"With two critically-acclaimed albums - now reissued as one double-CD package with bonus live material - under their belts, D.F.A.have proven themselves one of Italy's leading lights in the new generation of progressive rock bands that appeared in the wake of the genre's 1990s revival. With fifteen years of experience and live appearances across the globe, they are now ready to confirm their status with their highly anticipated third studio effort.
Formed in Verona during 1991 around Alberto De Grandis, drummer, occasional vocalist and main composer, and bassist Luca Baldassari, D.F.A.was initially an instrumental keyboard-led trio, a formula that evolved over the years, first with the arrival of guitarist Silvio Minella in 1993, and two years later with the introduction of vocal parts in the compositions, following the release of a demo tape entitled Trip On Metro.
Later in 1995, Alberto Bonomi replaced the original keyboard player and D.F.A.found its definitive shape. Bonomi was soon to become an essential creative force in the band alongside De Grandis, co-writing most of the material with him. The new quartet made its live debut in January 1996, and soon afterwards embarked on the recording of their first proper album.
Alberto Piras, the frontman of fellow Italian proggers Deus Ex Machina, had heard the demo tape, and offered to produce the album for his own label, Scolopendra. By 1996 Lavori In Corso ("works in progress") was ready, and was soon greeted by many favourable reviews. A staff writer for the respected US new music publication Exposť called the album "an absolute masterpiece of complex progressive rock". The high level of musicianship and the attention to detail in the compositions and arrangements - which drew comparisons with luminaries such as Gentle Giant, National Health, Gong, Banco or Weather Report - helped to make Lavori In Corso a natural candidate for a lot of "Best Of '97" lists among fans of the genre.
During the following months,D.F.A.'s profile as a live band increased, supporting the likes of Italian veterans Banco Del Mutuo Soccorso and Le Orme. Meanwhile, work started on new material, and by June 1999 the quartet was finally back in the studio to record the eagerly-awaited follow-up to Lavori In Corso, which saw the light of day the following October on Italian Mellow Records - its title, Duty Free Area, finally revealing what the three letters stood for. "We liked the idea of an area free from all constraints", explained Bonomi, "where we can play what we feel".
With their second work,D.F.A.broadened their musical palette with new sounds, especially in the keyboard department (occasionally bringing to mind Ozric Tentacles), and further perfected their craftmanship, both as composers and players. Critics unanimously acclaimed Duty Free Area as a major progression from the already excellent Lavori In Corso, particularly in terms of melodic accessibility and overall coherence of the often fiendishly complex epic compositions masterminded by De Grandis and Bonomi.
Another significant improvement on Lavori In Corso was to be found in the vocals, arguably not D.F.A.'s forte. A larger percentage of the music was instrumental (showcasing the breathtaking interplay between Minella's guitar and Bonomi's keyboards), the one track sung by De Grandis (with backing by Bonomi) was ideally suited to his range, and the other two pieces with vocals used guests - Alberto Piras and female singer Giorgia Gallo. All in all, Duty Free Area could be called a success in all departments : little could be improved upon.
D.F.A.'s watershed appearance at NEARfest in June 2000 was documented on a best-selling live CD, brining together the best of both albums and proving that the band was able to "pull it off" on stage like the best of them ! Invitations to other foreign festivals and venues duly followed, in France, Belgium, Germany, Mexico, USA and Italy. Meanwhile,D.F.A.started work on their next album, aiming at breaking away from existing musical categories (such as progrock, jazz-rock, etc.) and further establishing the unique D.F.A.identity. This long process is now over, and D.F.A. is expected to follow it with festival appearances and concerts in the next few years, worldwide, supplyuing as their best a well deserved demand.
It's been just one year short of a decade since D.F.A.'s second studio album, 1999's critically acclaimed Duty Free Area. Although two additional releases have seen the light of day in the interim - Work In Progress Live, documenting their performance at NEARfest 2000, and Kaleidoscope, an anthology of their first two albums with bonus live material - none contained any new music.
So what happened ? Well, membership of a leading progressive rock band is hardly a full-time job these days, and our lads were simply getting on with their "real" lives - families, jobs and the like... So music took a back seat for a while, gigs became less frequent (which they never really were anyway), and it took much longer than planned for them to get to the point where making a new studio album seemed a realistic prospect.
Listening to the results now, the impressive amount of musical substance on offer speaks for itself, and more than makes up for the seemingly endless wait. Most of the album is D.F.A. as we know and love them, with their sonic and stylistic trademarks fully intact - the warm analog sounds, the impressive interplay, with guitar (Silvio Minella) and keyboards (Alberto Bonomi) trading or sharing leads over an ever-shifting rhythmic foundation (Luca Baldassari and Alberto De Grandis), and the unmistakably "Latin" extroversion and exuberance. Anyone who liked the band's first two albums will welcome 4th as a worthy successor. In several ways it is even superior - there is more subtlety, restraint and nuance in the instrumental performance, which allows the epic, largely instrumental compositions to unfold naturally and organically, as if created on the spur of the moment.
This is saying a lot about D.F.A.'s almost telepathic interplay, as very little of their music is actually improvised. Although it may display strong similarities to 1970s jazz-fusion at times, it ultimately owes more to the (often maligned) tradition of progressive rock, with its heavily structured compositions characterised by a constant turnover of thematic content. It should be noted that D.F.A.'s main composer is drummer De Grandis - ably assisted by Bonomi -, and he is no exception to the rule that drummers usually have an excellent orchestral feel. The way the opening track, "Baltasaurus", slowly but surely builds up to jamming frenzy from its rather minimalist starting point, is a textbook example of how to structure a group performance. Another example of the band's maturity is "Vietato Generalizzare", which balances passages as intricate as the infamous "Trip On Metro" (from DFA's debut Lavori In Corso) with welcome contrasting, quieter sections.
In true "progressive" tradition, there are also moments on the album that depart more radically from the established D.F.A. "formula". The piano- and strings-based intro and outro bookending "Mosoq Runa" mark an unprecedented foray into pure classical music. More importantly, "La Ballata de 's'Isposa e Mannorri", a collaboration with the Sardinian vocal trio Andhira, in an oustanding achievement. If anything, it shows that the human voice can be integrated satisfactorily into the D.F.A.'s music - which has long been a moot point despite the best efforts of Alberto De Grandis and assorted guest vocalists - and suggests exciting new developments for the future.
In any case, D.F.A.'s new album is an unmitigated success which not only re-establishes the Italian quartet as a musical force to be reckoned with, but is also certain to be acclaimed as one of the best progressive rock releases of 2008, quite possibly the best - but the competition remains open, of course!" [MoonJune site]