Record labels often get the short end of the stick, lost in the shadow cast by the artists they support. In the face of the music, it’s easy to forget how it reaches our ears and all the remarkable effort it takes to bring it to be. Particularity within the contemporary landscape of record music, where it is nearly impossible for anyone to economically thrive, independent labels have increasingly become far more than an infrastructure for production, promotion and distribution. They are sustained by the deep passions and faith of those who found and run them – who, through endless hours of selfless work, offer curatorial platforms of context and support. While businesses, they are equally sonic microcosms – each unique and the product of a singular vision. Not only do they labor to bring music into our lives, but they create an enviroment in which it can be best understood and thrive.
Of those labels working today, among the most interesting is the San Francisco based Superior Viaduct. While commonly noted for its high profile reissues – returning some of the rarest and most sought after artifacts of underground music to the world, it stands apart for a number of reasons – their faithful dedication to vinyl, an incredibly high production value, and the nature and proximity of the releases themselves. Rather than focusing on a single movement or conceptual bandwidth, they take a broad view, framing the outputs of diverse counter-cultural efforts together – from Fluxus pioneers like Tony Conrad, Henry Flynt, and Joe Jones to the Punk gestures of the Fall, DNA, and Suicide, and countless places between. I can think of almost no imprint with a catalog as diverse, which manages to maintain coherency – stretching from the folk of Bert Jasche to the wild experiments of Gruppo D’Improvvisazione Nuova Consonanza, while placing the singular efforts of figures like Brigitte Fontaine, alongside the Minimalism of Steve Reich, Ellen Fullman, Glenn Branca, Phill Niblock, Jon Gibson, and Arnold Dreyblatt, and jazz by Alice Coltrane, Bill Dixon, and Sun Ra. While only tip of the iceberg in their rapidly expanding catalog, when viewed as a collective body, its an astounding and unique collection of work, structuring an important vision of the history of music thriving outside of mainstream interest. Rather than contextualized as isolated free standing movements or efforts, this music is placed in conversation, forming connections that might otherwise not be observed.
To a certain extent, my affection for Superior Viaduct draws on the fact that the diversity of their tastes, so closely resembles my own. I review as many as I can, but haven’t been able to support them by opening my wallet as much as I would like – an unfortunate byproduct of already owning the original pressings of the vast majority of the records they’ve produced. As luck would have it, this is not the case with their most recent batch of LPs – reissues of three seminal records by Franco Battiato, which have rested at the top of my want-list for years.
My passion for the Italian avant-garde of the 1960’s, 70, and 80’s is well established. This movement produced one of the most remarkable bodies of music the 20th Century heard – astounding ambitious, diverse, and democratic – incorporating countless sonic traditions from across the globe. Part of what makes the Italian avant-garde so singular and unique, is how it progressed. Where most similar movements began within an explicitly avant-garde position, becoming more approachable as time passed, Italian artists often had foundations within the realms of popular music, and became more ambitious and wild as they went. Arguably the greatest example of this is Franco Battiato, a musician and composer who carved a path through the 1970’s, demanding a respect within the history of his movement, matched by no one else. He is the beginning and the end. An artist whose output is so diverse and singular, that it defies any concrete definition – darting from psychedelic Prog, definitive gestures of Minimalism, to the heights of explicit Pop.
Particularly since Alan Licht’s third installment of the Minimalist Top Ten, which pointed in their direction, fans of avant-garde and experimental music have hunted for Battiato’s five seminal Minimalist LPs, issued between 1974 and 1978 – Clic, M.elle Le “Gladiator”, Franco Battiato, Juke Box, and L’Egitto Prima Delle Sabbie. Far fewer are aware of their predecessors, three brilliant albums issued by Bla Bla during the early 1970’s – Fetus, Pollution, and Sulle Corde Di Aries. A stunning trio branching into the outer reaches of Rock and Roll, they stand among the great gestures in sonic radicalism of the era.
Battiato – Fetus (1971 / 2017)
Battiato’s career began during the mid-1960’s as a pop singer, but his attempts within those realms failed to chart success. By the end of the decade, his attentions turned toward emerging gestures in experimental electronic music and synthesis. Beginning in 1971, he began working with the fledgling independent label Bla Bla, which would become one of most renowned imprints in Italian music, releasing, in addition to Battito’s music, groundbreaking albums by Aktuala, Juri Camisasca, and a number of others. Issued later that year, his full length debut Fetus shattered nearly every category of music during its day. With foundations formed by the VCS3 synthesizer, it is credited among the first electronic albums created in Italy, though, even to that end, it is unwilling to rest so easily within genre or the constraints of definition.
