PFM return for the first time in over four years with Blade Runner inspired album I Dream of Electric Sheep, which was also influenced by the Covid pandemic. These Italian veterans certainly had a challenge with this new album – could they match the excellence of the Prog Magazine International Award winning 2017 album Emotional Tattoos? In addition, they faced the challenge of being isolated from each other during lockdown periods and having to write and record remotely for most of the process, although they were finally able to gather at the White Studios to complete the album. Strangely, that sense of detachment and isolation in which computers and screens dominated our lives was a perfect environment in which to create an album to convey the dislocation and nightmarish visions of Philip K. Dick’s futuristic 1968 sci-fi novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, the original source for Ridley Scott’s classic 1982 Bladerunner movie.
The more informed progressive rock followers will be aware that Premiata Forneria Marconi (named after a bakery in Chiari in Brescia) have been creating music – with the odd prolonged interlude – since 1970, achieving significant success, firstly in Italy and then abroad in the early 1970s with a series of albums, some of which were released in English translation versions through Emerson, Lake & Palmer’s Manticore label. It is interesting to note that like Emotional Tattoos, this latest album is released in a 2-disc set, with versions in English and Italian (Ho Sognato Pecore Elettriche). Upon listening, I found that after a few initial listens to the English version to get a grasp of the lyrics and concept, I turned more to the Italian version as I felt the flow of the music and singing worked better there. Charismatic drummer and lead vocalist Franz Di Cioccio (the only remaining original member) has a lovely warm voice and handles the English vocals with aplomb, but he is clearly more at home with his native Italian.
The band explain their thinking behind this new album:
From Bladerunner (1982):
Holden: “Describe in single words only the good things that come into your mind about… your mother.”
Leon: “My Mother?”
Leon: “Let me tell you about my Mother…”
It is a fascinating concept upon which to base an album, but does it work? Well, one important thing to do is dispel the memory of Bladerunner’s wonderful and mournful electronic soundtrack by Vangelis – this is a very different vision, and actually may be more evocative of the strange atmosphere that permeates Dick’s frankly rather peculiar original novel, much of the plot of which was not used in the movie. If I have any reservations it is that it took me a while to associate the rich vibrant musicality of this album with the story and atmosphere I mentally associate with Bladerunner… but I eventually decided I just had to re-imagine that world with a different soundtrack than the one I’ve known so well for nearly 40 years. Once you accept it on its own merits you can appreciate the artistry, musicianship and imagination which has gone into this album.
PFM are a band brimming with effervescent musical talent, using a range of styles to imaginatively describe different perspectives and stories around the central theme. The opening instrumental overture Worlds Beyond starts off with classical orchestral sounds, but these soon give way to powerful chopping electric guitars, synths and organs (reminiscent of E.L.P at times), creating a cinematic setting for the whole album. The tension and tempo reduces in the early stages of Adrenaline Oasis with a gentle pastoral feel. However, the pace soon picks up with an adrenaline filled driving rock passage, with echoes of fellow Italian (but much younger) band, the brilliant Barock Project. That may be no coincidence as this album features the mercurial Barock Project keyboardist Luca Zabbini, alongside the great talents of Alessandro Scaglione and Alberto Bravin. Indeed, Barock Project have been supporting PFM at recent gigs in Italy, and what a great double bill that must make!
PFM have likened their musical approach to that of impressionist painters, describing their music as a “free explosion of colours and sounds”, drawing on blues, rock, jazz, pop and classical music, which is evident on I Dreamed of Electric Sheep. The music ranges from the gentle, bucolic feel of Let Go (although I prefer the Italian title Ombre Amiche, which possibly translates as ‘Shadow Friend’?) to the furious and bubbling jazz rock of the outstanding finale Transhumance Jam. In between we get the deeply funky Electric Sheep, with some excellent bass slapping from long-time member Patrick Djivas, and the bouncing, breezy and fun Daily Heroes, featuring some delightful violin and viola from Lucio Fabbri. City Life is suitably electronic with robotic voices and powerful driving guitars, bass and drums, conveying a dark and forbidding cityscape. The album does not slavishly follow the narrative of Bladerunner, but uses that theme as a central frame upon which to hang other related stories, such as If I had Wings (another song with a preferable title in the Italian version, AtmoSpace). PFM explain the concept behind this lovely song thus: “… a beautiful concept of a drone falling in love with the Earth. We do live in this planet and seems like we do not appreciate it, but ironically enough, a machine flying around the globe watches it aesthetically and wishes to live there”. The flowing pianos and Franz Di Cioccio’s warmly conveyed vocals stand out on this song.
