PFM classicPick o the MothItaly has lot of great music to be proud of and this double set celebrates old and new woven brilliantly together. Six minutes and 46 seconds short of a perfect rock and classical mix, Deep Purple’s Jon Lord would have been proud.

Time: 14 Tracks / 95 mins
Label: Aereostella

Apart from the chart single “Celebration,” a lot of PFM’s early fame came from their fifteen-minute prog classic “Alta Loma Five Till Nine,” which ended in an electric violin taking on Rossini’s “William Tell Overture.” So to have a double disc set that completely entwines rock and classical feels a bit like a coming home or a culmination of years of classic rock.

The band has asked itself two questions: what would classical works sound like if they had been written in conjunction with the band? And what would PFM’s own music sound like with an orchestra joining in?

Of course, this sort of question is not new and neither is the rock band / orchestra combination. Since Deep Purple’s Concerto for Group and Orchestra decades ago, which pitched the two forms in contention with one another, the practice of blending the two has become common, so much so that the idea of them being opposites has long become dated.

PFM’s In Classic is one of the best examples of the concept, with each form getting its chance to play with some wonderful melodies. While PFM is not as complex as ‘symphonic prog’ bands like Yes, their albums are stuffed full of great tunes, catchy riffs and interweaving themes, many of which stay in the head for days - and these are all attributes of popular classics.

Having a band flesh out famous themes like the The Magic Flute’s “Overture” is a fascinating experience for a rock lover. The format works very well for most of the classics here, especially Prokofiev’s “Romeo e Giulietta,” and Saint-Saëns’ “Danza Macabra.”

While the classics disc is a great success throughout, the band disc suffers from including “Promenade the Puzzle.” It was neither a good track to start with, nor particularly improved by the orchestra.

The rest is superb, though. “La Luna Nuova” (a.k.a. “Four Holes in the Ground”) is played fairly straight, but with strings taking on lines that are normally by guitar or synth. The strings add a whole layer of warmth to the sound. Their sumptuous backing also makes “Dove et Quando” a natural choice for this set. It was always a beautiful track that just got even more so.  

What the strings do for these tracks, the brass does for the bluesy “Maestro Della Voce,” giving it a bit more punch.

Taking it further, “Impressioni di Settembre” (a.k.a. “The World became the World”) which was always a spine-tingling track, uses the full orchestration. Here it gains an orchestral beginning, the woodwind backs the verses, and brass effectively adds a counterpoint bass line as it builds. When it reaches the climactic synth riff, the strings play the same line behind the keys, rather than just replacing them.

“Suite Italiana” similarly brings everything together nicely. It grafts some of Mendelssohn’s “Sinfonia No.4” onto the start of “Celebration” and insets piece of Rossini’s “La Danza” in the middle. These two tracks make sense of the whole disc (which they cap with a bonus live recording of the “William Tell Overture”).

Not only do these tracks benefit from the richness of the orchestra, but the recording quality is the best the band has ever had. The mix is great, too, even placing Patrick Djivas’s enterprising bass work high enough up for it to clearly complement Franco Mussida’s guitar lines and the compositions in general.

If you have to limit PFM albums in your collection to three (and some PFM really is a must for any prog lover) this set must be on that shortlist, along with Esoteric’s expanded versions of Cook and either Jet Lag or Chocolate Kings to fill the gaps. It’s just one track short of perfection.

[PFM are playing London Dingwalls on November 11th, 2015.]

Derek Walker

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