PFM River of LifeThis fine taster of the superb Italian proggers PFM covers their best years on EP's label. It's an exciting ride once they get going.

Label: Esoteric
Time: 20 tracks / 77 + 78 mins

Baroque guitar and flute, leading into jazz fusion guitar, then vocal passages followed by a fairground organ, all in the first five minutes....that must be prog, then. This compilation wisely takes the work of Premiata Forneria Marconi (PFM) in chronological order, showing that their first disc for Manticore has plenty of the right sound textures, but that they were like parts of an engine lying on a workshop floor, all waiting to be properly assembled, so that they could work. The rest of the 2-CD set shows that when that engine was put together properly, it could really purr and roar.

Whether it was their Italian provenance, or just their fresh approach, PFM were true originals, and all the better for it. Yes, if you looked hard enough, you could find bits of free-form King Crimson, snatches of Jethro Tull, some Steve Howe guitar and the odd Keith Emerson organ chops (they were on ELP's label, after all), but they avoided predictable guitar riffing and employed lead instruments differently to others. Their spacious sound featured acoustic guitar, flute, bits of majestic mellotron and lots of electric violin and mini-moog. When they were at their best, it could often be around fairly solid riffing, but on the violin (put it down to a geographic predisposition to Paganini) or synth.

The chronology gets a little mixed, because the Manticore albums are based on original Italian ones, but with bits re-recorded and with new English lyrics (not translations) by Pete Sinfield (probably quite a joy for a band that started by covering acts like King Crimson).

So the first disc shows unfulfilled promise. Add in a single B-side, and it takes this compilation about half an hour to reach cruising speed. Once they hit second release, The World Became the World, they barely slow. Like bits of Court of the Crimson King, the title track takes quiet verses that suddenly explode into a soaring mellotron as the chorus kicks in, underscored by a glorious synth riff that flute reinforces later. It was their first single and the riff still featured in their set in the noughties. The following ballad "Just Look Away" has the same understated feel as the short, quiet bits in Genesis' Nursery Cryme.

Although the band's three best studio albums are all covered in this compilation, they were arguably at their best on live instrumentals. As they toured their 1974 World release, they recorded American shows and released a live disc Cook, all of which is covered in this compilation, either directly or with parallel accounts of the tracks, including some later live versions from the UK. The brilliant 23 minutes of "Four Holes in the Ground /Alta Loma Nine till Five" alone makes the first CD worthwhile. The latter moves through stages, starting as a bluesy jam like the Allman Brothers at their most chilled, before the violin comes in, building up to a synth-driven account of the William Tell Overture (OK, we've got the message: you're Italian...)

The other two albums featured are the popular Chocolate Kings and their love-it-or-hate-it Jet Lag. For these, the band added a dedicated vocalist Bernado Lanzetti to their ranks, freeing the previous singers to concentrate on their instruments without distraction. His gravelly, accented style (think Roger Chapman) matched that of his band-mates, but added a poignancy that reaches its peak on the immense anti-heroin song "From Under," another where the whole band work together to pack the emotion in. Play as loud as possible for maximum effect.

Jet Lag sees a lurch to the musical left, emphasizing the jazzy traits that have often lurked in the songs. Slower and more ambient, if less immediately commercial, there are three superb tracks here, including synth and fiddle soloing over a bass-driven groove in "Storia in LA," which I would place among their best pieces.

This is well-titled: it covers the Manticore years, but is not necessarily the very best of those releases. We have covered a few of the best re-issues in this series, for those who prefer to invest in three discs instead of two. Otherwise, for those dabbling in PFM, there is a good hour and a half of astonishingly fresh, inventive and enjoyably memorable music here that is easy for fans of prog, jazz-rock and instrumental rock to enjoy, all topped up with a mix of strong-to-OK tracks and some formative filler.

Derek Walker


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