Western-Twang Surf-Rock Boogie from, um, Italy
Alessandro Stefana is one of the greatest surf-rock guitarists in the world right now. If you don’t think this is a big deal, then a) you might want to skip this review, as that’s what Guano Padano is all about, and b) you’re no fun at all and you might need to see someone about that. After all, without surf music, we lose an entire strain of rock and roll music, from Dick Dale and Duane Eddy and Bo Diddley through Billy Zoom and Bob Mould and Ernest Ranglin. Plus, it’s awesome. Q.E.D.
Stefana, an Italian, was exposed to this music early and often, especially through the “spaghetti western” music of Ennio Morricone. His trio has collaborated with Alessandro Alessandroni—the guy who actually did the whistling on all those Morricone soundtracks—and, weirdly, Mike Patton of Faith No More and Mr. Bungle and about 5003 other side-projects.
Because of the Patton tie, Guano Padano is often thought of as another of those side-projects. This could not be further from the truth. The group is signed to Patton’s label, but Stefana’s aesthetic is his own: patient, minimalist, careful, and emotional, four words that are not often applied to Patton’s oeuvre. Stefana is also much more of a bandmember than a wandering presence; Danilo Gallo’s bass and Zeno de Rossi’s drums are massively important to the overall Guano Gestalt.
Guano Padano walks its own path, whether it is banging out surf-rock jams, going country (and avant-country), post-rock, jazz, or any of the other places this disc goes. “One Man Bank” uses Stefana’s big fat echoey twangy tone to headline its early 1960s vibe, but makes sure to lay a banjo-continuo line underneath it to balance things out. The overall effect makes it seem like we’re returning from a civil war—ANY civil war.
Tracks like “Gran Bazaar” just start out rocking and never quit; here, Stefana duets with himself, his twangy lead sliding all over the slide guitar line he’s sneaking in there, with a choppy ostinato guitar line underneath. (So really less of a “trio” than “three guys play but they all play a lot of lines.) When the big fat secondary theme comes in at 1:19, it sounds like the biggest music in the world—when the flute solo comes in a couple of choruses later, it goes up another level. Stefana also gets extra points for not ignoring the Arabic roots of surf music here and elsewhere. (After all, Dick Dale himself was Lebanese.)
But Guano Padano is far from a copycat band, wallowing in the past. The stunning “Bellavista” starts out the same way, a jumpy countrified bluegrass jam straight out of the “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” project. But soon, crazy feedback noises come in, wrecking the breezy vibe and establishing something stranger and more wonderful. “Lynch” is a creepy shuffle veering from be-bop lines into sci-fi madness and way off the beaten path until it arrives at the Double R Diner in Twin Peaks, Washington.
And then there is the bedlam of “Prairie Fire,” where they bring Patton into the studio. They construct a snarler of a track, hard and sharp as the Lego you step on barefoot in the middle of the night. Over this, they let Patton go: he sings, he intones, he becomes a human siren, he laughs maniacally—you know, his whole steez.
To me, the group shines brighter elsewhere. “Nashville” is a slow wash of slide guitar and swoony cymbal crashes. “Un Occhio Verso Tokio” takes almost eight minutes to develop its Eastern-ish theme, especially since that theme keeps mutating: into a Knopfleresque jangle, then a big-band stomp with tons of (possibly synthesized) horns, then a mutation including both vibes at once. Lovely stuff…even with no label-head asserting dominance over the track.
This is a superb and stately instrumental album. It sometimes slows down a bit, but only when the themes are so beautiful that they need some space. Not everything stands up as well on repeat listenings, and some of it is a little too mannered. Hopefully, the wilder stuff here is developed further in the future. There is really not much of a ceiling for Guano Padano, and they should be allowed to fly freely.