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Stefano Testa - Una Vita Una Balena Bianca E Altre Cose CD (album) cover


Stefano Testa


Rock Progressivo Italiano

4.11 | 57 ratings

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4 stars Stefano Testa's conceptual work about 'a life, a white whale and other things' is a wonderfully warm, yet sad and intimate creation. The album's cornerstone is the 16- minute 'Una Vita', a song that's loosely based on the life and works of Cesare Pavese. One of Italy's foremost writers of the 20th Century, Pavese died from an overdose of barbiturates in the hotel Albergo Roma and this multi-part song tells in flashback of the events that resulted in his suicide in 1950. The writer's dark themes of obsession, social isolation and betrayal are beautifully portrayed in Testa's broadly melancholic style of music.

Pavese advocated simple language and Testa matches the writer with the same laconic spirit of non-electric music, pure and stripped of unnecessary clutter. Shadowy flute bookends 'Una Vita' but the first acoustic guitars quickly chime in and we're off on an epic journey that continues with Pavese's days as a schoolboy in Turin where he developed a love of the rolling hills of the Langhe countryside. This area featured prominently in his work and perhaps provided him with the solitariness he at times desired. From its bucolic beginnings the song develops with agitated flute and strings that suggest turmoil. When he was older Pavese moved in political circles and in 1934 he was imprisoned for suspected anti-fascist activity. He returned to Turin in 1936 but took refuge in the hills during the bitter struggles between the partisans and German troops. Depression, a failed love affair, and political disenchantment finally led him to his suicide and an eerie dreamlike section in the music reflects this mood. Pavese wasn't a writer who sheepishly followed trends and by the same token Testa didn't swim with the prevailing tide when he released an album of acoustic-based progressive music in 1977. The second track 'Risveglio' (Awakening) seems to be thematically entwined with 'Una Vita' largely thanks to its matching flute part. Perhaps it represents an awakening of Pavese in the spiritual world.

Pavese said he hated the sea, which he often alluded to it as a place of danger in his work, and in 1932 he translated 'Moby Dick' by Herman Melville. The typical protagonist in Pavese's works was a loner and the pithy ballad 'La Ballata di Achab (Moby Dick)' draws a comparison between Ahab and Ulysses/Odysseus. The sea represents the fateful region of both adventures but whereas Odysseus is sent abroad by the gods and has his thoughts firmly fixed on his homecoming, Ahab pursues the white whale of his own volition and thinks only of revenge. The white whale is the embodiment of Ahab's rage; death comes upon Ahab from the sea and his obsession and self-annihilation can perhaps be seen as presaging Pavese's own fate. Testa employs a concertina to add a nautical flavour to this song and the same instrument also features on 'Una Vita', thus reinforcing the sense of solitude on that track. In Melville's novel Moby Dick represents God, nature, fate and the ocean, all elements that are beyond Ahab's control. This song is structured around alternating sections that seem to represent the different protagonists, with jaunty parts for the high spirits of the crew as they set out on their adventure and dramatic passages of soaring strings and female vocals for the divine white whale.

The meaning behind the beautiful album painting (by Mauro Milano) seems to remain a mystery even to Stefano Testa but I personally think Todd has nailed this one. In his review he makes the connection with Polyphemus who captures Odysseus and his men and eats two of them every night until they escape. The blinded Cyclops then hurls rocks after their boat as they sail away, except that the album painting draws on the spiritual kinship of Odysseus and Ahab with a pig being hurled at a boat that looks more like the Pequod.

The remainder of the album is an assortment of brief songs that are of no less quality than 'Una Vida', just much shorter. One of the highlights among these is the heart-rending lullaby 'Ninna Nanna'. The way that the female vocals mimic the flute solo just has to be one of the saddest sounds in the universe. Although a morbid preoccupation with death seems to pervade the album Testa has somehow managed to create an enchanting and uplifting work, there's something deeply spiritual about the entire thing. Melville's epic tome about the King of Fishes can be heavy going at times but there's no such danger with this beautiful opus. One final word, be sure to read Jim's highly insightful interview with Stefano Testa in the PA forum for more background on the album.

seventhsojourn | 4/5 |


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