PFM leave the best to last on this greatly enjoyable album with the uplifting Kindred Souls, followed by the aforementioned finale of the Transhumance couplet of instrumental pieces. Kindred Souls features both ex-Genesis guitarist Steve Hackett and Ian Anderson of Jethro Tull, and is akin to the wonderfully positive We’re Not An Island, which opened Emotional Tattoos. This song is a delightful anthem which starts with a drone and Franz Di Cioccio’s heartfelt vocals, which are joined with subtle programmed percussion and dashes of Eastern styled violin. Sounds of a bagpipe add to the tapestry of sound with a lilting piano, and then the tempo and power increases with a martial drumbeat, again with the synth bagpipe sounds. Ian Anderson joins the joyous march with his distinctive flights of flute as the rest of PFM roll on with melodic power. Steve Hackett’s inimitable guitar then weaves its way around this magnificent musical parade beautifully. The band blend their voices in a rousing choral finale and bring one of the most uplifting melodic progressive songs of 2021 to a great conclusion, and that’s not a bad thing after the last year or so.
However, PFM are not finished with us yet and treat us to an utterly brilliant instrumental conclusion in Transhumance and Transhumance Jam, which are in essence one piece. Zabbini (at least I think it’s him in a band with three keyboardists!) shines in a dazzling Hammond organ duel with a sizzling synth. They throw the proverbial kitchen sink of musical virtuosity at this electrifying instrumental; keyboards, bass and drums interchanging deftly with Lucio Fabbri’s violin. Marco Sfogli is absolutely incandescent on electric guitar in a spectacular finale to this outstanding album… some things are just so beautiful… but so transient, so just enjoy it.
Batty: “All those moments will be lost in time… like Tears in Rain… Time to Die.”
It is four years since PFM’s last album in 2017 (which coincidentally was the year of replicant Leon’s ‘inception’ in Bladerunner, on 10th April) and it is to be hoped that it won’t be another four years before they produce another album… although what a 4 years it has been!
It is remarkable that a band which was formed over 50 years ago is still able to produce an album of such excellence. PFM’s I Dreamed of Electric Sheep deserves to be regarded as one of the most impressive and imaginative progressive rock albums of 2021.
Now, where were we?
Gaff: “It’s too bad she won’t live! But then again, who does?”
CD One (English Version)
01. Worlds Beyond (3:19)
02. Adrenaline Oasis (4:53)
03. Let Go (4:06)
04. City Life (5:01)
05. If I Had Wings (4:23)
06. Electric Sheep (4:09)
07. Daily Heroes (3:48)
08. Kindred Souls (6:19)
09. Transhumance (1:07)
10. Transhumance Jam (3:39)
Time – 40:41
CD2 (Italian Version)
01. Mondi Paralleli (3:19)
02. Umani Alieni (4:53)
03. Ombre Amiche (4:06)
04. La Grande Corsa (5:01)
05. AtmoSpace (4:23)
06. Pecore Elettriche (4:09)
07. Mr. Non Lo So (3:48)
08. Il Respiro Del Tempo (6:19)
09. Transumanza (1:07)
10. Transumanza Jam (3:39)
Total Time 81:22
Franz Di Cioccio – Lead Vocals, Drums
Patrick Djivas – Bass, Keyboards
Marco Sfogli – Electric and Acoustic Guitar, Backing Vocals
Lucio Fabbri – Violin, Viola, Backing Vocals
Alessandro Scaglione – Keyboards, Piano, Backing Vocals
Alberto Bravin – Keyboards, Acoustic Guitar, Backing vocals
Ian Anderson – Flute
Steve Hackett – Electric Guitar
Flavio Premoli – Mini Moog
Luca Zabbini – Hammond Organ, Piano, Mini Moog
Record Label: InsideOut Music
Country of Origin: Italy
Date of Release: 22nd October 2021
DISCOGRAPHY (Studio Albums)
– Storia di un Minuto (1972)
– Per un Amico (1972)
– Photos of Ghosts (1973)
– L’isola di Niente (1974)
– The World Became the World (1974)
– Chocolate Kings (1975)
– Jet Lag (1977)
– Passpartù (1978)
– Suonare Suonare (1980)
– Come ti va in riva alla città (1981)
– PFM? PFM! (1984)
– Miss Baker (1987)
– Ulisse (1997)
– Serendipity (2000)
– Dracula (2005)
– Stati di Immaginazione (2006)
– A.D. 2010 – La buona novella (2010)
– PFM In Classic – Da Mozart a Celebration (2013)
– Emotional Tattoos (2017)
– I Dreamed of Electric Sheep (2021)