Jul 18, 2013 Music
By the mid-70s English progressive rock, a boundary-pushing music once so full of promise, had largely succumbed to bloat. Relayer, by Yes, consisted of three endless songs, total. Emerson, Lake and Palmer’s gargantuan stage set included an enormous gong, a grand piano spinning end over end and at least five different keyboards. Genesis were experimenting with lasers.
On the Continent, things were different. Much of the music avoided that excess and retained the exploratory quality of the original prog movement. Germany’s krautrock scene was arguably the world’s most fertile, while Spain had Maquina and Triana, who blended flamenco with more conventional rock sounds. Italy had the crunch of PFM, and Goblin, a predominantly soundtrack-based group whose sinister work remains among the most enigmatic and evocative recorded in that era.
The band’s lineup evolved from groups operating under the names Oliver and Cherry Five in the early 70s, solidifying when they stepped in to soundtrack Dario Argento’s thriller Profondo Rosso in 1975. Both the score and the film itself were big hits in Italy, and Argento retained the band for his next project.
Released in 1977, Suspiria was the soundtrack to Argento’s impressionistic, gore-soaked horror about a German dance academy with a severe witch infestation. The film is regularly cited as one of the most frightening and well-realised horrors of all time, and the soundtrack is no small part of its appeal. Each was a huge success — despite being largely instrumental, the album topped the Italian charts.
Much of Suspiria’s appeal comes from the mellotron, Moog and Elka synthesisers played by Claudio Simonetti and Maurizio Guarini. Unlike the virtuosity displayed in English prog keyboards, the Italians are both more subtle and forceful — theirs twinkle and throb, providing texture which prefigures key sonic elements of synth pop and techno. Guarini, who I reach at his Toronto home ahead of the tour, came to keyboards after being entranced by the organ-heavy sound of Deep Purple at a young age.
“I was so in love with this instrument, I did all that was possible to get that,” he says in a thick Italian accent.
After he bought his first monophonic synth, the instrument’s then high cost and scarcity meant he was in consistent demand from the Italian music industry. “At that time, a musician was considered a rich person. I would save up and buy the new Yamaha before anyone else.”
He had joined Goblin just prior to the recording of Suspiria, at the invitation of their guitarist Massimo Morante. The band lived in Rome and were devotees of the more interesting, experimental end of the progressive rock spectrum — bands like Soft Machine, Gentle Giant and Henry Cow.
While their work on Profundo Rosso had been from compositions by jazz pianist Giorgio Gaslini, Goblin created Suspiria from the ground up, prior to filming. Guarini says Argento was “a very communicative person, full of ideas. He was driven by soul and emotions — not a calculator.”
The director was deeply involved in the recording process, demanding that the score had a visceral quality — he wanted to be scared by the strength of the sound. “It was very collaborative,” says Guarini. “Even if he’s not playing any instruments, mentally he’s like a musician.”
Following Suspiria’s success the band reinforced their horror credentials on the soundtrack to George A. Romero’s Dawn of the Dead, before multiple line-up changes lead to a gradual dissolution in the early 80s. Guarini refers to the years following the band’s break-up as a “dark period” before they watched, pleased but slightly bewildered, as prog, horror and soundtrack enthusiasts began populating the web with enthusiastic tributes to their ageing music. In time, the cult grew into invitations to reform and play, culminating late last year in an acclaimed performance of Suspiria at the Melbourne Town Hall, playing live accompaniment to a screening of the film.
“The audience were just amazed,” says Guarini. “Us too. We never had that kind of experience. The music is perfectly in sync with the movie.”
Goblin will reprise their live accompaniment of the film for only the second time at the film festival in Auckland, and Guarini sounds legitimately excited about the prospect of once again reconvening with his bandmates for the “unique experience”.
First published Metro July/August 2013.