Not often do prolific artists in the underground punk scene venture into the world of minimal electronic music. Then again, considering the artists with which Italian drummer and songwriter Matteo Vallicelli is associated, such a decision is not all that surprising. Vallicelli has founded a fair few Roman punk bands of his own, but his most notable musical endeavour is as the live drummer for American post-punk band The Soft Moon. This Oakland-based project, masterminded by Luis Vasquez, covers a wide area of musical ground, incorporating influences from numerous genres, including many electronic styles. This explains, in part, the electronic sensibilities that Vallicelli was seemingly already inclined towards, but it is nevertheless quite the transition to see the composer switch his focus from abstract punk music to stripped-back electronics. Another pertinent factor to this stylistic shift is as a result of Vallicelli’s interest in the Berlin techno scene after moving to Kreuzberg in 2013, inspiring him to begin experimenting with synths and drum machines, which he would go on to record at home. The songwriter seemingly struck oil, as he would lock himself away in his apartment stockpiling the samples that he would create from these home recordings of his. It seems that this musical change for Vallicelli has also seen him trade the small, intimate and sweaty punk venues of Italy for the solitude of his home studio in Germany. From what Vallicelli has said about his experience adjusting to this completely alien approach to music for him, the lack of checks and balances provided by band members led to the musician not knowing when to stop, creating endless amounts of music that never fully articulated the sound he wanted to achieve. “It took me almost three years to learn how to limit myself, to finish up a project and move on to something else”, Vallicelli stated, but he goes on to say that, after mastering the restraint needed for this approach to composing, his first album, Primo, was done and dusted in under a month. Hearing his own account of the time leading up to this album makes a lot of sense, as the nuanced and subdued approach to electronic music conveyed on Primo sounds well-assembled and well-articulated. Indeed, such a focussed and coherent debut record could have only been actualised by many attempts and failures, leading to a tailored sound that comes across as carefully considered and is better for it. Primo channels a delicate and introspective minimalism that not only amounts to an impressively-crafted electronic album, but also distinguishes Vallicelli’s music from much of the bevy of obscure, underground electronic projects being released nowadays.
The album opener, Frammenti, was apparently conceived as a techno track, but later reworked by Vallicelli to fit within the disciplined approach that he set out for himself on Primo. Indeed, it’s easy to imagine the fluttering and phasing solo synth on this cut worked within a techno song, simply by adding some percussion and a bass line. Nevertheless, the format into which this piece is moulded by Vallicelli seems like a mission statement of sorts for Primo, with the short runtime of this piece making it seem like Frammenti was intended to introduce the album by conveying the restraint and control needed to execute this material. Michaelangelo was also supposedly envisioned as a techno piece at first, and this is even more evident on this track. The shining synth lead is eventually accompanied by a mocking bass line that edges slightly nearer to Vallicelli’s techno influences whilst remaining firmly rooted in the aesthetic of the rest of this project. The variation in the bass line, along with the synth lead that subtly floats from one ear to the other, and the electronic swells that occasionally move into view, create for a piece that is as vibrant as it is subdued. Despite its five-minute runtime, the dainty intricacies submerge the listener into the world of minimal electronics that Vallicelli creates, making the five minutes drift past with no hitches whatsoever.
Whilst the aforementioned two tracks were the only ones Vallicelli has asserted to have been initially imagined as techno pieces, the influence from the genre and its scene in Berlin remains prevalent on much of Primo. Giungla elettrica, for instance, is the only composition to feature percussion on the entire album, and the synthetic drum pattern is worked in with a lot less subtlety than one may have expected by this point in the record. Initially, I considered this track to feel out of place in the tracklisting and, whilst this may arguably be true to a degree, it is nonetheless a strong cut that displays many of the recurring stylistic themes that appear across Primo. Although the electronic drumbeat and the wobbly synth bass line have an air reminiscent of less nuanced forms of electronic music than what Vallicelli is attempting to create, Giungla elettrica surprisingly boasts some of the most finely-tuned and intricately-worked electronics on any cut on the album. The listener’s focus is consistently and fluidly shifting between the electronic bubbling, to the point that it’s easy to forget about the drumbeat. The end product, therefore, is an intense, but thrilling, experience, played to perhaps the best effect possible, courtesy of the finer details that reveal themselves to the listener with a level of modesty that is highly appealing.
It should be said that, in spite of the overarching musical themes and stylistic inspirations, Primo is certainly a diverse record. The previously mentioned Frammenti and Michelangelo are bright, vibrant and glistening with an inspiring air of optimism. Then there are cuts like Lausitzer Platz and Ore di tempesta, which come across as less forgiving, more pessimistic and occasionally more challenging to listen to as a result of their dark and unruly nature. Il balletto delle stelle and Arpeggio due are more simple, in that they brandish many a memorable melody that could have been worked into numerous different formats. The former track in particular stands out, and it’s name, which translates to ‘The ballet of the stars’, is incredibly fitting given the bright synth melodies that are catchy to the point that they could smoothly be worked into a disco song. Ultimately, the diversity displayed on Primo is as impressive as the nuance, resulting in a multi-faceted album that cannot be fully-appreciated just from one listen, rather it requires numerous spins in order to see Vallicelli’s vision in its entirety.
Primo, for the most part, boils electronic music down to some of its most basic elements and the end product is a minimalist electronic record that is undeniably subdued whilst remaining engaging thanks to the layers of intricacy worked into these compositions. As a first endeavour in the genre, it is a very strong release from Vallicelli that flaunts his versatility as a musician, as well as his ability to teach himself the ins and outs of a foreign approach to the compositional process. Indeed, Primo is as much a testament of Vallicelli’s impressive musicianship as it is the patience and restraint he must have needed in order to execute an ambitious project such as this.
The Vinyl Verdict: 8/10