Ambitiously Eclectic Electronic Rock
Omar Rodriguez-Lopez has had quite the 2016. Earlier this year, he confirmed the revitalization of his legendary post-hardcore outfit, At the Drive-In. Not only did they embark on a world tour this summer; they are also in the process of recording new material for the first time in over fifteen years. If this weren’t enough, just this July, Rodgriguez-Lopez announced that he would be teaming up with Mike Patton’s Ipecac Records to release a slew of previously unheard solo albums – twelve, to be exact.
A few years ago, Rodriguez-Lopez swore off solo work in order to pursue collaborative efforts. At the time, he already had over 25 full-length releases to his name; so it was safe to say that he had already firmly carved a niche for himself within the prog-rock/solo guitarist sphere – much like a modern-day Frank Zappa. However, along with his published catalog, Rodriguez-Lopez also boasted a bountiful collection of unreleased material. This leads us to 2016: Ipepac Records agreed that it would be a neat concept to release these buried works, recorded between 2008 and 2013, on a bi-weekly basis.
Two months and five full-length records later, and Rodriguez-Lopez’s solo series is in full swing. The ambitious project, to date, has been most impressive in the full diversity of its offerings. Rather than merely rehashing the same sounds and concepts for each subsequent project, Rodriguez-Lopez has made a conscious effort to present remarkably distinctive – yet always eccentric – works. Sworn Virgins is steeped in classic psychedelia. Corazones – initially written as a film soundtrack – captures a gentler side of Rodriguez-Lopez, with its simple lyrics and acoustic guitar passages. Blind Worms, Pious Swine actually channels an accessible indie sound (at least, by ORL standards). Arañas en la Sombra, on the other hand, captures the unbridled dynamism and extreme technicality that characterized Rodriguez-Lopez’s work with Mars Volta. Umbrella Mistress embraces the same acoustic softness of Corazones, yet instilled with a touch of pensive wistfulness.
This brings us to Rodriguez-Lopez’s latest release, El Bien y Mal Nos Une, which favors the artist’s more electronic and avant-garde tendencies. The album features four remixes of songs that originally appeared on Un Escorpión Perfumado (2010). For example, “Acuérdate” is merely a reimagined version of “Que Dice Pessoa?” However, while the new track maintains the same fundamental musical characteristics of its precursor, Rodriguez-Lopez and audio engineer Chris Common infuse it with a glisteningly processed sound, chockfull of swirling synthesizers and thumping digital drums. This change easily distinguishes it from the lo-fi, band sound of Un Escorpión Perfumado. These electronic sonic atmospheres characterize El Bien y Mal Nos Une as a whole. “Amor Frío” features a simplistic, arpeggiated synth melody. “Humor Sufí” offers a cacophonous mix of highly digitized bass, guitar and synth textures. The digital woodwinds that color “Va Voz”’s soundscape resemble something from a Bieber single – yet not in a derogatory sense.
Even the guitars of El Bien y Mal Nos Une are characterized by their exceptionally digital timbre. Aside from the blaring solo that opens “Planetas Sin Sol,” the album’s guitar-work is often indistinguishable from its electronic elements, blending seamlessly into the mix. This, of course, could be due to Rodriguez-Lopez’s predisposition towards pedals, which tend to bury their instrument in thick walls of effects, as evinced by “Un Acto de Fe,” in which a chorus of shrill guitars effectively mask the guitar’s signature tone in favor of a much more electronic sound. El Bien y Mal Nos Une does have its moments of exciting rock riffage, such as on the wonderfully syncopated “Perdido.” However, those expecting the raw energy of At the Drive-In or Mars Volta may be disappointed. This album trades in these rock ‘n’ roll overtones for an impressive dose of thoughtful, intelligent music.
Rodriguez-Lopez’s projects have always involved a bit of imagination, as they continuously strive to push musical boundaries. His raucous style of guitar-playing was not only exciting, but also intriguing in its embracement of dissonant chromaticism. As he began to gain artistic sovereignty with Mars Volta and as a solo musician, his highly unconventional brand of songwriting emerged, colored by its extended solo passages, discordant ensembles, erratic transitions and abrupt tempo changes. El Bien y Mal Nos Une is – as one would expect from an ORL offering – musically ambitious. Like a true avant-gardist, Rodriguez-Lopez ensures that his work never adheres to contemporary musical conventions. Apart from a few memorable vocal hooks, his melodies are rarely catchy. His pieces are chaotically constructed, engaging in frequent rhythmic and harmonic shifts to keep the listener off balance. The album establishes some remarkably dense soundscapes (which are impressively mixed by Common). These musical peculiarities will undoubtedly appeal to the avant-garde listener.
However, the prototypical mainstream enthusiast, on the other hand, may be turned off by El Bien y Mal Nos Une’s musical aberrations. In fact, Rodriguez-Lopez’s newest release may even be a bit esoteric by his own rather esoteric standards. “Violencia Cotidiana” haphazardly slaps together riffs in a manner that prevents the listener from ever settling in. “Perdido” reaches a bizarre piano interlude towards its conclusion that jarringly interrupts the hard rock atmosphere that characterized the song up to that point. The album’s closing act, “Estrella Caída,” plays more as a work of noise art, blending discordant textures that end the album on an unsettling note.
Followers of Omar Rodriguez-Lopez should not be discouraged by El Bien y Mal Nos Une’s more experimental leanings, though. Despite its eccentricities, the album still offers plenty of gripping electronic rock music. It surely marks an interesting chapter in the guitarist’s prolific career. As he continues to release material, Rodriguez-Lopez proves how versatile he truly is. El Bien y Mal Nos Une captures him at his most ambitious, as he places his thoughtfully structured songs within some strikingly polished digital soundscapes.