“The Venetian Book Of The Dead” was the most ambitious project by the Unfolk Collective: a concept album about vinyl as musical entertainment as opposed to vinyl as human tragedy; the music & lyrics were inspired by an industrial disaster in the Venice area. Three years in the making, it was an heartfelt tribute to my people.
Here is a track by track description by Kevin Hewick & Alessandro Monti:
‘CICATRICE DEL TEMPO’
Kevin: A swirl of abstract machine-like sound introduces the album. The only respite is Alessandro’s mandolin, to be a major sonic voice throughout, giving a human folk music texture to the inhuman grind of industry.
Alessandro: The cd started as instrumental ideas like it was part 2 of Unfolk (2006). I gave some friends new files and basic tracks to be processed with sounds, noises, distortions, etc. This opening piece starts where the first album ends, that noise comes back in a transfigured way: the track is Gigi Masin’s work based on a double tracked mandolin. I always had a strange cosmic wavelength with Gigi and I was sure that he would give the track the right ambience. I immediately felt it was a natural intro.
‘THE RADIOACTIVE MAN’
Kevin: There’s a touch of Peter Hook and Joy Division in the use here of Alessandro’s other major instrument, his bass guitar. The whole piece broods, an ominous and doomy atmosphere pervades. I read of the terrible plight of the late Olivero Saretta who would shower and even change his clothes before he went home from work – but he still reeked of the factory smell and his children would jokily run away calling out to him that he was ‘Radioactive’. Repelling those he loved the most and steeped in the chemicals that were to cause his death I wanted this lyric to match the dark musical theme and capture the feeling of a man who literally wanted to climb out of his own skin and be well again.
Alessandro: One of the very first pieces I recorded during December 2006: it was originally intended as a demo but that original first take is what you still hear. The double guitar solo by Alex Masi is an amazing performance in my opinion: he gave voice to pain and suffering without even knowing about the lyrics. There are two versions of this track with different drummers: the second one is longer with an instrumental electro-acoustic coda by Kar and is available on the “Unfolk + Live Book” remaster as “Closing: dal libro”.
‘BLACK TAR LAGOON’
Kevin: From the personal tragedy this song goes to the wider damage to the environment and how a whole community was affected. More explicitly how EVERYTHING became corrupted/tainted, all that people ate, touched and breathed. Alessandro told me how when he was a kid the smell was in the air, and waste chemicals were pumped into the lagoon and it was filled with a black tar. Contaminated shellfish were still being caught and sold to the restaurants of Mestre and Venice and eaten by local and tourist alike. There were ‘Radioactive Women’ too, infected by washing the work clothes of their menfolk. I try to conclude the words back to the same protagonist as ‘The Radioactive Man’ as it dawns on him that the very livelihood that provides for his family is also killing them. The sheer brilliance of Unfolk is evident in this extraordinary and unique track, it seems to be suspended in space. As I sang against it on the second session at Bienixarte I can honestly say I felt totally absorbed into the composition, it was one of the great musical experiences of my life.
Alessandro: the basic track was edited from a 3 hour free improvisation with Madriema on a hot Summer afternoon in their studio (“Tutte le cose lasciate in sospeso” plus “Sonata Variabilis” on the “Unfolk + Live Book” cd were taken from the same source). Some harmonies and cycles can only appear improvising: I used vague bass structures and everything was played live (no overdubs here): it seems like Kevin’s voice is actually improvising with us on a strange dimension, a parallel world of pure magic; he actually structured the piece in a unique way. I remember that Kevin said he was inspired by “The Lamia” for his interpretation.
Kevin: Alessandro wanted to contrast the grim images of death and suffering with the pleasures of vinyl. He and Riccardo made a lovely musical box effect, in it’s cyclical pattern it really is like the turntable turning around and around. Though there are still traces of the darker themes – ‘pour that molten vinyl over you and me’ this is a moment of lighter if not light relief. We love all kinds of music so they are namechecked – jazz, blues, country, soul, folk, rock ‘n’ roll – and some DJ and rapper friends get namechecked too – DJ Shred in New York, DJ Stix in London, DJ Hooky in Manchester, DJ’s Max and Micromix of Venice, Kev Hef from the Bronx and DJ Spinderella of Salt ‘n’ Pepa fame, I was always struck by her as a pioneering woman in a male dominated genre. Musically this is nothing like it but it’s our nod to the genius of rap and hip hop.
