PFM Photos of GhostsPFM Chocolate KingsPFM Jet LagEsoteric do here what they do best: bring out definitive versions of great prog. These are the core of PFM's best studio work.


Label: Esoteric

With so many great options, choosing which PFM albums to go for is a difficult decision. We first reviewed the River of Life compilation of their years on ELP’s Manticore label, but the individual albums from their 1970s prime are available as well. There are some superb ones, so how to choose between the catch-most compilation and the deeper single releases ... or a mix of several?

Drummer Franz di Cioccio is quoted in the booklet, explaining the philosophy the band had from the beginning, that “every PFM album had to be different from the previous one, even if was a massive success.” This band of erstwhile session musicians lived up to that policy, creating individual collections that reflected the band’s mood at each stage of their journey. Below are the three key releases, with the main differences between them and River of Life.

Photos of Ghosts: 13 tracks / 71 mins
While this light, airy and almost classical first release (a 1973 English version of their second Italian album) is by no means the finished band, initially coming across as disjointed, the fragments are often alluring and grow in the affections the more you hear them. The lead “River of Life” track has one particular soaring part that other bands would make into a glorious riff and build a whole song around it, but PFM have other things to explore and keep the listener waiting to treasure it just a few times.

Its best four tracks (all but eleven minutes of the original disc) are on the compilation. So appealing is the ever-changing keyboard-dominated sound, augmented by flute, electric fiddle and even an occasional flowing harp, that it takes a while to realise that the guitar is pushed right to the background, yet little is lost. The Tull and King Crimson moments betray their influences but are never allowed to take away from PFM’s own identity.

Of the three tracks that don’t make the compilation, the live version of one (the hit single “Celebration”) is covered there live, and “Old Rain” is a gentle and attractive piece, but it somehow disappears from view. Little is lost then by getting the ‘Best-of,’ even though the studio version of the single is surprisingly stronger. However, virtually the whole album is repeated as bonus features, using instrumental versions and first mixes. This is a very decent album, but probably for completists only, as everyone else should be happy with the tracks on the compilation.

Chocolate Kings: 12 tracks / 37 + 60 mins
This 1976 release is possibly their best release. The previous two studio albums had been re-recorded in English with new lyrics by King Crimson / ELP lyricist Pete Sinfield. However, this one was personal, so they had to write it themselves, and poetically explored their feelings about the legacy of the American invasion of their homeland.

Woodwind player and violinist Mauro Pagani said in an interview at the time, “They had chocolate in one hand and tanks behind their shoulders, right in the years when our generation were growing up.” His tone was not retaliatory; their aim was simply to show young Americans the errors of their fathers’ ways so that they “perhaps avoid the same inhuman mistakes” and “find a human dimension to co-exist.”

By this time, they had picked up Patrick Djivas on bass and for this album, new singer Bernardo Lanzotti, who freed the others to concentrate on their instruments. Though the original five tracks fail to reach the 40 minute mark, each is impeccably crafted, exuding emotion. Lanzotti’s vocal style is key to this, with a gravelly warble similar to family’s Roger Chapman, but everything combines to deliver musical exhilaration. PFM always worked as a unit, but here the interwoven compositions flow as naturally as their playing.

The excellent first three tracks (and a live version of the fourth) feature on the compilation. “From Under” must be among the very finest work that they have put out. It is the first time that Djivas’ underlying jazzy rhythms have had the chance to propel the melodies onto another, faster level. Driving Hammond features early on, mixing with a resonant fiddle as the personal song attacks emotional crutches, particularly heroin. It sounds passionate enough to have been inspired by a friend dying from the drug. By the end, the mini-Moog is alternating with a guitar that is more prominent in this rockiest collection.

The gentler “Harlequin” brings acoustic guitar up front to start with but before long the synth and fiddle are trading lines again. The short title track is the only piece to directly address their theme and it does so with pace and purpose.

This disc is so good that the only track not on River of Life is “Paper Charms,“ but it could only have been excluded to avoid the embarrassment of the whole album being on the best-of! It is exemplary in showing how slowing down and building in pauses can give a piece more power, but without the strength of Lanzotti’s vocals it would be a poorer track.

Not content with releasing a re-mastered career-best, Esoteric have added an hour-long Nottingham University set, recorded just a few weeks after Chocolate Kings was released. As well as three from that album, it includes a five-minute acoustic guitar solo and an alternative version of the tracks that fans often think of as one big jam: so fast that at times it almost trips over itself, “Four Holes in the Ground” is here separated from “Alta Loma Five ‘Til Nine/ William Tell Overture.”

Jet Lag: 9 tracks / 59 mins
This last Manticore album continues where Chocolate Kings’ “Out of the Roundabout” was heading. It is spacious, with more electric piano, and a dramatic shift towards electric jazz. Despite a change of violinists, the instrument still often leads with synth, but fretless bassist Djivas moves much more upfront, with Moog added to his remit.

Space is treasured here. The opening piece “Peninsula,” for example, is a simple acoustic guitar piece with all the tunefulness of Steve Hackett’s “Horizons” and “Cerco la Lingua” has an extended solo violin intro.

Some fans dislike this disc, but it is inconceivable to have any PFM story without the title track and the gloriously chilled, sonically sumptuous “Storia in LA.” Maybe the atmosphere of California, where they rented a mansion while recording this, is coming out in the music.

Tracks missing from the compilation include “Breakin’ In,” its almost-Balkan melody firing up some attractive synth runs and violin fills, and “Left Handed Theory” with its funky and jazzy riff.

There is enough interest and mood to make Jet Lag a very worthwhile buy, but the bonus material is limited to an ill-fitting live version of the dire “Di Carozzo di Hans” (the six-minute drum solo is not the worst part...), which is still better than the compilation‘s studio version that suffers from a hugely irritating looped crowd track.

So after all that, what to buy? For tentative prog-lovers, River of Life is an essential start. Despite the overlaps, either Chocolate Kings and/or Jet Lag have extra material worth owning, depending on how keen you are on jazz-fusion tendencies. Alternatively, having just these three releases without the compilation will provide a feast and a musical journey.

Photos of Ghosts 3nhalf
Chocolate Kings  4nhalftocks
Jet lag               4tocks

Derek Walker

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