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Milagro Acustico
Thermae Atmospherae
CNI/Look Studio (www.milagroacustico.com)

I love odd records, whether they feature uncommon instruments or unusual themes. Consequently, when I heard that the Italian band Milagro Acustico had a release that was a three-CD tribute to the Roman baths – more properly, subtitled La Scoperta dell’Acqua Calda (The Discovery of Hot Water) – I couldn’t wait to dive into such an opus. What could the discovery of hot water sound like? Thermae Atmospherae is divided into three aptly named CDs: ‘Frigidarium,’ ‘Tepidarium,’ and ‘Caledarium.’ Sitting down to listen, I was prepared to emerge from the experience soaking wet.

Milagro Acustico have existed since the mid-1990s, and the group has always had a penchant for themed albums. Their second album, I Storie o café di lu Furestierio (The Story of the Strangers’ Coffee) [2002], proposed a blend of Mediterranean and world musics in an imaginary Sicilian café. Rubaiyyat of Omar Khayyam (2004) was inspired by that great book of spiritual poetry, and 2005’s exciting Poeti Arabi di Sicilia continued to find inspiration in the works of Arabic and Italian poets. Siqilah, terra d’Islam (Sicily, Land of Islam) [2007] looked to the blending of Italian and Arabic culture. Throughout, multi-instrumentalist Bob Salmieri (ney, soprano sax, friscaleddu, and various percussions) writes intriguing sound-paintings for Milagro Acustico, sometimes accompanied by sung poetry or wordless chanting. The band records its music in both Rome and in Istanbul, and the Arabic influence on Milagro Acustico has become increasingly pronounced: again, reinforced by the thematic collections of the group’s output.

Thermae Atmospherae features a plethora of musicians from around the world: Milagro Acustico have reached beyond Italy, and into Egypt, Iran, Senegal, Turkey and India to build an enormous sound palette. The melodies are typically lovely, exotic, and languid: the result being that Milagro Acustico almost sound like a very polished version of jazzy world New Age music. Thermae Atmospherae, fortunately, does not sink into the bland netherworld that might imply, because the band is too subtle and too alive on this recording. The musicians are beautifully recorded; you can sometimes hear the breath of the wind instrument players, and the percussion cracks and provides tremendous depth. There’s an ambiance to the recording that is full and only slightly enhanced by some electronics, and Milagro Acustico achieves this without the wash of synthesizers. The overall mood is more akin to a Turkish bath, as opposed to a reconstruction of the music of ancient Rome (such as can be found in the work of the group Synaulia).

However, when listening to Thermae Atmospherae and comparing this release with Milagro Acustico’s other recordings, I discovered that many of the tracks on this trilogy are actually featured on many of the albums that I described above. The arrangements are different, and the pieces are performed anew.

Theoretically, this shouldn’t be a problem. Early music groups will often re-arrange the presentation of pieces to form a themed program (such as Jordi Savall has done). But I felt somewhat let down: I went from imagining the preparatory rites of the Frigidarium, only to realize that I could just as easily be thinking of Khayyam’s Rubaiyyat. The theme, as it turns out on Thermae Atmospherae, is only a convenience, one utilized to unite a lot of relaxing music. (Of course, there are also new pieces presented on Thermae Atmospherae.) But even though the recordings are fresh for this collection, I could not help but feel that somehow the research that the band stressed on their earlier musical adventures is undermined by not indicating anywhere on the album, or in the liner notes for Thermae Atmospherae, that Milagro Acustico is re-working a lot of material here.

Theme aside, what ultimately matters is the music itself, which can be tailored to fit any dream. I have a feeling that the great three-CD opus of ‘the discovery of hot water’ is yet to be written. – Lee Blackstone

You can hear some of the recording on the ensemble's web site

Live in the Teatro Palladium in Rome - March, 2011

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cd cover

 

Some of the band's CDs are available from cdRoots

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