Review Summary: A work beyond the boundaries of form, genre or medium, where complexity and beauty are taken to their highest reaches.
Along with Premiata Forneria Marconi (PFM) and Le Orme, Banco del Mutuo Soccorso, or Banco for short, was among the most representative and accomplished groups of the Italian progressive rock scene that flourished in the country during the early 70’s. The ‘Big Three’ received worldwide attention and defined the classic Italian symphonic-progressive sound that so many after them would follow. The genre is notable for the prominence of classical influences, often providing the driving force behind the music; their sound was mainly influenced by neo-classical and Mediterranean folk themes, as well as the psychedelic, melodic and experimental British bands of the time (e.g. Genesis, Van Der Graaf Generator, The Nice, which were all popular in Italy) and it flirted quite a bit with jazz as well. While other Italian prog bands had a predilection to play a softer, more Genesis-related style, or a dramatic sort borrowing from Van Der Graaf, Banco decided to concentrate on the heavy Hammond organ riffs and Moog synthesizers, closely related ELP’s characteristic sound. In comparison, Banco were however notably more lyrical, and put much more emotion into their songs than ELP did, not wasting time with self-indulgent instrumentals.
Banco experienced a blast of creativity early in their career, and left a golden mark in prog history with several excellent albums. After a very promising start with their first three records, the group followed up strongly with their self-titled album and the even more impressive Darwin!
; a concept album based on Charles Darwin and his theory of evolution. Banco apparently featured some interesting lyrical notions on the subject...in Italian, that is. Darwin!
remains one of the best albums to come out of the Italian progressive scene, which is by no means a small achievement. Along with its predecessor and Banco’s next entry Sono Nato Libero
, together considered a trilogy, the album is a finely crafted piece of virtuosity, diversity, power and beauty. It shows a band in the midst of a period of nearly unmatched consistency, on par with any of the more renowned English bands.
Banco managed to create a very distinctive sound due to the unique, unconventional interplay between the two Nocenzi brothers on keyboards, which is a prominent feature in the mix, since both classically-trained musicians were in charge of the orchestrations and the basic harmonic writing. The songwriting was bolstered by the advanced compositional abilities of Vittorio Nocenzi, achieving a perfect balance between symphonic prog-rock splendour, classical beauty and sheer bombast, all sustained by a strong rhythmic section. On Darwin!
, even if there isn’t much emphasis placed upon the guitars, the discrete but effectively soaring instrument is played with flair and tastefulness. Additional ornaments are provided by other instruments, such as vibraphones and clarinet; Banco’ music remains truly a keyboard-oriented style with many multi-layered sounds. The Hammond organ assaults, alternatively dazzling and delicate piano runs and fire-breathing Moog themes are constructed in unison to create moments of unimaginable climax. These are the key elements of Banco’s music, providing a foundation for instrumental and vocal flights.
It’s a passionate, stirring, thundering sound that characterizes Banco, and much of Darwin!
’s material has quite a dark, dramatic atmosphere and intense feel, surrounded by complex arrangements and dynamic progressions. The band had an uncanny ability to include huge sections of tension and release in their music, shades of light and dark that compete with each other, all complimented by Francesco DiGiacomo’s outstanding vocals, who sings his heart out and comes crashing in with his near-operatic, powerful and bold vocal prowess, with frequent ventures into theatrical territory. It is safe to say that he adds a completely new dimension to Banco’s musical universe.
Overall, Banco's music varies from light jazz to organ-driven hard rock, symphonic, mellow passages, piano balladry, Mediterranean folk, and a mind-blowing spectrum of synthesizer sounds. Like most of their contemporaries, they have an amazing sense of melody, combined with just the right measure of complicated passages: complex but not incomprehensible, energetic yet not overblown, full of appealing musical ideas which are cleverly intertwined through thoroughly crafted mood shifts and tempo changes. Banco owes nothing to any of the more popular bands of the era, or to any of the genre’s most influential groups. Their creative period lasted for over a decade. After their golden days, Banco continued to impress with some other respectable LP’s, particularly Come in un Ultima Cena
and the instrumental Di Terra
. A delight for all keyboard fans, and above all, symphonic prog lovers.