Piero Umiliani






The genius of Italian composer Piero Umiliani (1926–2001) is unfortunately reduced by desultory listeners to his 1968 smash hit Mah Nà Mah Nà which Jim Henson’s Muppets satirized every season or so, but once the dazzling blindness of this outshining Pop hymn wanes, one finds diamonds aplenty in his discography, one of them being the glorious Moog-accentuated 15-track quirkiness called Polinesia, released in 1975 on Umiliani’s own Rome-based Omicron label. Specializing in library music, Omicron’s back catalog contains an enormous amount of Umiliani material and turns out to be quite a strange treasure box given the composer’s stardom and prolific soundtracks to a lot of films, many of them eminently jazzy and loungey. Okay, so it turns out that library music is a nice avocation or side lining for Umiliani, but what does this mean in terms of Polinesia? It fortunately leads to a killer album to those listeners who want to fathom out the interstice of vintage Exotica and its proper resurrection around 1997.


This overlap causes many a problem, especially so on this album, for Umiliani has created the album all by himself and is only backed by a Space-Age choir on some of the tunes. Like his fellow pre-cut-and-paste European composers Nino Nardini and Roger Roger, he has to make compromises in order to make his vision become reality. He does not have access to a full orchestra as do composers such as Peter Reno, Anthony Mawer or Jack Trombey of library music label De Wolfe Music, so his material sounds thinner and less pompous, features programmed drums and artificial instruments out of necessity, but what he lacks in manpower, he moulds into the melodies and overarching concept. Not only does Polinesia boast alienating but worthwhile additions that seem to have anything to do with the group of islands, there are also three compositions that all appear in two different arrangements which makes for a somewhat exciting comparison between them. On top of it all, there are three peculiar takes on this album which I deem essential for equally peculiar reasons, so I do believe that even infrequent Exotica visitors might profit from this work. 


Exotica is stricken with enough clichés already, it does not need a smart-alecky reviewer to graft another one onto the genre’s base, so let me rephrase it this way: the opener Benvenuti All’Isola showcases that this must be the work of an Italian composer. Whatever Polynesian island is meant, Umiliani makes sure that it is riminified by mercilessly spawning an organ grinder-like crystalline-syrupy melody in front of a galloping beat, lachrymose synth washes, faux-marimba droplets and truthfully sun-dried guitar aortas. Much more Italian than Polynesian, Benvenuti All’Isola is a cultural shocker to many an Exotica fan, but in its own, very outlandish way, quite delightful. Follow-up Sotto Le Palme (underneath a palm tree) moves farther to the West by merging a Balearic theme with soothing Exotica. Croaking guiros cut through the air, an incredibly drowsy mixed choir hums along to the torrid heat before waking up in the second half. Castanets, warm guitars and turquoise organ-based legato runlets round off the sunscape; and it won’t be the last version of this tune the listener hears.


While the percussion-focused Canoe injects a sense of adventure via its timpani and the genuinely exciting textural pool of moist clicks, aqueous bongos and liquid shakers in adjacency to a mild breeze of synth strings, Danza Magica takes the surfaces and rearranges them in a frantic beat structure that again resembles dripping elements in front of a nocturnal flute-evoking susurration. Afterwards, Sotto Le Palme makes a glorious return, this time in a slowed down, fully instrumental version with glistening guitars, a silkened steel guitar and comparably strong Hawaiian licks on the stringed instruments. The first version of Plenilunio is next, Italian for "full moon," featuring a Moog atmosphere par excellence with thinned strings, ashen polka dots and the plasticity of softly slapped guitars. The applied filters and frequency benders create oscillations that are deemed outdated nowadays, but Plenilunio is, in the end, a mediocre Space-Age artifact. Just don’t shed any tears. Tamburi De Guerra (drums of war) does not finish side A with a bang but with a driblet, or several of those, as Piero Umiliani somewhat revisits the vesiculating panorama of Danza Magica. It is a different track alright, but shares one too many nuances with its predecessor.


