Along with PFM and Le Orme, Banco del Mutuo Soccorso (Banco), make up the "Big Three" in Italian progressive rock history. With the exception of one long break from the mid-'80s to the early '90s, they have been together since 1969 and weathered many changes: shifting personnel, the fickleness of the music industry, tragedy, and economics. They went 25 years without releasing a studio record but continued to perform. They have influenced countless bands in their home country as well as in Germany (Sylvan), England (Ozric Tentacles, Flower Kings), and the U.S. (Mars Volta). Their sound is harmonically advanced, borrowing liberally from classical tradition, jazz, folk, and theatrical rock. Early recordings, such as their 1972 self-titled debut and 1976's Come in Un'ultima Cena, offered acclaimed portraits of their particular musical strengths -- operatic vocals, fleet, sophisticated dual keyboard work, syncopated rhythms, and complex harmonics in long tunes that more often than not sounded like suites. During the '80s, their sound shifted radically: Banco embraced progressive pop, wrote shorter tunes, and sounded like a cross between AOR and new wave.
While this radical change brought media attention, it didn't sit well with most longtime fans, making economic gain negligible, and they split in 1985. Reuniting in the early '90s, they re-recorded tunes from their first two albums with better production values, and dropped 1994's Il Tredici, a welcome return to prog. After acoustic and live albums, the band decided to stop recording and focus on touring. They re-engaged older fans and attracted younger ones in Italy and across Europe, and resumed studio recording with 2019's conceptual Transiberiana.
Banco del Mutuo Soccorso (known as Banco in the U.S.) were formed in Rome in 1969, by keyboardist/composer brothers Vittorio and Gianni Nocenzi. Heavily influenced by such British progressive giants as Gentle Giant, Emerson, Lake & Palmer and Jethro Tull, as well as the Italian classical and folk traditions, they went through an evolving lineup until 1971 when they recruited guitarist Marcello Todaro and three members of Le Esperienze: vocalist Francesco Di Giacomo, drummer Pier Luigi Calderoni, and bassist Renato D'Angelo. Although the group simplified their sound during the late '80s, in the '70s they delivered a series of eclectic, densely arranged progressive albums beginning with their self-titled debut and Darwin! (both from 1972), that held strong jazz overtones. For 1973’s Io Sono Nato Libero -featuring Marcello's guitar on half the album and his replacement Rodolfo Maltese's on the rest, the focus shifted to the quasi-operatic vocals of di Giacomo while retaining strong fusion elements amid rock dynamics and classical flourishes. Gianni Nocenzi also left the band after this recording. The musical direction they pursued held true for 1976's Come in Un'ultima Cena as well. During this initial period, the band's lively stage show -- thanks to di Giacomo's consummate showmanship -- drew attention from the Italian music press, and also the U.K. and the rest of Europe; the band even toured America in support of 1975's Banco, compiled from English-language remixes of early material. The band's center of focus shifted for the remainder of the '70s with the release of their original score and soundtrack for the film Garofano Rosso in 1976, becoming nearly all-instrumental and classically focused. This continued on 1978's Di Terra, after which De'Angelo left the group; he was replaced by Gianni Colaiacomo) and the following year's Canto Di Primavera.
After the release of 1980's Urgentissimo, the group saw diminishing fortunes in the wake of punk and new wave and pursued a more pop-friendly direction on 1980s' Capolinea, 1981's Buone Notizie and 1983's ...E Via, but this direction, though well-received by radio, split their original fan base. Banco felt the tension mounting internally and split in 1985. They re-formed with an alternate lineup during the early '90s, releasing Da Qui Messere Si Domina La Valle (1991), a re-recording of their first two albums. They also saw the departure of Calderoni, who was replaced by Maurizio Masi. Il Tredici followed in 1994 -- it was their last studio album for 25 years, though the band issued the unplugged set Nudo in 1997, the 1999 reunion set En Concierto Mexico, the 30th anniversary No Palco in 2003, and 2010's Quaranta, recorded live in Rome. Banco was so popular at home, they seldom needed to venture outside Western Europe to tour. In 2014, while contemplating a new studio offering, vocalist Di Giacomo was killed in a car accident, leaving the band's future uncertain -- so much so that other players left in the next two years, including Maltese and his replacement Maurizio Solieri, Masi and his replacement Vito Sardo, percussionist Arnaldo Vacca, and horn player and vocalist Alessandro Papotto. Vittorio Nocenzi remained undaunted. He formed a new lineup around veteran rock and prog vocalist Tony D'Alessio (Lost Innocence, Scenario), to honor di Giacomo's words: After hearing the younger man playing live he told Nocenzi: "Before I die, mark him as a hypothetical substitute for the band." Other new members included guitarists Filippo Marcheggiani and Nicola Di Già, bassist Marco Capozi, and drummer Fabio Moresco. This version commenced playing live near the end of 2016; they toured and rehearsed almost constantly over the next two years. Meanwhile, Nocenzi and his son Michelangelo (a celebrated keyboardist and composer in his own right) began composing a new Banco recording. After securing a deal with InsideOut, Banco re-entered the studio and cut the autobiographical concept album Transiberiana to mark their return to commercial recording. Co-produced by Nocenzi and his guitarists, it also contained a pair of live bonus cuts in "Metamorfosi" and "Il Ragno." Released in the spring of 2019, the album garnered favorable reviews from the rock press, and was greeted with enthusiasm by fans. ~ Geoff Orens