In the mysterious world of analog and modular synths, the name Alessandro Cortini is one that is very difficult to avoid. The Los Angeles based, Italian born multi-instrumentalist has been a member of Nine Inch Nails on and off since late 2004. Though he’s earned a certain amount of mainstream alternative rock kudos, there’s a substantial portion of his audience that has likely found out about him from his YouTube videos, in which he demonstrates his extraordinary technical wizardry, and knowledge of all things synth.
His solo electronica records merely serve to reinforce that role. Cortini has a definite knack for making esoteric instruments like modular synthesisers seem so cool, and so approachable. If your introduction to electronic music is via post-rock, or from film soundtracks, then Cortini’s music is very easy to connect with. His compositions are generally sparse and repetitive, but also very melodic. They often employ the warbling, cyclical melodies so reminiscent of John Carpenter’s classic soundtrack from the early 1980s film Halloween, or the contemporary experimental electronica of Scottish band, Boards of Canada.
Risveglio translates from Italian as ‘awakening’, and is Cortini’s second solo album release. Like its 2014 predecessor, Sonno, the album was composed and recorded whilst on tour. On Sonno, Cortini used just the one instrument, namely the Roland MC-202 – a monophonic synthesiser. Here, he adds a second instrument, the Roland TB-303 bass synth. Thus providing another colour and dimension to his pallet of sounds. Both of these synths were heavily used in the dance music of the 1980s and ’90s. The iconic TB-303 in particular providing the unmistakable squelchy bass sound that so defined acid house. On Risveglio though, these instruments are so tweaked, effected and mutated as to be almost unrecognisable. The limitations of the component parts here, make it all the more impressive that he’s able to conjure such brilliance out of them
In a genre where compositions are frequently driven by the density, and accumulation of layers of sound, Cortini’s music is notable for its sparseness. Due to the limitations of the instruments involved, no song can involve more than two active melodies at one time (monophony). Complex chords and harmony are not possible. These limitations make the music easily identifiable and distinctive, once you’re a minute into one of Risveglio’s pieces, you pretty much know what it is and where it’s going. It’s music that is strange and alien, but also so familiar.
In the past Alessandro Cortini has tended to surround himself with darkness and melancholy. From the opening sequences of Stambecco, it’s clear that we’re facing a different version of Cortini this time around. Synth lines jitter and judder, sparking with energy, surely a type of liveliness that you wouldn’t expect from a man so often enveloped in solemnity. La Via starts out with the distant drones that you might expect, but the composition is flecked with bursts of searing electronic sounds, imagine waves of lightening flickering through thunder clouds, and you will understand. He makes you sit in the dark room until your eyes adjust, your pupils dilate, and then he flicks the lights on for a blinding burst of light.
It’s a transformation that Cortini himself refers to in the album’s title, because it is an awakening, and it helps to visualise that word in its most religious sense, for this is a record that vibrates with the emotion, sanctity and vitality of devotional music. The track La Sveglia begins with a starkly meditative series of keyboard pads that swarms and swell, crescendoing into majestic levels of Christian ecstasy. Darkly burbling synth parts suddenly flutter into action and soar onwards and upwards, lifting the weighty compositions out of the depths and into flashes of heavenly radiance.
Cortini’s contemporaries generally use waves and layers of distortion to distill their own downcast world views to blackest ever blacks and harrowing monochrome, but Risveglio’s greatest triumph is in the simple way a single sparkling note on his keyboard can transform an otherwise gloomy production like Ricadere into stunning, if momentary, luminosity.
There are definite signs of a different and quite dark path hinted at throughout the record. At the album’s end, there’s an alternate take of La Sveglia that bills itself as a ‘Drum Version’, but its subtle pulse completely changes the track’s outlook. A gently thrumming kick drum is all that it takes to sink the instrumental’s mood, demonstrating just how delicate the path that he has trodden to that point has been.
With a less delicate hand he could have inadvertently pulled a shade over any of the record’s gleaming moments. A completely dim re-imagining of this record could conceivably be compelling in its own right, but Cortini suggests that you need light to make the darkness work.
Overall, a stunning masterpiece of darkened synth-ambient, and highly recommended.
‘Risveglio’ is out now on Hospital Productions