Battito is often referred to as Italy’s answer to Brian Eno, an allusion to his melding of synthesis and avant-garde sensibilities with Pop, with his subsequent pursuit of minimalist ambience. Rightfully, that distinction should be reversed. At almost every turn, Battito was ahead of his more famous peer. Fetus released a full year before Roxy Music’s first album, and two before Eno’s solo debut, Here Come The Warm Jets. Similarly, Battito’s shift toward radical instrumental music, proceeded Eno’s by leaps and bounds. While heard by few at the time, when framed in its own multilayered context, Fetus outstrips almost every effort of the early 70’s in ambition and accomplishment.
The album is impossible to nail down. Constructed as a thematic whole, enigmatically sub-titled Ritorno al Mondo Nuovo (Return to the New World) and dedicated to Aldous Huxley, it skirts effortlessly into the territories of Pop ballad, synthesis, Musique concrète, folk, and psychedelic Prog. Stunning and brilliant on every count, it employs a distinctly detached lyricism, an approach which would spark a new breed of songwriting in Italy. A writhing, gauzily punctuated pool of sound, Fetus is arguably greatest album of 1971, and unquestionably one of the most important albums of decade. Spend some time with it below, before moving to the next.
Battiato – Fetus (1971 / 2017)
Battiato – Pollution (1972 / 2017)
Pollution, Franco Battiato’s second LP, issued in 1972, catapulted itself into the world on the creative momentum encountered within Fetus. A rich tapestry of diverse organized sound – touching the territories of Pop ballad, synthesis, Musique concrète, folk, and psychedelic Prog, it features strange Baroque textures, motorik rhythms, and oblique vocals, while encountering its creator at more ease within radical realms.
Constructed by the same band of collaborators which helped him create Fetus, augmented by an eighteen-year-old Roberto Cacciapaglia (whose Sei Note In Logica, from 1979, is one of my favorite records of all time) on keys, across Pollution, these remarkable voices are pushed to the foreground. Filled with Kraut / Psyche riffs, hypnotic grooves and cinematic flourishes, the album is a topical marvel, built on themes of environmental catastrophe. Futurist allusions seep in through eccentric lyrics, all joined within a shimmering landscape of sound.
Battiato – Pollution (1972)
Battiato – Sulle Corde Di Aries (1973 / 2017)
Sulle Corde Di Aries, issued in 1973, is Battiato’s last effort in wild Pop music, before venturing toward more explicitly avant-garde realms. It is arguably my favorite of the triptych, and the most ambitious. Filled with remarkable energy and creative brilliance, the album is a hint at what was to come – the laboratory in which Battiato’s wild mutant seeds were planted. It is a masterpiece, but, for those aware of his early work, also the most overlooked and neglected of the three.
Sulle Corde Di Aries is more cohesive than its predecessors – an evolving cycle of four electroacoustic suites, each marked by structural challenge and shimmering tone, flirting with the minimalism of Terry Riley and the rhythmic brilliance of Can, while sounding like nothing else of its day. Though the album features similar vocal treatments to those on Fetus and Pollution, Sulle Corde Di Aries is threaded by long extended instrumental passages, as abstract and challenging as anything in the experimental music world, while pregnant with allusions folk traditions, and pushing the potential of Pop. The result is overwhelming. Even four and a half decades after its initial release, it feels revolutionary and stunningly fresh. A wild tangent in sound, which few others have ever reached. Overwhelmingly beautiful and creatively brilliant, Sulle Corde Di Aries is the final chapter in Battiato’s intervention in the realm of Pop music, before his return at the end of the decade.
My hat goes off to Superior Viaduct. As always, they have done a beautiful job, while presenting a diversified understanding of conversations within the underground and avant-garde. Original pressings of all three of these LPs are incredibly rare and command prices which make them unobtainable to most (especially me). Many thanks to the label for bringing them back to world. You can check them out above and below, and pick them up from Superior Viaduct, SoundOhm, or a record store near you.
Battiato – Sulle Corde Di Aries (1973)