It's been just one year short of a decade since D.F.A.'s second studio album, 1999's critically acclaimed Duty Free Area. Although two additional releases have seen the light of day in the interim - Work In Progress Live, documenting their performance at NEARfest 2000, and Kaleidoscope, an anthology of their first two albums with bonus live material - none contained any new music.
So what happened ? Well, membership of a leading progressive rock band is hardly a full-time job these days, and our lads were simply getting on with their "real" lives - families, jobs and the like... So music took a back seat for a while, gigs became less frequent (which they never really were anyway), and it took much longer than planned for them to get to the point where making a new studio album seemed a realistic prospect.
Listening to the results now, the impressive amount of musical substance on offer speaks for itself, and more than makes up for the seemingly endless wait. Most of the album is D.F.A. as we know and love them, with their sonic and stylistic trademarks fully intact - the warm analog sounds, the impressive interplay, with guitar (Silvio Minella) and keyboards (Alberto Bonomi) trading or sharing leads over an ever-shifting rhythmic foundation (Luca Baldassari and Alberto De Grandis), and the unmistakably "Latin" extroversion and exuberance. Anyone who liked the band's first two albums will welcome 4th as a worthy successor. In several ways it is even superior - there is more subtlety, restraint and nuance in the instrumental performance, which allows the epic, largely instrumental compositions to unfold naturally and organically, as if created on the spur of the moment.
This is saying a lot about D.F.A.'s almost telepathic interplay, as very little of their music is actually improvised. Although it may display strong similarities to 1970s jazz-fusion at times, it ultimately owes more to the (often maligned) tradition of progressive rock, with its heavily structured compositions characterised by a constant turnover of thematic content. It should be noted that D.F.A.'s main composer is drummer De Grandis - ably assisted by Bonomi -, and he is no exception to the rule that drummers usually have an excellent orchestral feel. The way the opening track, "Baltasaurus", slowly but surely builds up to jamming frenzy from its rather minimalist starting point, is a textbook example of how to structure a group performance. Another example of the band's maturity is "Vietato Generalizzare", which balances passages as intricate as the infamous "Trip On Metro" (from DFA's debut Lavori In Corso) with welcome contrasting, quieter sections.
In true "progressive" tradition, there are also moments on the album that depart more radically from the established D.F.A. "formula". The piano- and strings-based intro and outro bookending "Mosoq Runa" mark an unprecedented foray into pure classical music. More importantly, "La Ballata de 's'Isposa e Mannorri", a collaboration with the Sardinian vocal trio Andhira, in an oustanding achievement. If anything, it shows that the human voice can be integrated satisfactorily into the D.F.A.'s music - which has long been a moot point despite the best efforts of Alberto De Grandis and assorted guest vocalists - and suggests exciting new developments for the future.
In any case, D.F.A.'s new album is an unmitigated success which not only re-establishes the Italian quartet as a musical force to be reckoned with, but is also certain to be acclaimed as one of the best progressive rock releases of 2008, quite possibly the best - but the competition remains open, of course.
4.5 stars "..too fabulous to describe...so thoroughly composed...4th's shortcomings seem so slight that one is inclined to greet the album with unabashed enthusiasm. For anyone waiting past 30+ years for a worthy successor to [Hatfield & The North's] The Rotters' Club, here it is! Long live Canterbury, Italy!" – Dave Lynch, All Music Guide/Billboard.com
"D.F.A.'s reputation as one of the best of the new breed of progressive/fusion groups remains intact." – John Kelman, AllAboutJazz.com
"Definitely a 2008 top 10 candidate. Highest recommendation!" – Laser's Edge, USA
"D.F.A. has reached the enviable artistic maturity." – Vincenzo Giorgio, contributor to Musica Jazz Magazine & WS Magazine, Italy
"Explosive!" – Progpulsion, France
"Spectacular" – Tom Gagliardi, Gagliarchives Z88.9 Radio, USA
"Believe me You want this! Highly recommended" –Wayside Music, USA
(15 out of 16 stars) "Masterful musciians... D.F.A.'s music brims with Rhythmic crosscurrents, varying textures, dynamic ebb and flow and absolutely monstruous chops. There's also a cool melodic sensibility in play throighout, if not deliberately structured melodies, per se. " –Progression Magazine, USA