Julian Cope’s Album of the Month

Battiato - Fetus


AOTM #14, July 2001ce
Released 1972 on Bla Bla
Side One
  1. Energia (Energy)
  2. Fetus (Foetus)
  3. Una Cellula (A Cell)
  4. Cariocinesi (Karyokinesis)
  5. Fenomenologia (Phenomenology)
Side Two
  1. Meccanica (Mechanics)
  2. Anafase (Anaphase)
  3. Mutazione (Mutation)
Note: Back in the 70s, this record was originally released on the influential Italian label Bla-bla. While most of Franco Battiato’s output was released under his own name, the albums Fetus and Pollution were released by just ‘Battiato’, in the heavy rock-style of that period. If you enjoy Fetus, you really should make an effort to get a hold of Pollution, too. This second album of 1972 has a far more spaced-out quality, in places sounding like the Walter Wegmuller’s epic double-LP Tarot.

Throughout my early-90s re-appraisal of Krautrock, umpteen records were pushed my way, accompanied by the comment: "If you like so-and-so, you’ll love this lot." It was the manner in which I discovered the ambient genius of Russia’s Mikhail Chekalin, the rush and roar of Gunter Schickert’s G.A.M., Italy’s Warholian freakouts via Le Stelle di Mario Schifano, the monochrome psychedelia of the lost Czech refusenik ‘ensemble’ M.C.H., plus a whole other raft of strange European bands. I even rediscovered the middle-period genius of Magma’s Mekanik Destruktiw Kommandoh and Köntakösz, both of which I had loved during my pre-punk teens but never thought to re-visit. But my dedication to defining the lost art of Krautrock meant that many of these other non-German pioneers got lost in the shuffle, as their albums slipped out of pole position and back into the racks marked ‘undefinable’.

It was only when this amazing 1972 record by Franco Battiato was recently issued in its English language version that I dusted off my copy of the original and realised how much I’d once played it. Bloody hell, I knew every note on the album; and I knew it’s near neighbour, 1972’s sister album Pollution, almost as well.

With the added excitement of this new English version, I decided to turn Fetus into an Album of the Month. It is a stunningly catchy but impossibly strange record which inhabits that nether world of pop music, electronics, politics and experimental rock; a 70s nether world which I grew up with, yet one which takes so many chances that it makes the whole work sound quite timeless.

Fetus is an album beyond all definition. It’s a masterpiece of daring and almost stupid risks that work every single time. Some of my forthcoming descriptions of these songs will appal you – no way can it sound good with the elements he’s describing. But it doesn’t sound good; it sounds great. In little more than half-an-hour, Battiato takes us through eight uniquely super-detailed songs that tug at the heart strings as no other experimental record ever could.

Fetus is an entirely studio album, audaciously psychedelic and sonically estranged in the manner of Kalakackra’s mysterious Voyage to Llasa LP, Witthuser & Westrupp’s Trips und Traume, and the first album by Dalek I Love You. Out of nowhere, acoustic guitar songs reduce themselves to unaccompanied solo piano licks, horde nations of backing vocals rush to agree with the lead vocalist, whilst even the most hoary classical tunes will be commandeered to accompany famous events. Its mystery is in its unashamed use of clichés juxtaposed with thee most un-obvious elements. The best example is surely the Stephan Grapelli-style "Georgia Brown" violin which is used to orchestrate a drum-machine driven psychological song.

From his use of such wide-ranging musical influences, Franco Battiato, is a real mystery, too. Indeed, from the sheer volume and wide range of his output from the late 1960s onwards into the 1990s, Battiato most reminds me of myself. Beginning as an Italian pop singer, Franco Battiato moved into the 70s on the crest of the progressive rock wave, which is where we find him for the recording of both Fetus and Pollution. Battiato was briefly signed to Island Records, and it was during this period that the English language version of Fetus was made. Franco Battiato had plans to make it big in Britain, and played two fairly high profile shows at London’s Roundhouse, supporting first Magma and later Ash Ra Tempel. And it was at this time that Frank Zappa, on hearing Pollution, famously called Battiato’s work ‘genius’.

Unfortunately for us all, the British period of his trip was brief and unsuccessful, probably because of the car crash, which forced Battiato to return to Italy for hospital care. Further British shows with the Japanese artist Stomu Yamash’ta had to be cancelled, as did a proposed tour with John Cage. Indeed, the car crash so affected Battiato’s career that the English language Fetus was shelved indefinitely and he was forced to return to Italy full time.

