Unfolk + Live Book: psychedelic journey and call for justice in folk music adventures

UNFOLK

Alessandro Monti, Unfolk + Live Book, Diplodisc, 2 x CD DIPL 005/6 (2012)

News reached me the other day of a young software engineer Amanda Ghassaei who etched a Radiohead album with a laser cutter on a wooden disc. She’s also etched other audio recordings onto acrylic and paper. Phooey, you all say, a wooden music-playing record has been made before. WHAT?! I had to find out and sure enough one Heracleum Ipotesis had done it way back when in the High Middle Ages to preserve his “unfolk” music compositions – or so says one Alessandro Monti who with his Unfolk Collective music combo have had their “Unfolk” album from 2006 remastered and reissued with a bonus CD of reworked songs from a previous album “The Venetian Book of the Dead”.

Most tracks on the remastered “Unfolk” disc might have Italian-language titles but the music draws influences from Irish folk music traditions, Indian ragas, Arab and Venetian mediaeval Venetian lute music among other music genres. The journey through the disc is an interesting one: it’s as much a tour through Western contemporary popular music turns on “folk” and tracks like “Aerofolk” feature mind-expanding space cosmic music played on electric guitar, synthesiser and other electronic keyboards, giving a soundtrack that wouldn’t be out of place in the corpus of works by the likes of Can or Amon Düül 2. Speaking of “Aerofolk”, I think that’s becoming my favourite track here the more I listen to it for its sense of wide-eyed wonder and joy in exploring inner and outer space. Generally the happier the music on the album sounds, the better it is; the music that’s melancholy, brooding or contemplative tends to come across as a bit ordinary. One curious coincidence I note is that the violin melody on track 11 matches, note for note, the violin tune on Swedish 1970s space / folk rock group Älgarnas Trädgård’s song “Children of Possibilities” from that band’s first album; I think it’s likely both bands have used the same mediaeval tune.

Disc 2 “Live Book” sees a different set of musicians around Monti playing live in Mestre near Venice and in Leicester in 2011. About half the tracks from “The Venetian Book of the Dead”, referring to the workers and people who lost their lives to cancer and other diseases as a result of industrial accidents in areas around Venice and Mestre during the 1970s and 1980s, appear here. Subordinate to the lyrics, the music adopts moods appropriate to their message: dark, smoky and urgent (“Someone is always screwing someone”) and blunt, blaring and impassioned (“Forgive”). The best track here though is an excursion into a nostalgia for various 20th century music genres that had their roots in Afro-American oppression, poverty and despair: “Bedroom discotheque” gets its soulful, wistful emotion from the beautiful acoustic guitar and electric cello melodies and changes in key that bring an extra layer of dark desperation to vocalist Kevin Hewick’s singing. Through repetition of the lyrics, Hewick tries to push back an enormous and relentless advance of ice that threatens to wipe out an entire structure of music historical and cultural memory. His lyrical venture into hiphop to me seems awkward and ill-advised though, as if he can’t quite figure out how this music, born in poverty and violence-ridden ghettoes, and others like it came to be unashamed whores for the global music industry. (I can’t figure it out myself either, having felt estranged from hiphop and rap since the 1980s when the commercialisation of the genre began.) The music is a mix of unfolk, blues and rock with a slight dominance by electric guitars and other electrified musical instruments.

Some very good music is featured on both discs but there are also passages of quite stodgy instrumental music, especially on the latter half of Disc 2 where the music takes a more pessimistic and embittered turn with tracks like “The radioactive man”. Monti’s quest for social justice in his music hasn’t quite reached the stage where he might start tackling the true sources of oppression in our society, going after banks in their usurpation of control of global economies and their links with corporations across the world including the arms industry, and the media, both “conservative” and “progressive”, alike for pulling huge chunks of wool over our eyes.  I’m hoping he’s moving in a direction of calling for people to take back their power and do whatever they can under their control, no matter how small or petty, to create or recreate a fair world.

