty literary references, the musical foil of Marinai Profeti e Balene is simply staggering, from the apocalyptic sonic collages of the first half to the delicate lullabies of the second. Much has been said about Capossela's infatuation with Tom Waits, but in this album, the disciple has gone to places the master never contemplated, expanding the frame of reference from Weimar Cabaret to Ancient Greek Theater and Opera Buffa. In the same way, the fantastic cast of supporting musicians assembled dilutes the presence of Waits' regulars Marc Ribot and Greg Cohen; incidentally, both had previously worked with Capossela. Curiously, the one track that most closely resembles Waits was co-written with Calexico, the terrific "Jockey Full of Bourbon" soundalike "Polpo D'amor" does not feature Ribot or Cohen, but the great Jimmy Villotti and Ares Tavolazzi (both legendary Paolo Conte bandmembers), who step in to do a spot-on job of re-creating the seedy Latin atmosphere of Waits' Rain Dogs. Other guests include pianist Stefano Nanni, percussionist Francesco Arcuri, and harpist Luisa Prandina (all present in many of the tracks), Daniel Melingo as the voice of Ishmael in "I Fuochi Fatui," and a seemingly endless list of collaborators in any number of both classical and exotic instruments -- notably of Greek origin on the second disc -- whose participation is absolutely essential to the fascinating world music labyrinth from all ages where this album seems to be taking place. Still, perhaps the most important role is that of the choir (listed as Coro Degli Apocrifi) blending in and out of the mix and alternatively evoking the allure of the sirens, the suffering of the damned in Hell, the commentary of a Greek Tragedy Choir, or the bellowing of a bunch of drunken sailors. Projects such as this are often weighed down by their own overblown ambitions, but Marinai Profeti e Balene astutely manages to overcome the most common hurdles. First of all, it is not overkill. Not counting the rather pointless 15 minutes of silence followed by a few seconds of "the song of the sirens" at the end of the record, there are only 85 minutes of music (little bit more than a single CD allows) split into two 40- and 45-minute halves, each with a distinctive character. Secondly, for every nightmarish, awe-inspiring recitative such as "La Bianchezza Della Balena," there is a lighter, often irresistible tilting number such as the tarantella "L'oceano Oilalalà," which sounds like the overture of Rossini's The Barber of Seville sung by a drunken choir, or the Charleston "Pryntyl," which can induce unsuspecting listeners to break into tap dancing. Most of all, not for a single minute does the record turn into the Vinicio Capossela show: storytelling, atmosphere, and group and choral arrangements take center stage over any individual virtuoso display. Yes, everything is gloriously over the top and it may sag a bit when a couple of the longest pieces are paired together, but any objections seem insignificant next to Capossela's boundless creativity, originality, and superb execution of a deliriously larger than life vision. This album purports to drag the listener into a sonic trip to the bottom of the sea in the belly of a whale, only to lift him to the heights of Mount Olympus in the embrace of sirens and sea nymphs, and it does exactly what it promises. From conception to implementation, Marinai Profeti e Balene is nothing but an astonishing achievement. Had it been released by an English-speaking artist, it would have been an instant shoe-in for best album of the year, in almost any conceivable musical category.
AllMusic Review by Mariano Prunes
Track Listing - Disc 1
Track Listing - Disc 2