Premiata Forneria Marconi had a lot riding on Photos Of Ghosts. Not only was this 1973 album their English-language debut, it was also their first album for Emerson Lake & Palmer’s Atlantic Records-distributed imprint Manticore and thus their first album to get exposure on an international level. Simply put, this album represented the make-or-break moment for this group on the worldwide stage.
Thankfully for the group — and fans of the genre — it’s an excellent art-rock album. The group makes a case for their ability to compete with prog behemoths of the day on the opening cut, “River Of Life.” In seven tidy minutes, this mini-epic offers a buffet of the stylings every prog group needed to show a mastery of circa 1973: a gentle introduction performed in a classical music style, the ability to shift dynamics from soft to loud and back again without skipping a beat, vocal skills capable of crafting lush vocal harmonies and a skill for composing and arranging songs in the form of bracing, compact suites packed with a steady stream of arresting musical ideas.
Indeed, Photos Of Ghosts displays an uncanny grasp of the prog vernacular that reveals PFM to be canny, observant judges of their competitors in the English-speaking areas they sought to conquer: there are tricky arrangements and taut ensemble playing worthy of Gentle Giant, a grasp of folk music stylings on a par with Jethro Tull or Magna Carta and the kind of soundtrack-style pastoral lushness one associates with Yes or Genesis. There’s even a bit of improvisational piano soloing in “Il Banchetto” that sounds like a spot-on impression of Keith Emerson’s classical-meets-jazz keyboard style.
However, this does not mean PFM is a mere copycat outfit. Indeed, the group finds a distinctly Italian slant on the classical, early 1970’s approach to prog sounds: the barnstorming, mostly instrumental “Celebration” takes the tarantella and refashions it into a form of electrified folk/prog/rock fusion that hurls out hooks and solos at blitzkrieg speed. They also pay homage to their roots by singing in their native tongue on “Il Banchetto,” which opens and closes with a sweetly melodic, Italian style of folk built on shimmering acoustic guitars and those lavish vocal harmonies. Elsewhere, the soft but lavishly arranged instrumental “Old Rain” and the fusion-y “Mr. 9 Till 5” embrace jazz in a direct way that other prog bands wouldn’t try for at least a few more years.
The inclusion of Pete Sinfield’s lyrics is controversial to some PFM fans but they actually mesh quite well with the group’s sound, offering a diverse group of prog-friendly lyrical approaches that range from the social satire of “Mr. 9 Till 5” to the impressionistic, image-driven style of “Promenade The Puzzle.” They can be a little pompous at times but, then again, so can prog rock.
All in all, the combination of skillfully-emulated English prog influences and unique Italian elements makes Photos Of Ghosts an album that sounds classic and fresh all at once. Anyone into early 1970’s progressive rock will want to check it out. The recent Esoteric Recordings remaster of Photos Of Ghosts is recommended to neophytes and veteran fans alike because it offers a skillful remastering job, a quality set of liner notes from journalist Ernesto De Pascale and, best of all, six bonus tracks. These bonuses include early mixes of three songs, instrumental versions of another two and an interesting single edit of “Celebration” that removes the soft, lyrical bridge of the song to make it a compact, straightforward prog-rocker. It’s fine work from a label that is quickly becoming one of Your Humble Reviewer’s favorites.