In an age in which most music produced these days is under the thumb of global media corporations and even the music of traditional societies from the past or in the current present is shaped and packaged by the music industry as an endless array of exotica, divorced from its original contexts, for consumption by tourists, Monti’s concept of unfolk music may be intended as a challenge to such concepts.

 

4 comments

  1. unfolk :: alessandro monti

    Many thanks for your first “english-language” review of the new remaster; while I totally respect your opinions, there are a few things to add on my part.

    While the 1st Unfolk cd (disc 1) was inspired by myth and travels embracing imaginary and actual world-cultures, the “Venetian Book Of The Dead” (here in a radically different live version & sequence on disc 2) is essentially a “progressive politics” statement. I think that Kevin’s lyrics clearly express nearly ALL the subjects and issues you’re talking about in the above review, but in subtle poetical and spiritual levels: repeated rotation is recommended!

    Anyway the original “Venetian Book Of The Dead” concept album was inspired by a stunning social/political book “Petrolkimiko” by Gianfranco Bettin (published by Baldini & Castoldi in Italy): I encourage everybody to learn Italian only to read this touching essay about human feelings and industrial disasters. Kevin & I share the same political views about life and society: we think that the lyrics are close to a “protest song” tradition; plus we both love black music from jazz to hip hop and we found the approach in a different context a refreshing and coherent one, because music isn’t just an intellectual exercise but still an entertainment in a universal language. Our “Bedroom Discotheque” tells just that: vinyl as the music we loved… as opposed to vinyl as human tragedy in the Pvc factories. Musical quotes are deliberate and a heartfelt homage to some people we know.

    Lastly it’s interesting to note how most “Italian-language” reviews of the above remaster perfectly got the political and social message behind the lyrics.

    Best regards from Venice,
    Alessandro (on behalf of the Unfolk Collective)

  2. Kevin Hewick

    In the midst of an often serious and intense album I did an affectionate call out to various DJs and rappers I know sorry I didn’t “figure out” hiphop from my white UK working class perspective, so bad of me..

  3. Kevin Hewick

    I’ll admit that’s bit of a knee-jerk reaction from me above, written straight after reading the review. I just feel upset to see it implied that I let Alessandro’s music and message down with my lyrics, I tried my best to do his concept justice as a writer and as a vocalist. Alessandro put in countless hours of work at great personal cost with these albums, never has the one adage about something being a labour of love been more true, ‘The Venetian Book Of The Dead’ especially was highly personal to him, he lost his father to the cancer caused by working in those factories and several other people connected with the project lost loved ones too so your political lecture seems somewhat trite in the light of that. When Alessandro asked me to write the lyrics to his music my first reaction was how can I do that, this is your personal experience, not mine, but I did draw on my own experience including the loss of my mother under very different but equally tragic circumstances. Of course out in the real world any art has to face it’s critics however noble it’s origin, tragedy and loss alone does not a great album make.. but Monti had a damned good try and deserves all the acclaim (and sales to help recoup the financial losses he has taken) he can get.

  4. Nausika

    @ Kevin Hewick re comment dtd May 31, 2013:

    I listened to “Bedroom Discotheque” a few times and the call-out did seem a bit funny, probably because I felt a break in the flow of music and atmosphere, and there definitely was a change in the mood from serious to something lighter. My review didn’t intend to criticise your beliefs and intentions. I see the song as a last stand against the obliteration of the history of Western popular music and the music’s debasement into mere profit categories, as exemplified in the way in the past the music industry has used the term “rhythm ‘n’ blues” which used to describe a musical style in the 1960s to mean something very different 40 years later. As hiphop and rap are a current battleground for the global music industry to wrest ownership and control of the music from its roots and historical context, I felt the song’s foray into it, given the song’s minimal style and the intimate setting (I presume) in which it was performed, to be jarring, at least to my ears. (Yeah, I have this habit of overlaying the music I hear with things teaming in my head …)

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