A Friendly Encounter With PFM's "Per Un Amico": Prog Rock Countdown #19

A Friendly Encounter With PFM's "Per Un Amico": Prog Rock Countdown #19

Per Un Amico.jpg

Let's begin with a conversation I had with someone in the car while listening to the Primiata Forneria Marconi (PFM) album Per Un Amico (1972):

Someone: So this sounds like King Crimson

Aaron: yea, I suppose it's got a lot of that discord and heavy weirdness

S: It's a lot like "20th Century Schizoid Man"

...

S: Wait, now it sounds like some sort of marching band or something,

A: This part, sure.

S: And now we've got like a dance at a wedding, or Princess Peach's castle.

A: It's all over the map with these guys.

It sure is.

This conversation describes just the shortest song on Per Un Amico. It's hard to pin this album down because of its rapid shifts in tone and style.

In fact, probably my favourite part of listening to Per Un Amico is hearing the lead instruments switch off so many times. The first track, "Appena Un Po," shifts its lead across harp, mellotron, acoustic guitar, flute, harpsichord, electric guitar, violin, flute, keyboard, and then some. At the same time, the backing instruments change around quite a bit, meaning that the song never feels like just one thing. But it still remains coherent because its tone shifts are more like variations on a theme than new movements.

In this respect, Per Un Amico reminds me a lot of Genesis's Selling England by the Pound (1973), which similarly plays with conerto-like structures, or Yes's "Heart of the Sunrise."

Those frequent and sudden sonic shifts are part and parcel with the heavy classical influence and the need to marry that with a variety of rock and classical instruments. Occasionally, a moment will stand out, such as the brief middle section of "Generale," an upbeat waltz crossed with military marching band drum work that is irresistable. More often, the album demands you play close attention to truly appreciate the bewildering variety of music packed into 34 minutes.

So there's a flip side to the craftsmanship here: it's an album with so much going on so as to sound like almost nothing. Even after becoming somewhat familiar with the album, I still easily treat it as background music because it is so inconspicuously pleasant and scattered.

When I began listening, I was ready to chalk up Rolling Stone's inclusion of Per Un Amico on their list as an obvious case of tokenism. Like Can's Future Days (1973), this appeared an oddball choice included for the sake of broader geographic representation. An Italian band in the teens and a German band in the top 10 make for a nicely rounded list.

My first impressions at least confirmed my suspicions. I had never heard of PFM at all, and I hadn't found anything here to draw me in. Yet, this was another album whose charms became more readily apparent with subsequent listens. While I maintain the belief that Future Days was ranked too high for the sake of showing off continental prog, I'm now firmly on Rolling Stone's side of ranking Per Un Amico this high. I've since read that PFM is the definitive Italian prog band, bringing the genre to that country, and this album is a great introduction to a style that is at once familiar and all its own.

Per Un Amico has moments that would sound right at home on albums by Yes, Genesis, King Crimson, ELP, Gentle Giant, and probably a bunch of others. At times, the sounds are even suspiciously similar to specific tunes from those bands. But maybe it's the incorporation of so many branches of prog, as well as that classical influence front and centre, that makes PFM still sound unique.

Award Winning Bakery

One element almost lacking on this album is an obvious sense of fun. It's upbeat for the most part, and quite beautiful. But everything is very crisp, measured, highly structured. Again, you have to pay attention to find some underlying whimsy to this band. The juxtaposition of stylings and instruments is unusual and excessive, no mattter how controlled. Everything about Per Un Amico, and PFM in general, I imagine, interplays subtlety with excess. The fun is hidden underneath stuffiness.

Premiata Forneria Marconi translates to Marconi's Award-Winning Bakery, and I think that bit of nominal nonsense is a clue to how to understand and appreciate the band's fanciful style.

Rolling Stone Rankings                       

  1. Pink Floyd - Dark Side of the Moon

  2. King Crimson - In the Court of the Crimson King

  3. Rush - Moving Pictures

  4. Pink Floyd - Wish You Were Here

  5. Yes – Close to the Edge

  6. Genesis - Selling England by the Pound

  7. Jethro Tull - Thick as a Brick

  8. Can - Future Days

  9. Genesis - The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway

  10. Yes - Fragile

  11. Rush - Hemispheres

  12. ELP - Brain Salad Surgery

  13. Pink Floyd - Animals

  14. Genesis - Foxtrot

  15. King Crimson - Red

  16. Gentle Giant - Octopus

  17. Mike Oldfield - Tubular Bells

  18. Frank Zappa - One Size Fits All

  19. Premiata Forneria Marconi - Per Un Amico

ASK Rankings

  1. Genesis - The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway

  2. Genesis - Foxtrot

  3. Yes – Close to the Edge

  4. King Crimson - Red

  5. Gentle Giant - Octopus

  6. Genesis - Selling England by the Pound

  7. Jethro Tull - Thick as a Brick

  8. ELP - Brain Salad Surgery

  9. Rush - Moving Pictures

  10. King Crimson - In the Court of the Crimson King

  11. Premiata Forneria Marconi - Per Un Amico

  12. Pink Floyd - Animals

  13. Frank Zappa - One Size Fits All

  14. Yes - Fragile

  15. Rush - Hemispheres

  16. Pink Floyd - Dark Side of the Moon

  17. Can - Future Days

  18. Mike Oldfield - Tubular Bells

  19. Pink Floyd - Wish You Were Here

A Smashing Video Game Crossover

A Smashing Video Game Crossover

Getting Comfortable With Frank Zappa's "One SIze Fits All": Prog Rock Countdown #18

Getting Comfortable With Frank Zappa's "One SIze Fits All": Prog Rock Countdown #18