The first spot of side B mimics the opener of side A: Benvenuti All’Isola is played again, now shaking off the Italian schmaltz via a higher tempo, an uplifting lai la la and da da da singing choir, staccato shakers and a slightly funked up guitar shrapnel. Abhorrent yet extremely catchy, I wonder in which Spencer & Hill movie this one appeared. Richiamo Del Golfo (lure of the Gulf) is next, visiting a curious parallel dimension where New Age-oid pan flutes converse with plinking Mood coils, galactic polar lights and brazen drums. Mellifluous alright. Taking a bow before the hippie movement, Erbe Magiche (magical herbs) might well be the best piece on the album in that it is wondrously mystical, remains under the radar and does not contain any glitzy ingredient; arcane flutes, warm-hearted drone tones, distantly cinematic drums and a great blending of a humming hula girl with the synthetic strings make this an odd but worthwhile top pick! It does not sport the genius let alone the interdependency of true-bred Exotica quartets, but Umiliani uses what little he has to come up with convincing structures, at least on this tune.


The second version of Plenilunio awaits the listener, being much more acoustic than the first one. There is not much else to write about it. the emaciated synths are still wafting, but music box dots and a singing choir of nymphs make this the better interpretation. Up next is the Ambient showstopper Pellegrinaggio Al Totem (pilgrimage to the totem), another truthful corker due to its strikingly blurred and diffuse amalgamation of strings, clinging triangles, bass guitars, enigmatic ethereal epitheliums and exhaling wind gusts. A huge favorite, but an admittedly hyper-strong transmutation of the Exotica genre, so it is definitely not suitable for everyone. Whereas the percussion-only Tamburi Nella Giungla (jungle drums) unleashes bongo and conga bubbles and meshes them with hi-toms, boo-bams and bamboo rods, Tamburi Sacri adds something that was amiss heretofore: bass. The wonky but staggering drums pump in close proximity to a gallimaufry of well-known droplets and glints, with the portentously titled finale Esorcismi (I won't translate that!) emitting a highly dubious Ambientscape akin to Pellegrinaggio Al Totem, but with darker undertones, lots of arcana and gyrating splinters, elastically bouncing alkaline square lead slivers and a camouflaged female choir amid them. Awash with the dichotomy of creepy delight, Esorcismi is another highlight of the much better B-side.


Quirky, syrupy, dangery: Piero Umiliani’s Polinesia is a fascinating artifact that arrives a decade too late on the market in terms of its Exotica appeal, but the composer thankfully uses this belatedness to his advantage by unchaining whitewashed Moog sequences and jagged synth protrusions and marrying them with a mixed choir, acoustic guitars and a moiré of programmed and real drums. After a lackluster start that has anything to do with the promised prospect of paradisal Polynesia, the album improves – sometimes even dramatically so – and changes its shape time and again, a curious remark given the constant reunions with formerly introduced compositions. The second takes or alternative arrangements, however, do by no means show the composer’s laziness, but on the opposite give an insight in how the same song can sound totally different when its layers or instruments are arranged differently. Not that Exotica listeners are not already aware of this, given the hundreds of interpretations of Flamingo, Quiet Village or Ebb Tide, but it is nonetheless a nice endeavor and rectifies the occasional lapse of taste; Benvenuti All’Isola of side A is coated in an alloy of chintzy Capri synths and organs, but the version of side B suddenly inherits a Samba aorta and is quite literally much more moving and exhilarating than the somnolent ardor of the first contact.


Percussion fans will surely dig compositions such as Canoe, Danza Magica or the three Tamburi titles, but might feel a little betrayed due to the artificial nature of the tunes. Today’s programmed and completely synthetic drums can often be successfully masked to the layman’s ears via filters, reverb effects or dozens of layers, but the drums of the 70’s feel thin, metallic and plastic. That said, it is not wrong per se to embrace this particular sound and worship it as one of Polinesia’s primary aesthetics. Likewise, there are three songs and atmospheres, all of them on side B, which I have fallen prey to: the amicable mystery in Erbe Magiche, the stupefyingly limewashed blur in Pellegrinaggio Al Totem as well as the murky uneasiness in Esorcismi which is situated much closer to Melanesia than Polynesia. Piero Umiliani’s Polinesia is undoubtedly a child of the 70’s. Vintage Exotica fans might shrug their shoulders, optionally spit on the floor and rightfully move on, but those who like the strange textures of later Space-Age works united with traces and gallons of Exotica should definitely check this pseudo-classic out. It has not yet been reissued at the time of publishing this review, but should appear sooner or later. After all, a lot of Umiliani’s other albums have made it already, and since he owned the Omicron label, there is, I presume, no unsolvable dispute which shall prevent a digital reissue in this century. 


Exotica Review 268: Piero Umiliani – Polinesia (1975). Originally published on Oct. 5, 2013 at AmbientExotica.com.