Italian prog legends Banco Del Mutuo Soccorso celebrated their 50th anniversary with the release of Orlando: Le Forme Dell’Amore, an ambitious concept album based on a 16th-century epic poem. In 2022 Prog chatted with founding keyboard player Vittorio Nocenzi discussing why the band chose an elaborate tale of love, war and chivalry in the Middle Ages for their latest, and why its message still resonates today.
On the surface, the latest album from Banco Del Mutuo Soccorso is every bit as extravagant, flamboyant and artful as expected. The Italians’ 16th studio release, Orlando: Le Forme Dell’Amore is based on an epic poem by Ludovico Ariosto. First published in its complete form in 1532, Orlando Furioso tells a story of love, chivalry and war across an impressive 46 cantos, and has long been regarded as one of the most influential and culturally significant poems in Italy’s history. For a band like Banco, for whom concept albums and elaborate reinterpretations of literary works are second nature, Ariosto’s poem could hardly have been more perfect. But as founder and keyboard maestro Vittorio Nocenzi tells Prog (with translation help provided by Vittorio’s son Mario), Orlando Furioso is no cobwebbed curio from the past. Instead, its backdrop of bloody conflict could hardly be more pertinent.
“In the last three years we have endured the Covid pandemic and now also the war in Ukraine,” he states. “It has been devastating, especially the war. It’s a shit situation, but it’s the reality. It’s been bad beyond the world’s expectations, so there was a time when I was not in the mood to do new music. But soon we became inspired. Our rationale was to bring Orlando Furioso into a modern environment. These war stories, Christians against Muslims: all of those things are contemporary.”
By no means an overt political statement, the new Banco album does take the band’s seminal sound to some dark and heavy places. For all its florid poetry and musical complexity, Orlando… sounds like Banco’s angry response to the state of things in 2022.
“Absolutely, yes,” Nocenzi nods. “We actually started writing Orlando… back in 2013. Somehow it was prophetic. We started in 2013, a lot of things have happened, and suddenly it feels even more relevant. We are very aware of the disease of everyday life. So we decided to highlight the proximity of what’s happening overseas to what occurs in Orlando Furioso. Most of all, it represents our anti-war DNA, which has been a signature since the very early days of Banco.”
Prog and politics have been somewhat uneasy bedfellows over the years. From Roger Waters’ forthright proclamations to Marillion’s more subtle pleas for social sanity, contemporary issues often make for great music, but there is a fine line between passion and preaching. With a penchant for intricacy and sumptuous metaphor, Banco Del Mutuo Soccorso have never been in the business of slamming prosaic opinions down on the table, but Nocenzi’s dismay at the world today is essential to Orlando: Le Forme Dell’Amore and the emotional punch it packs.
“The idea is to use art and culture to convey a contemporary concept,” he says. “Poetry and music are meant to be used to solve the problems we have. Maybe wars cannot be stopped by poetry and music, but you can challenge ideas and the mentality of the people. If you change the mentality of people, there is hope.”
Banco Del Mutuo Soccorso released their eponymous first album in 1972, at the fevered height of the Vietnam War and with the Cold War casting its oppressive shadow. Six decades later, the world is still an absolute mess. Nocenzi could be forgiven for capitulating to despair, but his commitment to a philosophy of peace and harmony, as expressed through his band’s joyous music, has never wavered.
“If people had the right mindset they could make a lot of money from peace!” he chuckles. “But it’s all wrapped up in politics. It’s the same with clean energy and power. The research gets shut down behind green energy, because otherwise it threatens the ability of the powers-that-be to make all that money. It’s always the same story, but we never give up.”
A feast of endlessly inventive and wildly dynamic symphonic prog, Orlando: Le Forme Dell’Amore is another triumph for this latest incarnation of Banco, with vocalist Tony D’Alessio now firmly established as a worthy successor to the late, great Francesco Di Giacomo (who passed away in 2014). With a broad grin, Nocenzi notes that he is immensely proud of his current line-up, while also heralding the enduring conceptual and songwriting partnership he has with son Michelangelo. Writing Orlando… was obviously a huge challenge, but Nocenzi is passionate about simply following his instincts.
“We are always most interested in what is true,” he says. “The first challenge was to somehow shorten the poem, because the story was too expansive, even for Banco! [Laughs] In fact, the original version of Ariosto’s story was actually much more compact than the version that people know today, but we still had to decide which stories to use, and which episodes contained the most truth. The novel Ariosto [used as the basis for] Orlando Furioso was called Orlando Innamorato, which means ‘Orlando in love’. Later he had to choose which parts to cherry pick from the novel for the poem, and he did it by using his emotions. There was no judgement, just an emotional response, and when that was decided, everything became very easy.”
For all of its telling parallels with contemporary issues, Orlando Furioso is also a poem that contains some bonkers ideas. Represented on Orlando: Le Forme Dell’Amore by the 11-minute, psychedelic sprawl of Moon Suite, our titular hero makes an unexpected and largely unfathomable trip to the Moon, seemingly impervious to the laws of physics. Rich source material for a rambling prog epic, of course, and a part of Ariosto’s poem that resonated strongly with Nocenzi for a very specific reason.
“In the poem, Orlando travels to the Moon on a horse and carriage,” he says. “But we decided to change that to a horse with wings. Why? Well, on the first song on the first Banco Del Mutuo Soccorso album back in 1972, a song called In Volo [English: In Flight], we began with the story of Astolfo and his winged horse, the hippogriff. So Orlando Furioso was an inspiration back then too. Moon Suite completes the circle, you could say. This idea of continuity is very important.”
Last year marked the 50th anniversary of the release of Banco Del Mutuo Soccorso. For most musicians, such a milestone would be the perfect excuse for lavish, boozy celebrations and a moment of self-congratulatory reflection. Not so for Vittorio Nocenzi. While he acknowledges that surviving for 50 years is itself an achievement worth commemorating, the Italian veteran is too committed to the creative process to be distracted by anything else.
“I have a great band, and the band is made up of great musicians and great people. I think we have been consistent, even since losing Francesco. We want to celebrate this 50-year journey, but not with champagne or cake or any of that. Instead, it’s much more interesting and precious to celebrate it this way. To me, it’s much more fascinating to deliver a brand new album like this, instead of a cake!”
When Banco released Transiberiana back in 2019, the prospect of live performances to support the new record ended up being slim at best. Today, Nocenzi and his comrades have tentative plans to return to the stage, armed as they are with two new and wonderfully indulgent concept albums’ worth of material to share with the world. On Orlando… in particular, Banco Del Mutuo Soccorso still sound like the dexterous, absurdly imaginative kings of Italian prog. It was ever thus.
“We have a lot of confidence right now,” Nocenzi concludes. “This album was a big undertaking, but we are very proud of it. Bringing people together with poetry and music is such a special thing.”