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.