In the light of Battiato’s subsequent change of musical direction, whether this temporary relocation to Britain could ever have worked with a little more success is a moot point. In the long run, Battiato was far too excited by the musical possibilities thrown up by Stockhausen and the Krautrock scene to stay in song mode for very long, and he soon submerged himself in electronic works such as the more experimental sound of the instrumental LP Clic. Several other such releases saw him in this guise, until he appears to have rejected this method entirely and returned to his first love – the role of pop singer.

Taking a look on his website recently, I was impressed to see that Franco Battiato has sustained a huge output, which has latterly extended into classical releases and even an opera! But the Franco Battiato whom I know and love occupies a narrow seam of early 70s experimental rock, and it is to this period which we must now return.

Fetus begins super-dramatically with "Energia (Energy)", in which multiple recordings of babies crying and goo-goo-speaking fade in stereo through the murk, as a backwards toy room music fades in, reminiscent of Sparky’s Magic Piano meets Sammla Mammas Manna’s classic "Astrids Vision." Then a synthesised and pulsating electric piano announces Franco, who sings to us about all the women he’s bedded and all the babies who have been lost down the drains of Europe in his quest for a good life. Sounds desperate but it’s melancholy in a tragic and uplifting way. Like "Wilhelmina", Peter Hammill’s embarrassingly frank and frankly absurd-to-the-point-of-being-laughable lullaby to his growing daughter, "Energia" employs a chord sequence so obvious that it’s like the first thing you would play as a 16-year old, then probably dismiss immediately. Tom-toms and electric rhythm guitars are accompanied by brassy and out-of-tune polyphonic synthesizers in a mawkishly emotional blitz. Indeed, being out-of-tune elevates the whole fucking thing.

Next comes the short title track. An unaccompanied and heavily reverbed heartbeat introduces "Fetus (Foetus)", as Battiato’s lonely melancholy voice sings, in a single verse, a heart-rending story from the point of view of the unwanted unborn child:

"I wasn’t yet born, and I felt the heartbeat,
And that my life was born in hate,
I drag myself slowly through the human body,
Down through the veins, going to my faith."

As the verse unfolds, understated wa-wa guitar chords and plucked piano strings shudder in the stereo distance. A brutal edit into incredibly beautiful music cuts us short. It’s another lost child’s toy room, this time with a mind manifesting sound akin to that of the Residents’ "Edwina", from their definitive LP Not Available. The music builds quicker and quicker until it is frightening and overpowering, as wailing and howling monophonic synthesizers annex the mix and kidnap it screaming and blindfolded into the mystic night. In two and a half minutes, Battiato takes us from silence to slack-jawed incomprehension. It’s incredible.

Next up comes the cliché of clichés. "Una Cellula (A Cell)" is a Mediterranean sob-fest of mawkish sub-chicken-in-a-basket chords unfit to be outtakes on a Demis Rousos LP. Forever-and-ever-and-ever-and ever-I’ll-beeee-with-you! Or is it? No, it fucking is not. This time in under three minutes, Battiato, rapes our sensibilities with his unholy combinations. He takes a chord sequence reminiscent of true drivel and lends it dignity by playing it in the manner of the truly experimental. It’s here that Battiato enters that shameless Dalek-I-Love-You territory located in outlands so far beyond twee that only the most confident truth seeker may go. By now, he’s the Igneous Fatuus, the Foolish Fire, a Morris dancer who cares not one jot that he appears to the outside world to be line dancing in a stone circle.

"Cariocinesi (Karyokinesis)" is the crazy Stephan Grapelli-styled violin & drumbox-propelled I told you about earlier. What could be more incongruous than a two-minute Gypsy jazz song with staccato Beatles piano about a nucleus splitting itself sung with by a singer who sounds as though he’s saluting the sunrise? Nuff Said. In either English or Italian, this song is unlikely. That it works probably has more to do with its novelty than its being great art, but I ain’t never got bored of it yet because it says its piece then sods off. And pronto, Tonto.

Side one then concludes with the longest song so far, and even this is less than five minutes in duration. "Fenomenologia (Phenomenology)" is a dramatic epic in multiple parts, beginning with portentous minor chorded acoustic and Spanish guitars over which Battiato hums wordless ‘da-da-das’. His voice tells us that he’s living lost and in a fog, until the guitars drop away to reveal a tragic reverbed lonely-mountain-top solo piano and fuzz bass accompanying Battiato’s admission:
"I’ve already forgotten my dimension,
And I have no power standing away from myself."

But Battiato’s fog is clearer than most people’s sunny day. He’s on Carn Ingli living with the angels of the Preseli Mountains, and a squall of Enochean synthesizers comes down from the heavens to meet him. Then more acoustic guitars and plainsong vocals mourn some dreadful recent event and the angels of Carn Ingli wordlessly lament him in a harmony of rhythmless and touchingly formless beauty. Like the deeply felt themes of Acid Mothers Temple’s La Novia, the stereo mix is awash with different voices squeezing deep meanings from ‘da-da-da-da-das’ until the mystery of the mix consumes the human sounds and wrings them out through a sonic mangle like your old grandma use to have in the kitchen.

