Listening with Nathan : Terra in Bocca

On the face of it, there was little that was particularly special about I Giganti. Formed in 1964, they were another Italian beat group amongst many, albeit one that once supported the Beatles, and their early work is pleasant and poppy but with nothing particularly special about it. There certainly wasn’t anything to suggest that they’d one day make one of the pivotal albums in the canon of Rock Progressivo Italiano, 1971’s Terra in Bocca (a title that might be translated as ‘Soil in the mouth’).

It’s a genuine concept album, broken up into movements but with no break in the music. In the Sicily of the 1930s a young man, sickened by the corruption in his village that sees the supply of water being abused and controlled by two shadowy figures, takes matters into his own hands and decides to dig his own well. He will, he says, give any supply he discovers to the villagers for free. As a result of which, he is murdered. His father swears vengeance, and shoots the assassin in the face at a crossroads. So far, so operatic but it’s so, so much more than that. It might seem like a perfect short story, but the tragedy of it all is that it isn’t : the supply of water in Sicily has often controlled by the Mafia and the provision of fresh water to villages has frequently been interrupted so that organised criminals can maintain a monopoly on the supply.

It’s a hugely ambitious, angry and passionate piece of work. If you come at it from a strictly prog rock point of view you may be disappointed – there are no long virtuoso instrumental passages to be found. Mellotron and flute add a little texture but, really, this is an album that lives and dies on the vocals and the lyrics. The vocals are raw and impassioned, whilst the lyrics are rich, complex and a brilliant insight into both the Italy of the past and the country about to descend into the nightmare of the murder of Aldo Moro and the “Years of Lead”. Quite simply, if Leonardo Sciascia had made a Prog album, this would have been it.

Terra in Bocca had a troubled history. The “M” word is never mentioned, but everybody knew what it was all about and, as a result, it was never played on RAI. The group dissolved shortly afterwards. There were various reunions over the years, but they never achieved the same heights again. Bass player and vocalist Sergio Martino died in 2006. And then, when it might seem as if the band and the album might be seen as nothing more than an interesting footnote in Italian prog history, they won the 2011 Premio Paolo Borsellino , in memory of the great anti-Mafia magistrate. The three surviving members of the band played an acoustic version of the album at the awards ceremony. 40 years on, Terra in Bocca had finally achieved the recognition it had always deserved.

Unlike albums by Le Orme or PFM there is, as far as I know, no English language version of this; although the lyrics can be found in translation on the web. I would urge you to listen to it. It’s a highlight of Italian Prog, to be sure, but it’s more than that : it’s a profoundly courageous piece of art.

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