Released by AltrOck/Fading Records in 2013, the eponymous debut album by Italian prog outfit Not a Good Sign prominently features two members of Milan-based avant-proggers Yugen, guitarist/composer Francesco Zago -- now adding lyricist to his résumé -- and keyboardist/composer Paolo "Ske" Botta. Comparatively stripped down with guitar, keyboards, bass, and drums, this group has less textural/timbral variety than Yugen's most complex music, but Botta's array of vintage electric keyboards and Zago's palette of guitar tones keep the changes coming over the clean and powerful rhythm section of bassist Gabriele Guidi Colombi and drummer Martino Malacrida. On the Botta-penned opening instrumental "Almost I," the keyboardist produces a '70s prog sound with his Hammond organ, melodic synth themes and melodies, and symphonic string and choral voicings, while Zago jumps from Fripp-ish arpeggios to sustained single notes to deep metal crunch. This grand overture leads into "Almost II," which introduces emotive singer Alessio Calandriello (like Colombi a member of Genoa proggers La Coscienza di Zero) on a moody and dramatic three-minute ballad; Calandriello begins intimately and rises with passion into a full-throated delivery of Zago's lyrics "You're trapped/Just close your eyes/Stuck in your dream/Without end."
It's all beautifully sung and played, a gift to '70s prog fans, and in fact, a 21st century spin on old-school song-based prog is fully intended by Not a Good Sign, whose name and English-language lyrical content are meant to reflect the present era of economic hardships and austerity. Yugen have actively courted the avant-prog niche audience, and those who marveled at the group's live performance at France's 2011 Rock in Opposition festival -- documented on 2012's Mirrors -- may grouse that Zago and Botta's foray into "non-avant" classic prog is, well, not a good sign, but those enamored of the style should find plenty to enjoy. And although avant-prog diehards may occasionally turn down the volume when Calandriello steps up to the mike, he brings undeniable skill and sincerity to his delivery (and an appealing richness in his middle register, as on the verses of "Coming Back Home") for listeners with less rarefied tastes. Plus, instrumentals like the epic album highlight "Making Stills" and alternately dramatic and melancholic closer "Afraid to Ask" (with guest cellist Bianca Fervidi and pianist Maurizio Favoli) should fully satisfy Yugen fans, while even the most song-based tracks feature well-executed instrumental interludes. But one of the album's most luminous moments arrives with a lovely vocal performance from Sharon Fortnam of the North Sea Radio Orchestra on an interpretation of John Donne's poem "Witchcraft by a Picture." After the song's heavy intro, Fortnam's delicate soprano is backed with suitable understatement by arpeggiated acoustic guitar, deep cello, subtle keys, and glockenspiel accents, and the band then begins a steady dynamic buildup around a simple piano figure and 5/4 rhythm, beginning in drifting ambience and escalating into an explosive statement of the theme. All prog factions should easily unite around this one.