Following two years after their phenomenal fifth record, Odysséas, Syndone (“Shroud”) return with a quality followup in their new concept album, Eros & Thanatos. This record feels a lot like a sequel, partially because both it and its predecessor share the same symphonic/orchestral feel, and also because “Eros & Thanatos” is also the name of a standalone track from Odysséas. Of course, those names belong to members of the Greek Pantheon, but the album’s concept runs further than merely retelling mythology. Riccardo Ruggeri (vocals/acoustic guitars) has attempted to recreate the Song of Songs with his lyrics for Eros & Thanatos, meshing the rich poetry of Solomon with the mythological deities of Eros (love, sexuality) and Thanatos (death). Released 22 March, the album is a powerful, multilayered concept with memorable passages (whether or not you speak Italian!) and plenty of complex musical hooks that will especially attract the ears of keys aficionados.
Syndone rank among the likes of The Barock Project and VIII Strada, all of which are prime examples of the overall quality of progressive rock coming out of Italy. Each of these bands have a style of composition that trends toward the nuanced complexity and prominent keyboards of ELP-style 70’s prog, meshed with a neo-classical style of composition, but Syndone pushes the envelope to perhaps the greatest extremes. Originally founded in 1989 as a trio by composer and keyboardist Nick Comoglio, Syndone has moved through a number of lineups and formations over the course of twenty-plus years of music and six studio albums, as well as an extended hiatus from 1994-2010. One of the most notable things about the act is their lack of a dedicated electric guitarist, an uncommon decision for rock music, let alone prog. In that regard, they borrow a lot of keyboard antics from the likes of Van Der Graaf Generator, but also forge a unique sound that relies heavily on bass riffs (provided by Maurino Dellacqua), organs (Comoglio), and percussion (Martino Malacrida) to form the foundation of their writing, with accents of strings and plenty of pianos, additional keys, synths, Moogs, and mellotrons (Marta Caldara, Gigi Rivetti) – a wide array of instrumentation that more than compensates for the absence of guitars.
Interestingly, Comoglio implied in the press release for Eros & Thanatos that it wasn’t until this new album that Syndone has truly come into what he considers its true incarnation: “The most important difference from Odysseas is [that] now finally you can hear a real band,” he says. “The line-up has become so established to give an added value of unity and style to the new work being more cohesive[, and] the string orchestra… opened a new, more powerful and interesting sound.” Of course, Eros & Thanatos also features two notable guest artists: Steve Hackett (electric guitar on “Sotto un cielo di fuoco”) and Ray Thomas of The Moody Blues (flute on “L’urlo nelle ossa”), both of whom add incredible dynamic levels to the compositions on which they feature.
The album opens with the 60-second vocal track, “Frammento” (“Fragment”), before launching into “Area 51,” a romping instrumental tune that flurries through several time signatures. Its instrumentation is primarily various organ patches with synth-emulating-guitar lead and phenomenal bass presence. The album’s third track, “Terra che brucia” (“Burning Land”), is predominately a pastoral ballad composed on a nylon-stringed acoustic guitar with flute accompaniment – that is, until the 2:30-minute mark, when dramatic pipe organ announces the transition to synth lead, moving in rotating subdivisions of 4/4, 2/4, and 7/8.
Without hesitation, “Gli spiriti dei campi” (“The Spirits of the Fields”) enters on the heels of the previous song. The first half is arranged as a piano and strings concerto with faint synth pads, until the restless “Tom Sawyer”-esque bass enters and the composition transitions to an extended theatrical interlude. “Qinah” is one of my favorite tracks on Eros & Thanatos, clearly nodding to ELP’s “Tarkus” with its opening keys and traded organ/synth solos. Ruggeri’s vocals on this piece are particularly vibrant as he sings in Hebrew – harsh and choppy through certain passages, robust and sustained at others; during the 5/4 breakdown, the melody echoes back to Eros & Thanatos’ introductory track. The choice of language particularly emphasizes the thematic derivation from the “Song of Songs.”
“Duro come la morte” (“Hard as Death”) begins as a piano ballad with somber vocal work, but – not unlike many Syndone tunes – it transitions into something entirely different halfway through its duration: bright and uptempo synth and bass rock, before a section of orchestral strings that summarizes the previous musical themes to conclude the track. “Alla sinistra del mio petto” (“On the Left Side of My Chest”) begins much the same way as the song that precedes it: lush, solitary piano, joined by smooth fretless bass – so well-played it sounds more like sticks.
Bright acoustic guitars strumming in 5/4, with tribal percussion and fretless bass, are the fabric of “Fahra,” a tune with Arabic lyrics and a strong Middle Eastern vibe. Plucked acoustic guitar introduces “L’urlo nelle ossa” (“The Scream in the Bones”), a tune that moves between a ballad, a waltz, and a march, featuring orchestral strings and the haunting flute of Ray Thomas. The title belies the relatively gentle textures of the song’s instrumentation, but the bittersweet lyrics describe the heartache of remembering the intimacy of love while yearning to be reunited with a lost lover – a silent, agonizing scream that is not so much audible as it is visceral. I’m certain the English rendering in the CD booklet is nowhere near as poetic as the original Italian, but the language closely echoes the words of Song of Songs 3.8: “Daughters of Jerusalem, I charge you— if you find my beloved, what will you tell him? Tell him I am faint with love.”
“Bambole” (“Dolls”) is an energetic reworking of an ELP-style prog tune from Syndone’s second album, Inca, whose eerie lyrics bely the bright tune: “What’s behind the mask? / Maybe someone’s laughing at you! / They also have masks of the Gods / These are the dolls.” Eros & Thanatos closes with one final Comoglio/Ruggeri joint composition: “Cielo di fuoco” (“Under a Sky of Fire”). This is album’s longest track, which clocks in at 7:38 and features none other than Steve Hackett on the electric guitar – an instrument that, while a true novelty on a Syndone record, doesn’t feel out of place here. Hackett’s extended solos are bookended by balladic piano and thoughtful strings/synth orchestration, and the composition ends with a solitary cello playing out the track’s rich, central theme until silence falls.
After repeatedly listening to this record over the summer months, it’s not hard for me to appreciate the Nick Comoglio’s self-appointed genre tag of “movierock,” which he compares to the symphonic and emotive style of film scoring. This record has much more than dynamics – it has charisma. The percussion, keys, and strings elements mesh so well together, creating a wonderful fabric of textures that give Syndone a unique and nuanced sound. Eros & Thanatos is a gorgeous concept album with songs that are closely connected in theme and character and musicianship that is absolutely top-notch. If you’re a fan of classic prog with a sweet tooth for layers of organ and synth… this is a record for you.