At the end of last year, top-shelf San Francisco reissue label Superior Viaduct rereleased the first three albums by Sicilian-born musician Franco Battiato. His name might not ring a bell for many Americans, but in Italy, Battiato’s something of a legend: an avant-garde pioneer who became a mainstream superstar.
Perhaps the overall appeal of his output in total—starting with his frisky pop singles from the 1960s to the adult contemporary-leaning work of his later years—will never be anything but intrinsically Italian. But for several years in the ’70s, Battiato was a one-of-a-kind global visionary, marrying gonzo prog-rock song structures with blurping synthesizers, gentle folk textures, free-jazz wildness, Italian operatic drama, and peerless pop instincts. Often, these elements would collide within a single song. And—on these three rereleased albums, anyway—the result was some of the most delectable, weird, wonderful music I have ever heard. To say that these reissues are worth tracking down is an understatement.
1971’s Fetus is the best example of Battiato’s playfulness, with crazy sound effects—courtesy of the legendary EMS VCS 3 synthesizer—alternating with winsome song fragments constructed from acoustic guitar and Battiato’s fervent Italian vocals. This is Battiato at his catchiest, especially on songs like “Energia” and “Fenomenologia,” which sound like number-one smashes from an alternate dimension, one in which the guitar-bass-drums rock band format has been replaced by cosmic synths, heavenly harp-like guitars, and tribally thumping tom-toms. Battiato rerecorded Fetus with English lyrics for the UK-based Island Records (unreleased at the time, you can find it on streaming services as Foetus, although it doesn’t come close to the original Italian LP’s greatness), but Battiato was injured in a car crash, and Island’s attempt to market his music to English-speaking countries was put on hold.
With 1972’s Pollution, Battiato’s chimerical approach to sound aligned with the maturing progressive rock movement. Making use of a full backing band, the maestro directs his cohort to emit dreamy, Pink Floyd grooves on “Beta,” and pilots the synth-and-guitar tangles in the lengthy title track. He also layers in existing recordings of classical music from Johann Strauss and Bedrich Smetana, and the album concludes with what sounds like a ghostly requiem mass filtered through his VCS 3, with a recording of Battiato dolefully, ridiculously sobbing on top of it. It’s an irresistibly spooky, funny, invigorating record, a one-of-a-kind experience from a headspace where genre demarcations do not apply.
On 1973’s Sulle Corde di Aries, Battiato stretched out. The album kicks off with a side-long composition, “Sequenze e Frequenze,” that begins with free-jazz trumpet blares and a wraithlike choir that sounds like Ennio Morricone soundtracking a Jodorowsky film. Synths descend, and Battiato incorporates Gregorian chant and Hindustani classical music in a fantasy world populated by chattering music boxes. The three tracks on Side Two are similarly meditative, exploring Eastern musical attitudes through Western timbres (depicted explicitly in one song’s title, “Da Oriente ad Occidente”), and creating squelching, womblike songs that are equal parts zany exploration and liturgical calm.
All three albums are available on 180-gram vinyl via Superior Viaduct. The sound is breathlike and stunning, especially compared to inferior imported CD versions of the album—the clunky edits and occasionally crude instrumentation sound entirely natural on Superior Viaduct’s reissues. Anyone with even the slightest thirst for musical adventure will find downpours of delight in Battiato’s eccentric, spellbinding world of sound.