Alessandro: my first cello arrangement ever written thanks to “Reason” (Mac’s music system), with the help of Adriano Clera, one of Robert Fripp’s alumni and member of The League Of Crafty Guitarists & Madriema. I’ve always loved contrasting moods between music & lyrics, and I loved Kevin’s images & visions about the joy of vinyl…. something we both shared.
‘DUST TO DUST’
Kevin: Sinister, restrained feedback softly moans, dust breathed in turns men into dust.
Alessandro: this piece was recorded live with Kar & Gigi Masin in Rome and it’s part of a 40 minute improvisation (the full set is available from Scatole Sonore, Rome on a Ltd. cd-r and this brief excerpt is used with their permission). The title comes from the “Ashes to ashes, dust to dust” quote used during New Orleans funerals. The track “Didn’t He Ramble” opens with those words, it was recorded by Louis Armstrong, Jelly Roll Morton & Dr. John and it’s a fantastic piece of contemporary music in my opinion. My Father loved Louis and the idea of a jazz funeral, so it was natural for me to choose such a title; “Dust to dust” is also an answer to David Bowie’s beautiful “Ashes to ashes”.
‘THE COVER UP’
Kevin: I wanted to say how blatant the cover up was by those who knew the workers were spending their days in such dangerous conditions but also how it was all about the then present – there were jobs, there was work, there was profit, in that present all seemed well but the inevitable future price to be paid in human suffering was ignored. Another muscular ‘Hooky’ type bassline and naggingly harsh cello, I had to belt this out against such a powerful soundtrack.
Alessandro: a double bass line creating a very dark harmony. It was played in a cold studio room (no heating) in December 2006 on a Marshall guitar amp! Intended to be a demo, it ended up on the final record in two different mixes and delayed mandolins.
‘TRASFERIBILE (ESP MIX)’
Kevin: A disjointed, fractured, broken representation of the conscienceless industrial monolith that consumes all before it.
Alessandro: a brief but wonderful computer work by my friend Camomatic based on two mandolin tracks.
Kevin: Built from a keyboard generated pulse this suggested a very stark, resigned meditation on fading mortality, expressing no fear, just the regret that time is running out and that nothing can be done to prevent the inevitable.
Alessandro: I started playing guitar and took up bass much later (thanks to my friend Alex Masi for suggesting that!). I always felt natural for me to play bass like it was a guitar to hear the chords and harmonies. The filters added by Riccardo De Zorzi to the instruments in the studio gave that perfect intro to the song, like an abstract electronic pulse.
Kevin: Alessandro and Bob Brian create one of the most beautiful sections of the album. It can be seen as evoking the ascent of the spirits of those who have passed on. It’s an outstanding piece, one of the best ever Unfolk instrumentals yet.
Alessandro: one day I received a cd-r with some synthesizer files played by Mono-drone (an electronic musician & video maker from Rome) who liked the idea behind the Unfolk project; I added bass guitar and created the track on random notes. Bob Brian arranged the whole thing with his brilliant guitar sounds. I see this piece as a transition from the first darker section of the cd and the second, more luminous pieces.
‘A LIMITED EDITION OF ONE’
Kevin: A message – and a warning – to future generations from a voice of the past, a past that can indeed ‘happen again’. We may – or may not – learn from history. It took a lot of plays of the original track to get a lyric as simple and direct as this one but I think I cracked it in the end!
Alessandro: You did!
‘SOMEONE IS ALWAYS SCREWING SOMEONE’
Kevin: Alessandro had called this ‘The Elevator’ so that gave me the image of the high-rise corporate tower where things are ‘hidden in the mist’. There’s real tension in the bass and the synth, an elusive cycle that was pretty difficult to fit words to, it’s actually an extract from a longer improvisation that Alessandro did with Halo XVI. There’s an element of ‘pantomine baddie’ in here but I think that it works as a dramatic device within the storyline.
Alessandro: Halo XVI (Giampaolo Diacci) is an excellent bass player & multi-instrumentalist, we share the love for a lot of new wave & prog bands. I had this bass guitar riff but nothing was happening so I decided to entrust him, a bass player to take my bass riff and create something else with all the other instruments in his home studio. The result was stunning: “Ascensore verso un luogo non identificato nel mese di ottobre” was the long original title!