Similar to the rest of this mystical LP, time has no place in this song. In under five minutes, Battiato has sent us on to the moors where the Triple Goddesses weave and spell. In under five minutes, he has created a timelessness that lesser artists would claim needs a double-LP. In these fifteen minutes of side one, Fetus has greedily gorged itself on more emotions than many modern guitar bands approach in a career. Fuck ‘em all, I say. Fuck their self-pitying inexperienced asses. But then compassion kicks in and I can only wish that every musician could glimpse the moments that Franco Battiato captures here.

Side two opens with the hugely stereo FX pianos of "Meccanica (Mechanics)", in which a ludicrous instrumental piano theme is hammered out with fuzz guitars, screaming synthesizers and high pitched wordless voices all singing the same moronic tune. Until, that is, fast strummed 12-string guitars, more Gypsy violin and obvious/dumb bass propelled by pitter-patter drumbox shoot out over the horizon. This new theme continues at a real pace until dropping right down to 5 miles per hour in order to allow a dryly recorded and claustrophobic Franco to have his say:
"My eyes are mechanical – my heart is made of plastic
My brain is mechanical – the taste is synthetic
My fingers are mechanical – made of Moon dust
In a laboratory – the genes of love."

Perhaps I’m just more moved than most by translated lyrics, but I do find the extreme brevity of these one verse Battiato songs truly moving. His economy of sound and lyrics is stunning, and the way he juxtaposes moods is breathtaking.

In a move reminiscent of the Moody Blues, this whole shebang fades into a banshee choir of female voices which themselves give way into the voices of Apollo 11’s Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin at their most childlike and excited. As they delightedly scoot around the Moon’s surface, they speak aloud whatever comes into their minds through telephone quality microphones. Over this moving exchange, Battiato audaciously fades in J.S. Bach’s most famous musical piece, here put through delays and given an otherworldly quality possibly through being passed through (I would guess) a VCS3 synthesizer, or something very similar. I know what you’re all thinking, punks. Sounds like cliched doggy-do on paper, don’t it? Well, babies, believe me it’s a truly moving thang!

"Anafase (Anaphase)" begins as a Latin-Bowie-by-numbers exercise, again with the now typical Battiato one-verse’ll-do-me approach to lyrics. Over lonely acoustic guitars, he sings a tune reminiscent of the Bach piece which has so recently faded:
"I will go far away beyond the limits of the air,
Towards the immensity…
Above the astronauts – towards the interstellar stations."

"Space Oddity" meets "Starman" for a few moments, fades out, then fades back in accompanied by military clatter-drums which bring us to a huge piano/explosion. Then we’re catapulted into that low-hum Music-concrete ambient world which Battiato is clearly so fond of. Juddernaut synthesizers stereo trip across the speakers looking for the Clangers, who are staying in their holes, thank you very much. A space ship captained by Pacman lands and brings us the mastertapes of Florian Fricke’s most brief church organ piece ever! Battiato kicks him clean into touch with more ponderous ‘da-da-das’ over pensive acoustic guitars and he’s going going gone.

Fetus finishes with all the hope of a Utopian priest, as the three minutes of the four-chord "Mutazione (Mutation)" build gently around deadly obvious strummed acoustic guitars. Again he’s a Latin Ziggy hovering above planet Earth waiting for his moment. It’s a post-Christian and Von Danikenised still-Christian worldview. But just because that’s ultimately the same as viewing a Picasso from behind a garden fence with a peephole drilled in it, this doesn’t stop a truly visionary artist such Franco Battiato from striking chest-beatingly uplifting possibilities in all but the most cynical of us. I rarely print lyrics in album reviews because they rarely have anything to say outside the music. But, once again, the translated words of "Mutazione" are indisputably poet and true:
"Thousands of years of sleep have blocked me in my cradle,
And now I return.
Something changed.
I’m not aware of signals of life, and yet I’m aware of vibrations.
What will my eyes see next"
There will be stone bodies…
I hear them coming
I hear them coming
I hear them coming
I hear them coming…

It’s the classic Lost Daddy of the Universe-story which has permeated our Patriarchal consciousness for so long. Of course it would be nice to discover that all the world’s problems were just caused by Dad fucking off, and of course it’s highly romantic and unbelievable. But just ‘cause it ain’t true don’t mean Battiato hasn’t given it the kind of poetic truth which allows even this Heathen to, at least temporarily, accept his metaphor and sigh along with everyone else.