Fans of classic prog rejoiced in 2009 when Esoteric Recordings announced they would be reissuing the Manticore Records discography.  Manticore, a short-lived but fairly prolific vanity label run by Emerson, Lake & Palmer during the mid-1970’s, produced a number of cult-fave prog recordings treasured by hardcore fans of the genre.

The crown jewels of this catalogue were the recordings of PFM (short for Premiata Forneria Marconi), an Italian prog band who went global during their stint with Manticore.  PFM were part of a small group of prog bands who would re-record the vocals for their albums in English to create remixed versions of their domestic releases for the U.S. and U.K. markets.  They even tapped Pete Sinfield, former lyricist for King Crimson and then an employee of Manticore, to write the English lyrics and produce the remixes.

River Of Life: The Manticore Years Anthology 1973-1977 is drawn from these recordings and offers a nice, English-friendly glimpse into what made this group such a cult favorite.  The majority of the material here has a classical, melodically sweet approach to progressive rock that is likely to appeal to fans of the genre’s classic era.  They also aren’t afraid to show their roots: “The World Became The World” utilizes soft/loud dynamics and a dramatic, Mellotron-powered chorus in a way reminiscent of King Crimson’s “In The Court Of The Crimson King” and “Just Look Away” conjures up memories of the short ballads that Genesis would tuck between prog monoliths on their Gabriel-era albums.

However, PFM weren’t mere copyists.  Instead, they used the groundwork being laid by the likes of Yes and Gentle Giant as the inspiration to create their own distinctive twisty/turn-y epics.  A great example is “Il Banchetto”: it starts off as a sweet, Italian-language folk-style track with gorgeous vocal harmonies and acoustic backing led by flute, moves into an ever-shifting instrumental passage colored with synths (including a bizarre carnival-music passage) and ends with an elegant return to its song-style framing melody.  An epic live take of “Four Holes In The Ground” finds the band frenetically blazing through an instrumental workout that shows off their gift for jazzy yet melodic riffs and densely-layered arrangements in a classic Italo-prog style.

That’s not all as far as surprises go: PFM eventually developed an interest in jazz-fusion and shifted their sound in this direction, a choice that remains controversial with fans to this day.  The second CD closes with a trio of numbers drawn from Jet Lag, their jazz excursion and the final recording for Manticore.  The changes are pretty stark on the surface: jamming replaces the taut arrangements of previous albums and there is a new focus on electric piano in these recordings.  That said, they are interesting to listen to and a close examination of a song like “Traveller” reveals they were still structuring their music in a prog-rock style despite their new jazz-oriented focus.

All the angles of the PFM sound get explored nicely on this two-disc set, which packs each compact disc to the brim with a generous cross-section of material from the five albums they recorded during their Manticore era.  Fans will also be happy at the presence of a few choice rarities: a new-to-CD b-side called “La Carozza Di Hans” and a quartet of unreleased recordings, most drawn from a 1976 concert at Nottingham University that was recorded for an unreleased live album and never heard until this compilation.  A nice, photo-packed booklet with liner notes sketching out the PFM story add the right final touch to this package.

Between the two discs, this set adds up to a head-spinning tour through PFM’s grandiose style of progressive rock.  River Of Life: The Manticore Years Anthology 1973-1977 is a bargain for the money and worthy of investigation for anyone interested in exploring the Italian take on progressive rock.