Piero Umiliani
Bon Voyage!!!






Italian composer Piero Umiliani (1926–2001) can only be applauded by Space-Age, Lounge and Exotica fans for having two distinct careers, one as a prolific creator of movie soundtracks, and another aside where he focuses on the creation of wondrous library music which he released on his own Rome-based label Omicron. Especially the late 60’s saw a resurgence of such music which was created in order to be used in films, advertisements and radio plays, with labels such as De Wolfe Music (established in 1927 already!) or Southern Library Of Recorded Musicassuring the buyers of their LP’s that they do not need to clear licenses or fear lawsuits when they use the music in their media productions.


Umiliani’s Omicron label was a part of this very movement, tailoring music to specific topics or themes. Exotica fans probably know his LP’s Polinesia and Continente Nero best which were both released in 1975, coinciding with Umiliani’s particularly fruitful work phase. During this phase, the travelog album Bon Voyage!!! is created well, featuring ten unique tracks about the sense of traveling around the globe, the feeling of moving restlessly but joyously around, of meeting new people and discovering enchanted places.


The Exotica genre is loaded with such albums, just search AmbientExotica for travelog to see the magic unfold; and I have not even reviewed 5% of the whole material known by me, let alone by truly dedicated connoisseurs with 40+ years of experience. All this, however, is to no avail once the following sentence hits: Bon Voyage!!! is no Exotica album. I have written similar sentences like this before, always replacing the respective album title, then reassuring the reader that the work is still somewhat related, either residing in the outer peripheries of Exotica or in the adjacent Space-Age genre. And granted, this is the case here as well. The Italian composer creates a synth-fueled Funk-like hybrid with big band horns and Disco string washes, but the result occasionally boasts that exotic feeling of delight and wonder, which is why I have decided to review this LP-only release that might well be reissued sometime™. The only question, at least for now, is the following: how is the concept of traveling transformed into music? Time for me to carve out the astonishing things and unfortunate flaws.


It always sounds so funny when they say it in movies, but Business Is Business is a coldhearted adage, comprising several negative connotations that leave abidingly devoted workers and their flimsy rights behind. None of this is relevant on Umiliani’s eponymous point of origin which sports good-natured staccato brass blebs and bass guitars which then form the base frame for oscillating synth droplets, frilly strings and several flute-like space whistles that tower in-between the funky atmosphere. This midtempo tune is insouciant and contains a bustling scenery despite its mild tempo. After this short business affair, the sun-dappled Living At Montecarlo is the next stop and features a gorgeously crystalline-vitreous organ which shimmers in a cavalcade of colors, quavers and gyrates its way through the fret guitars and electric piano insouciance. Exotic this tune is not, but fully compatible to Lounge lizards of the Adriatic Sea and of course the devoted travelog fan.


Wild Cat, meanwhile, is a downbeat brute and all about Disco glamour. Technicolor guitar coils, oversaturated organ blebs and hypnotic string accompaniments result in a sleazy prowling session which is definitely melodious, but cannot fully drive the listener-related enthusiasm due to the feeling of arbitrariness. The textures shine, but the melodies are a tad too weak. Fans of Lalo Schifrin’s Black Widow (1976) could have a weak spot for it though. The surprisingly cloudy Fly And Dry advertizes the simultaneity of an agent-thriller atmosphere with a majestic feeling of victory. The murky guitar droplets are distantly Far Eastern and danger-evoking, but the brass fanfares shimmer in golden colors, with the strings and bongo rhythms boosting the excitement further. This is yet again no essential tune, but contains many segues and intersections which give it the aura of serious effort.


The last track of side A, the downwards spiraling Routine, is built with the help of cascading electric piano shards and their frolicking synth as well as car horn brethren. This absurd tone sequence is held together by string runlets and a classic piano, both of which regularly appear when the catchy polka dots are muted. A great tune, mixing Lounge and Honky Tonk allusions with symphonic structures.


Side B opens with the titular Bon Voyage!!! and succeeds with its midtempo physiognomy which is then ameliorated by colorful synth whorls, plinking claviochords, piano sprinkles and especially present string washes which sound much more saturated and near than on any other tune. The flow is just right, the atmosphere only slightly funky, representing a hybrid of Funk and Disco. Here, the variety of textures matches the catchiness of the melody, and while it is not ultimately memorable, it carries that certain holiday vibe. The three exclamation marks are an exaggeration, sure, but it is a good tune nonetheless. Up next is Slogan, a truly exciting hymn in the electronic Batucada tradition, i.e. sporting a Samba underbrush which is then sped up, featuring break beat structures and convoys of Space-Age bells, whistles and synthesizer formations. The wah-wah guitars as well as the superb polyphony of the brass layers with the strings make Slogan a textural dream, a delightful take that is not too distant from John Klemmers exotic fusion Brazilia (1979).


The following Trip does not offer anything new per se and is a rather streamlined, string-focused upbeat composition with that feeling of movement and travel, but the strings’ sinews plus the vibraphone-like enamel of the electric piano make this a pleasant tune complete with a funk guitar accompaniment. Union Pacific, meanwhile, emits the aura of a big budget production thanks to its bucolically bubbling bongo blebs and the heavy cymbal or hi-hat thicket which whirls around the show tune-resembling horn helixes. The constant change of the pitch suggests its use in a shiny game show. The stop-and-go motion and the overall euphony plus density create a delightful movement. The final Giogioca – an artificial word coined by the artist – winds down the frenzy and sports a more lofty, lacunar structure whose holes are eventually covered by warm brass scents. The signature element is the jumpy organ which tumbles and stumbles through the limewashed panorama.


Bon Voyage!!! may unchain three exclamation marks in its title as if to adamantly convince even the nerdiest doubter that this is indeed one shiny travelog album full of adventures and funny mishaps, but is, at the end of the day, no serious take on the genre. The compositions are altogether reliant on the same pool of principal instruments – strings, horns, synths – and while this is completely embraceable and okay, there are no specific or special landmarks (!) in any of them to let them shine in their own peculiar way. A second problem is caused by the track titles themselves: some of them cover locations, others show that the listening subject is now in transit… so far, so excellent. But titles like Wild Cat, Business Is Business, Routine or Slogan can only be partially linked to the sense of a journey. Maybe the opener Business Is Business refers to the spawn point of each and every journey back in the 70’s, the consultation of a travel agency, but what do I know? Monte Carlo is the only place that is specifically named, every other location is up to the listener’s imagination, even though tracks like Union Pacific hint at North American railroads.


Now that I have severely overdramatized the lackluster links between music, title and concept, it is time to cherish the good parts of the album, for Bon Voyage!!! is all about dynamic movements, and this perception is indeed fueled and nurtured on every piece. Synth lovers and organ fans will further embrace the omnipresence of these devices as well as some welcome Italian cliché such as the Capri coils and Rimini rotation in Living At Montecarlo which projects this kind of Mediterranean city life onto the listener, the warped whistling keyboards and filtered guitar frequencies akin to the 101 StringsAstro-Sounds From Beyond The Year 2000 (1969), or the constant amount of micro-climaxes on Union Pacific where the already catchy brass melodies are pitched to a new tone environment time and again, resulting in a stunningly melodious piece that truly inherits the concept of traveling. Once it becomes clear that Piero Umiliani wants to create the flow of a voyage rather than a sequence of different vignettes that would also resemble the sense of traveling through various countries, one might as well give in and grant Bon Voyage!!! the concept of a travelog album. I know I do!!!


Exotica Review 404: Piero Umiliani – Bon Voyage!!! (1975). Originally published on Jan. 10, 2015 at AmbientExotica.com.