The Lead Review: Ed Power On Not Waving’s Animals

With Alessio Natalizia's eighth Not Waving record out on Diagonal Records tomorrow, Ed Power traces the influences that make up this LP of "dazzling communiques", from neurologist Oliver Sacks to Italian horror director Dario Argento

In Stevie Smith’s ‘Not Waving But Drowning’, a distressed swimmer cries for help but is believed by onlookers to be larking about in the water. The power of the poem lies in the unfathomable distance between the narrator’s flailing terror and the assumption by those on the shoreline that he is jauntily sending his salutations. At the end, his life is reduced to terrible farce so that he suffers the worst fade-out possible – death without dignity.

Smith’s lines came unbidden to Alessio Natalizia as the Italian musician, best known for his Walls/Banjo Or Freakout incarnations, was casting around several years ago for a name for his latest project. ‘Not Waving But Drowning’ is a baroque joke pounded out in staccato rhymes, humour and terror sitting in uneasy juxtaposition. The contradictions spoke to Natalizia, a former teen headbanger who had found his calling as a composer of warmly burbling electronica, an Italian who felt he had to quit his own country to become successful as a musician yet, upon arriving in London, found his nationality a welcome novelty. ("It’s ironic, because when I finally left Italy and came to London, everyone was excited because I was Italian," he told The Guardian in 2012).

On his new release under the Not Waving banner, Natalizia places himself in the precarious position of Smith’s overwhelmed swimmer.  A slow-build horror hangs heavy, with machine-tooled EBM rhythms set alongside spirals of inchoate assembly-line noise. Natalizia is miles from shore and, from the perspective of the onlooker, it can be difficult to tell whether he is genuinely distressed or merely indulging in giddy theatricality. There are mysteries here which do not readily reveal themselves.

In interviews, Natalizia has been sometimes disdainful of the Italian music scene, feeling it inward-looking and reactionary. Starting out in the old country with punk groups and Nirvana covers bands he committed the heinous act of singing in English. The dismissive response he took as a sign his future lay elsewhere. In Italy, he has implied, either you conform to the cheesy tropes of the business – or you get out.

But you can’t escape that which you carry around within and there’s an argument that the tensions which give Animals its hammer and tongs freneticism have a quintessentially Italian aspect. After all, what is the story of popular art in Italy through the 20th and 21st centuries but one of extreme piled upon extreme? To cite an obvious yet relevant example, here is the country that gave us both the ickiest of paeans to film in Cinema Paradiso yet also spawned the found-footage horror genre with 1980’s still stomach turning Cannibal Holocaust (do not watch if sensitive to seeing animals hacked to death). 

Certainly, anyone with a knowledge of Italian extreme cinema, exponentially more bonkers and risk-taking than its English language equivalent, will feel a shudder of recognition delving into Animals. On the hard-swinging ‘Gutsy’ and ‘Face Attack’, synthetic tom-toms judder and creak as voices, distorted into an ugly rasp, deliver disembodied growls. It’s the soundtrack to the Blade Runner pastiche Dario Argento, doyen of the giallo horror movement, really ought to have cranked out in 1983. 

One prism through which it is perhaps most illuminating to view Animals, is the musician’s upbringing in the Abruzzo region 100 or so miles east of Rome. As with the local popular culture, this dramatic corner of Italy is riven with contradictions. Stunning mountainscapes overlook harsh scrubland; delicate gothic edifices share the skyline with brutalist apartment blocks.

Such geographical and architectural inordinancies have for decades served as a lure to artists. Federico Fellini made several movies here; Jean-Jacque Annaud filmed much of The Name Of The Rose at Rocca Calascio, a tenth-century fortress perched moodily on a hilltop. In Anton Corbijn’s 2010 avant-noir excursion The American the brooding backdrop sets the tone for a feature gorgeous to behold yet with an empty place at the pit of its soul. 


The point is that, across the decades, this breath-taking corner of Italy has evinced deeply sinister tendencies. Abruzzo was an early convert to Fascism and, more recently, hidebound by religious conservatism (in the early 70s reactionaries objected to the 50-lira coin on the grounds it depicted a classical figure in a state of undress). After Italy had dramatically switched side in the Second World War Mussolini was placed under house arrest at the Campo Imperatore Hotel high in southern Abruzzo, only to be rescued in a daring raid by the Waffen SS. The Italian soldiers charged with holding Mussolini under lock and key surrendered without firing a shot. 

Under the Mediterranean sunshine, the shadows cut deep and long then. There’s a wild drama to the landscape which arguably finds it parallels in Animals tracks such as ’24’ and ‘Punch’, the latter building from a languid drone to treated shriek, the sampled mutterings of a crowd yammering madly as the climax hoves into earshot.  

The listener is, meanwhile, plunged deeper into the void on ‘Presenza Immobile’ ("Motionless Presence") a textured conspiracy of acid beats and slurred house grooves. If the record has a black beating heart, however, it is closer ‘They Cannot Be Replaced’, which lifts a monologue by the late neurologist Oliver Sacks on the futility of spiritual belief.

"I think my parents were practicing Jews, but not believing ones. I don’t think that belief is a particularly strong thing in Judaism… I grew up in a Darwinian world," Sacks says, his diction uncharacteristically ominous. Sacks was a deeply humane non-believer, and in the original interview is matter-of-factly commenting on the gulf between European secularism and American religiosity. Yet hemmed in by Natalizia’s horror-show tempos, his musings acquire a nihilistic glower, as if to suggest the only thing more terrifying than a universe presided over by a cruel and judgemental God is one presided over by nobody at all.

Rejecting poseur understatement, Natalizia feasts freely on contradictory melodrama throughout Animals. The waving and the drowning are thus made feel one and the same. Perhaps Natalizia is giving voice to deep-seated existential unease; maybe he is merely indulging his passion for scary sound effects. Either way, to those of us gawping on the shoreline, close yet immeasurably distant, the results are seductive and potent – dazzling communiques from the other side of the abyss.

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