Taking the music that British new wave band Japan made in the 1980s as a starting point, and particularly the fretless bass work of the late Mick Karn, Italian producer Stefano Castagna and bassist Fabio Trentini have teamed up to put together an album of punchy sub-5 minute pieces that experiment around Karn’s unique bass style. The bass is certainly the central point here, but there is plenty of interest elsewhere in the tightly focused compositions and the quality musicianship that flows around it.
The project took several years to come together after Castagna’s initial idea, sparked into life after hearing some of Trentini’s bass experimentations, to create new music as an innovation (rather than imitation) of the initial inspiration from Karn. The pair shared ideas and song sketches, soon getting Stick Men Markus Reuter and Pat Mastelotto involved. The work of these two maestros always warrants investigation, and that remains the case here, Reuter’s enigmatic Touch Guitar and Mastelotto’s deft rhythmic shamanism being key ingredients. But there are others, including clarinets and saxophones to add possibly unexpected flavours.
Having put together a prog-tinged instrumental album, a change of direction came about late on when the thought occurred to try adding vocals. Nothing stood out until veteran American singer/songwriter/drummer Jeff Collier came onboard. Covid serendipitously allowed Jeff the time to work out where vocals would work within the intricate arrangements. Adding words inspired by the music already prepared and the deteriorating state of the world in 2020, he eventually put his vocals to eight of the ten tracks.
Upon completion, the new project was christened Mask of Confidence, after one a sculpture by Mick Karn (a serene but involving piece that was previously used on the inner sleeve for Kajagoogoo’s Islands album), giving one final nod of appreciation to the inspirational source of the music.
The fluent and sinuous lines of Trentini’s unfeasibly flexible bass are at the centre, but it’s the vocals that add a vital human element and lift this album to the next level. Right from the start, Collier’s voice emerges amid pulsing tones, inferring David Sylvian in style without copying in the sparse opening surroundings of The Hunger, a fine opener that whets the appetite beautifully. Adding vocals at such a late stage was a risky decision, but it proves to have been a masterstroke, offering depth and vision to open out what might (for some) be a pretty impenetrable instrumental listen.
The vocals offer real variety throughout, from deep rumblings and spoken word passages to the noted Sylvian-esque melodies. The first time I listened to the album, I was only intending to put it on in the background while I was doing something else, but my attention was soon gripped by the quality of the sound and the skill of the arrangements, quite aside from the luminous talents of the players themselves. This is certainly the product of experienced hands and the result is quite often magnificent.
Collier changes tack from song to song, moving to sing-speaking on You’re Gonna Make Me, working around the bassline as it winds through the music in an intriguing and compelling dance. Against an almost funking bassline, supported by layers of percussives, Shiny Objects sees Collier decry unbridled consumerism, emphatically stating one word at a time to drive home the point. In 2020 Vision he sings in a higher register, the thumping instrumentation stamping down all before them to underline the fear and disorientation brought about by Plague Year.
Wherever it appears, Trentini’s swooping fretless bass evolves the sound and adds new layers of interest, immediately recognisable as being inspired by Karn to give a distinctive aura. He does a fantastic job throughout, the bass taking on an Eastern influence for As the Bark to the Tree as the percussion chatters. There’s a beautiful spaciousness to the arrangement when the percussion falls away, chiming piano notes reverberating into the distance. It’s a really beautiful listen, all of the elements well thought out and presented to best effect.
The music is melodic but layered with sounds and textures, immediately drawing you in. The drums are often sparse with percussive hints, insinuating the rhythms rather than battering them home, as is Mastelotto’s supreme skill. Clarinets add punctuation, supporting the vocal as it is counterpointed by the bass. The woodwinds open You’re Gonna Make Me, simple percussion added before the tempo rises with the circulating bass, and A Postcard From A Future is also coloured by clarinets, the percussion and bass bringing Peter Gabriel’s Games Without Frontiers to mind before Collier’s spoken word tale unfolds to a compelling bassline.
There are two instrumentals. Costa (the album’s shortest track) acts as a cleanser, again flavoured by clarinet, but as always the bass is centre-stage, telling us that no matter how bad things get, peace and tranquillity can always be found somewhere. Corpulent Maenad ramps up a sense of uneasiness, the bass circling like a hungry vulture around a stricken gazelle.
The bass becomes more jarring during Tooth & Nail, wobbly chords acting as full stops (or should that be semi-colons?) within the arrangement. Clarinet takes on more of the melody with Collier’s sparse vocal in a satisfying higher register underlining the exasperation and grim determination to get through the unexpected (“Hanging on … Tooth and nail … ‘Til we prevail”). There’s more guitar here than has been noticeable previously, and there’s a real edge at play.
The Spinistry of Men ties things up nicely in a punchy indictment of the failure of leadership and the hypocrisy and self-interest that has led us to where we are.
Mask of Confidence is a quite magical re-tooling of influences into a whole that works as of itself, a beautifully executed and fascinating musical journey, offering vistas of new possibilities that have been neglected for too long. The bass is brilliantly executed, the arrangements spot on, the music interesting and the vocal choices inch-perfect. On top of this, the decision to include the woodwind has proven to be a very good one. You have to hand it to Castagna and Trentini.
Hands down one of the most impressive albums I’ve heard in ages, and at 40 minutes it’s a no-brainer to go again as soon as it’s done. I can only hope that there’s more where this comes from.
01. The Hunger (4:25)
02. You’re Gonna Make Me (3:56)
03. As the Bark to the Tree (4:32)
04. Shiny Objects (3:46)
05. 2020 Vision (4:02)
06. Costa (2:34)
07. A Postcard from A Future (4:12)
08. Tooth & Nail (3:36)
09. Corpulent Maenad (4:22)
10. The Spinistry of Men (4:19)
Total Time – 39:44
Stefano Castagna – Compositions, Keyboards, Guitars, Tavola di Flos, Samplers, Treatments, Programming
Fabio Trentini – Compositions, Fretless Bass, Keyboards, Guitars, Loops & Treatments, Backing Vocals, Percussion
Jeff Collier – Lyrics, Lead Vocals, Percussion
Pat Mastelotto – Drums & Percussion
Markus Reuter – Touch Guitar
Angela Kinczly – Clarinet
Giovanni Forestan – Bass Clarinet, Saxophone
Record Label: MoonJune Records
Country of Origin: Italy
Date of Release: 30th March 2022