That title The Venetian Book of the Dead leads one to expect some kind of facile Goth travelogue. It’s an impression not exactly dispelled by the cover, with its illustration of skeletons, shrouds and crucifixes. Yet to dismiss the album on this basis would be a big mistake. Yes, it’s about death, but it’s also a compelling album of contemporary protest songs, rooted firmly in modern history and driven by a sense of righteous outrage.
Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, the Porto Marghera petrochemical factory near Venice was churning out PVC and other vinyl products with scant regard for the environment or the health of its employees. The incidence of cancer among workers at the plant was significantly higher than in the general population; 149 employees died of the disease and a further 500 contracted it. For bringing this scandal to light we have to thank Gabriel Bortolozzo, a worker at the plant who noticed the unusually high number of cases and filed numerous charges against the owners as a result. The charges included “negligent causing of mass mortality” and “being responsible for an environmental catastrophe” by disposing of dioxin and other poisonous chemical waste in the waters and surroundings of Venice. Soon after the case reached court in 1998, the bosses admitted partial responsibility and offered a settlement to the bereaved relatives of the victims, many of whom accepted the offer. Tragically, Bortolozzo did not live to see the outcome of the case he had brought. He had died in a car crash in 1995.
The Venetian Book of the Dead depicts this scandal with great eloquence and a barely controlled sense of rage. It dwells on the bitter irony that vinyl, a source of so many deaths, was also used to manufacture the records that soundtracked so many lives:
45 33⅓ turning turntable turn and turn
Play the songs that make us yearn
Needle in the groove, feel the plastic beat
Pour that molten vinyl over you and me
The album is essentially a collaboration between Italian composer and musician Alessandro Monti and English singer and lyricist Kevin Hewick (with a phalanx of other musicians brought in to flesh out the sound). Hewick, an intermittent presence on the fringes of the UK underground since the early 1980s, sings in a distinctively English, Bowie-inflected tone. His texts are long, wordy and shatteringly powerful, giving voice to the desperate, the vulnerable and the doomed:
Tainted air, tainted breath
Do we live in a cloud of death?
Women wash contaminated clothes
in the waters of the black tar lagoon
Monti’s music is resolutely unfussy, giving the lyrics room to work their insidious effect. At times recalling REM, at others the angular modern rock of Porcupine Tree, the songs hover ominously on currents of fuzzed-out bass and delicate mandolin. Incendiary guitar solos add to the sense of drama, while several short instrumental pieces ratchet up the tension with glitchy, sinister drones. This is a dazzling, audacious and unique piece of work.
(Originally published in The Sound Projector 19, 2011)