‘TUTTE LE COSE LASCIATE IN SOSPESO’
Kevin: Rather like a ghostly reprise of ‘Black Tar Lagoon’. Alessandro’s bass is the bedrock for some very eerie sound textures by Madriema.
Alessandro: true, the piece is edited from 2 parts of the same 3 hour improvisation with Madriema. I think it shows how much I love krautrock bands like Can, Popol Vuh, Ashra and all the “kosmische couriers”; Holger Czukay’s bass playing is definitely a major influence on my style.
‘CANCER OF THE CONSCIENCE’
Kevin: The most folky that Unfolk get I aimed for the directness of a protest song here, I felt had a bit of a Gilbert and Sullivan ‘Lord Chancellors Nightmare Song’ feel in mind, only slower and with less verbals! The whole effect is, we hope, like something that could be an old folk song of another age. I am aware that it depicts the victims of the attrocity as the most noble of beings and those that let the disaster happen as being totally bad. The truth is always a greyer area but this is a cry for justice, a justice so often denied in the smoke and mirrors world of the so-called law.
Alessandro: An unconscious folk riff, the only real folk influence on the record, I think. I played so many instruments on this track and had a lot of fun with Paolo Vianello (an excellent professional drummer), asking him to play like Dave Mattacks, Gerry Conway & Terry Cox simultaneously, some of my favourite folk drummers! He took my suggestion seriously and succeeded in creating a solid rhythm background.
Kevin: If there’s a stand alone song on this album this, for me anyway, is it. It may sound crazy but even we are in awe of it. I knew this exhilarating, uplifting theme had to have words that turned the meaning of the whole album around. The first draft I did ‘Golden Pavements’ had the dead reborn as eternally joyous dancers but somehow it didn’t quite work for me. ‘Forgive’ was a 100% re-write. I wanted to capture something akin to William Blake, ‘Songs of Innocence and Experience’. I hope I did. I’m sure I did. I think it’s more of a hymn than a lot of hymn’s are. Maybe one day people will sing this song in church, Alessandro, Riccardo and I would love it if that happened.
Alessandro: our “catchy song”. I love its controversial message and it’s something really close to a single!
‘NATURA DISTORTA (THE COVER UP PART 2)’
Kevin: ‘Distorted Nature’ had always struck me as a powerful image for VBOTD. Romina Salvadori appears like an awesome secret weapon, wailing into the ether. We never met at the sessions, I would have loved to have sung with Romina – but maybe next time?
Alessandro: a brilliant remix of “The Cover Up” achieved by Bob Brian in his hi-tech mobile studio. There are no words to describe Romy’s amazing gift of expression: I wanted to play with her so badly and I’m so glad we finally did it. Original title: “Sipario nel buio”.
‘THE WAVE THAT SPEEDS TO SHORE’
Kevin: A 10 minute plus epic, all the more impressive in that it is made by only two musicians, Alessandro with Bebo Baldan. It’s as good as anything that prime period Yes or Genesis could have come up with. To fit words and vocal melodies to it was a great challenge but it’s sections guided me. It’s about death, the angel bidding someone to dance with them forever, echoing the line in ‘Bedroom Discotheque’. The last lines I sang to Cynthia, no shame in admitting that. You have to dig deep and be nakedly honest. I sang right up to past midnight, into the day I was due to fly back to England. Perhaps if I had my way I’d still be there trying to reach impossible heights but the time came for me to let go of my part in it. Alessandro Monti made it all possible with his drive and his vision, it all emulates from him. It was an amazing adventure to share and it feels so exciting to see it going out into the world at last. We knew we had a very delicate subject matter but as I’ve said it comes from first hand experience of what befell a community of decent hard working people who simply wanted to do the best for themselves and their families, and so it is to them that we dedicate ‘The Venetian Book Of The Dead’.
Alessandro: My friend “The Alchemist” Bebo Baldan had literally hundred of files we could work on. I loved those beautiful bouzouki lines and I always wanted to play mandolin against bouzouki, they blend perfectly; so I mixed the various sources he gave me into a single track and added mandolins & bass: that moving guitar loop could only be the end of the cd (we also used it as an “intro” at the first Unfolk concert on March 19th 2011 in Mestre). I still wonder how Kevin managed to put words on this intricate piece: truly an amazing job!
Kevin’s excerpts are taken from his description of the recording sessions and can be found on his website at: www.kevinhewick.co.uk/#/venetian-book-of-the-dead/4538591480
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