4 out of 5 Stars!
First off, I feel it only fair to warn Prog-Rock fans about one major element regarding this album—not only does it contain no vocals, but it also contains no guitars. None, nada, zip! And also, the album does not sound like Emerson, Lake & Palmer in any way, shape, or form.
“Huh? Did I read that correctly? No guitars? You can’t be serious?” Yes, I can envision many of you asking those very questions as the sudden sheen of both apprehension and equal curiosity appear in your eyes.
But that is indeed the case with Armonite, an instrumental band from Italy that (currently) is a four-piece ensemble made up of only Violin, Keyboards, Bass, and Drums. From what I have been able to gather, this band released a debut album (Inuit) back in 1999, which included an extra violinist in the group, but after some reshuffling of personnel through the years, the band has now settled nicely into a four-piece, and finally released this, the second album, in 2015. Now, from that original group, only the mega-talented keyboardist Paolo Fosso and lead violinist virtuoso Jacopo Bigi remain, and for this album, they’ve recruited seasoned percussionist Jasper Berendregt and bassist Colin Edwin (the latter also a member of Porcupine Tree). So for any Prog-Rock lovers hoping to discover an album featuring guitar in the style of Steve Howe, for instance, or Steve Hackett, or Steve Hillage, or Steve Wilson, or Steve Rothery, or Steve Morse, or Steve…damn, until this moment, I never truly noticed just how many guitarists named Steve are actually involved in Prog-Rock and have signatory styles. Anyway, for lovers of the genre hoping for another “Steve” type of musician, you can either turn your backs on this album now, or perhaps allow the adventurous part of your nature to take control and give this album a chance. As for myself, I’m thankful I did.
So when listening to these nine tracks, did I miss the sound of a guitar in any way? The answer: hell, no! The six strings of a typical guitar have been successfully replaced by the four strings of Jacopo Bigi’s violin. And the often-complex layers of violins, mixed with piano and other various keyboard sounds, and with a dynamic rhythm section kicking things into high gear where necessary, all do a splendid job at filling any gaps where one might normally expect to hear the guitar. Indeed, the band’s sound is full and rich throughout the album, as immediately evidenced in the opening track, “Suitcase War,” which in many ways replicates the excellent Prog-Rock/Jazz-Fusion music produced by other mainly instrumental groups such as Gamalon or Dixie Dregs, only with added sass. Indeed, as the tracks unfold one after the other, I kept thinking this is “Jerry Goodman from Mahavishnu Orchestra with a serious rebel attitude.”
The other thing that hit me when listening to the album is the rather buoyant, lightheartedness of it all. Certainly there are some classical influences (one would expect that with music featuring a violin) but nowhere did the music seem too weighted down or dreary in any way, but often energetic, bouncy, and rambunctious in the overall delivery and mood (the tracks “Satellites” or “‘G’ As In Gears” are prime examples). Nothing seems to be taken too seriously, but rather, a spirit of whimsy dominates. In fact, what I would consider the only more “serious” piece in this collection is the track “Le Temps Qui Fait Ta Rose,” which features piano and more “traditional sounding” violin. But even this track is rather calming and light, not grave or too solemn.
Another track, the mellower “Slippery Slope,” brings to mind the more moody aspects of the band Kansas during its heyday, with tinkling piano runs and a solid rhythm section providing almost a dreamy background for some gentle “Robby Steinhardt-esque” violin leads. “Sandstorm,” on the other hand, includes what sounds like a sitar, and includes wistful percussion throughout (including a gong), as well as some synth sounds that generate a mood of playfulness one might normally find on an album by Dixie Dregs. Moreover, during other tracks (“Die Grauen Herren” or “Insert Coin,” for example) I’m reminded of either PFM’s or Gentle Giant’s forays into some eclectic territory. Whenever intricate instrumental counter-play is featured in jazzier or avant-garde passages, I also couldn’t help thinking that the teaming of Frank Zappa with Jean-Luc Ponty wouldn’t be too far afield regarding any comparisons.
Another thing to keep in mind is that all nine tracks are quite short by Prog-Rock standards, each clocking in at under the four-minute mark, so no one track overstays its welcome. Instead, the listener is whisked from one mood to the next at a rollicking pace, allowing no boredom to settle in, and this (along with the jovial atmosphere of the collection) reminds me of instrumental albums by artists such as Marc Bonilla or Steve Vai, only with violins instead of guitars.
So guitars-schmitars! Who needs them, right? Certainly not this foursome, this group of capable musicians who are forging an alternative path into intriguing and often-exciting Prog-Rock territory. Armonite’s relative “line-up uniqueness” alone deserves a round of applause, and the band’s efforts to investigate both defined and uncharted regions of the genre using this line-up are nothing short of a success. Job well done!