Album Review: Vincenzo Vasi – Braccio Elettrico

The theremin is usually one of those background instruments that you can’t quite pin your finger on, yet it supplies a whole range of feeling and depth to recordings. You know, it’s that wailing string-like sound that often adds a spooky, desolate flavor, like dead souls rising from the grave or a lone spaceship exploring the dark fathoms above. It’s also one of the hardest instruments to master, and once you realize that the musician doesn’t actually physically touch the device, it’s not hard to see why.

This electronic gadget (popularized by Moog) consists of two antennas, one that controls amplitude and one that controls frequency. The antennas can sense the position of the player’s hands, and from that, the sound is amplified into a loudspeaker.  Without any keys, valves, or frets to rely on, the player has to rely on the minute precision of his hands in the air.

One of the great masters of the compelling theremin is Italian Vincenzo Vasi, who has been experimenting with the instrument for 13 years. Aside from his workshops, solo concerts, and his trio Etherguys, Vasi is known for his theremin playing with John Zorn, Roy Paci, and in Mike Patton’s Mondo Cane. Braccio Elettrico (translated as “Electric Arm”) is Vasi’s solo project and an impressive debut as well. Patton himself has called the album a “bewitching listen from start to finish,” and it’s easy to agree with him. Though the instrument itself doesn’t automatically appeal to most people, anyone with an ear for avant-garde music will surely be enchanted, if not having garnered a new respect for the theremin.

Vasi eases the listener into album with “Cosa Prova Una Scimmia Nello Spazio”. The warbling, ghostly theremin here is backed by the simple beat of a looper. It’s the perfect track to introduce the complex and varied sounds that the unique instrument can provide.

Next is a cover of John Carpenter’s “Halloween II Theme”. All the iconic sounds of this famous score are done entirely by six theremins which, frankly, is quite mind-blowing. If you thought the song was spooky before, Vasi cranks it up a notch – or six. “Niente Amore” is as heartbreaking as the name suggests (“No Love”, for those who don’t parlo Italiano). It’s sparsely beautiful with enough audio grain to conjure up images of a bygone era.

But the sadness ends with a trip into “La Casa Dei Fantasmi”, where all the ghouls and unearthly secrets live.  The theremins in this song are coaxed into an entire film set of effects. Sometimes they resemble a wailing apparition that flits in and out of dead rooms; other times they are the sound of a creaky gate closing slowly on its hinges. “Fantasmi” is a chilling saga that you should probably avoid listening to in the dark.

“Alter Ether” was recorded live at the Angelica Festival in Bologna, Italy and changes the pace a bit by featuring vocals by Vasi himself. It’s not singing though, but very Patton-esque scatting that takes precedence over the tune.

The theremin is joined by the lopper and magnetic microphones for the eerie and somewhat discomforting “Esplorazione Elettrica Dei Meccanismi Del Cervello” before it falls back into the dreamlike “Sposa Sposo”, and the vibrating disjointedness of “Canone Relativo”, which sounds a bit like you’re on laughing gas. The dizzying, mind-numbing sounds of “Canone” go on for 11 minutes, so it’s probably best if you stay sober for this one.

Rounding out the experiment we have another cover, this one of Count Basie’s “Lil Darling”. You can’t really hear much of the original in this one, it having been distorted by tape echoes and an omnichord, but it’s just familiar enough to draw you in.

It’s incredibly ambitious to release an album based solely on the exploration of one instrument, but Vasi’s gamble pays off with his expertly crafted “electric arm.” The fact that so many different noises, tunes, and feelings are conjured up by something so ethereal is beguiling and humbling at the same time. It’s weird in that avant-garde jazz sort of way, yet delicate enough to tug at your emotions. For those wanting to be challenged by their music, Braccio Elettrico is one of those albums that, if you let it, will tease your imagination to new heights.


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