Samba fans beware: this is not an album featuring classical interpretations of Brazilian music. Yes, the cover photo is a closeup of a violin plastered with canceled Brazilian postage stamps and what appears to be artwork from a vintage Rio de Janeiro cruise ship promotion. And yes, the album is titled Sonata Islands Goes RIO. But rather than the birthplace of Jobim, this "RIO" is the European avant-prog collective birthed by Chris Cutler and Henry Cow way back in 1978 -- RIO as in "Rock in Opposition." Perhaps the folks at AltrOck are smirking at the prospect of somebody, somewhere, mistakenly cueing up this CD at a Carnival-themed gathering and bombarding bemused samba fans with knotty avant classical music. What tricksters! Emilio Galante (flute, piccolo), Valerio Cipollone (bass clarinet, clarinet), Andrea Pecolo (violin), and Bianca Fervidi (cello) -- who usually perform under the Sonata Islands moniker but are rebranded as the Altrock Chamber Quartet here -- pay homage to original RIO collective members Univers Zero, granddaddies of dark instrumental chamber rock, as the quartet tackles the Daniel Denis-penned opus "Présage" from UZ's underrated 1984 LP Uzed. Also featured are three Euro-folk-flavored Fred Frith numbers, "Snake Eating Its Tail" from from Cosa Brava's 2010 debut Ragged Atlas as well as "Norrgärden Nyvla" and "Hands of the Juggler," the latter two originally appearing on Frith's 1980 solo album Gravity.
The '80s Frith and Denis material (transcribed by Giovanni Venosta) is covered faithfully and not without appropriately rough edges: Galante's overblown flute lends an abrasive tone to "Norrgärden Nyvla"'s bridge, Cipollone's skronky intervallic leaps on bass clarinet during "Hands of the Juggler" are nearly Dolphy-esque, and cellist Fervidi solos wildly on the dryly recorded "Présage" -- although the latter arrangement's bass clarinet/violin/flute vamp can't avoid sounding rather lightweight compared to the deep, driving, and full sound of the original, one of UZ's least chamberesque pieces and therefore an audacious choice, but perhaps less than ideal for a small acoustic chamber ensemble interpretation. More liberties are taken with the source material on "Rethinking Plague," as Galante reinterprets "Love" from Thinking Plague's 1989 album In This Life, touching on the original's themes and motifs but creating something new that is well suited to this quartet's configuration. In fact, the newly written music by composers Galante, Massimo Giuntoli, Yugen's Francesco Zago, and the Eva Kant ensemble's Tiziano Popoli and Stefano Zorzanello arguably shines the brightest: guesting on piano, Giuntoli provides strength, power, and an often strong rhythmic foundation to the ensemble on his own composition "Land Arf"; Galante's sharp piccolo pierces through the tangle and tumble of clipped phrases in Zago's “Brachilogia7”; and Zorzanello's closing "Luoghi Che Aspettano" deftly melds humor, tight angularity, extended technique, and naturalistic flow across its nearly seven-minute duration. This album is yet more evidence of the persistence of a Rock in Opposition sensibility into the 21st century, and also how broadly defined RIO has become. What's next for RIO? Perhaps an album of sambas.