While we anxiously await the release of At the Drive-In’s first album in over a decade, we can always spend some of our free time listening to the recent outpouring of material from their eclectic-minded guitarist. As his fans certainly know by now, Omar Rodriguez Lopez teamed up with Mike Patton’s record label earlier this year to put out 12 full-length LPs of previously unreleased work, making for a release schedule that was even jam-packed by Rodriguez-Lopez’s rather prolific standards. Yet while this project was certainly ambitious, and afforded us with a unique glimpse into ORL’s creative process and musical range, it has also revealed some of his shortcomings as a songwriter. Some of the earlier albums–notably Corazones, Umbrella Mistresses and Blind Worms, Pious Swine–boasted a slightly more nuanced sound, featuring some gorgeous acoustic timbres and lush harmonic progressions. On the other hand, the Ipecac-ORL collaboration’s penultimate 2016 release lacks this subtlety, unleashing a barrage of frenzied guitars, percussion and harsh electronica.
Nom de Guerre Cabal wastes no time in establishing its frenetic pace. “Uncovering A Word” opens the album with some blistering drums, provided by guest musician Deantoni Parks. This breakneck percussion is soon accompanied by a disquieting medley of shrieking guitars and wailing vocals. Clearly, consonance is of little concern to Rodriguez-Lopez. His tracks feature some incredibly discordant instrumentation. At times this brazen, tonal experimentalism works rather effectively, as “Bitter Sunsets,” “Violet Rays Again” and “Nom de Guerre” all capture an enticingly singular brand of guitar chromaticism and rhythmic intensity. Unfortunately, though, Nom de Guerre Cabal’s striking lack of harmonic and melodic movement plague the album. Omar Rodriguez-Lopez shortcomings as a vocalist come into clear view as he fails to instill his lines with enough melodic intrigue for them to ever ring as even vaguely memorable (hear “Heated and Raised by Wounds”). Meanwhile, despite their obvious experimental proclivities, Nom de Guerre Cabal’s songs are rather conservative harmonically, with the majority of them possessing remarkably static lines. Rodriguez-Lopez tries to compensate for this deficiency by crafting texturally rich soundscapes that are sometimes stacked upon a single chord. On certain tracks–e.g. “Victims of Power”–this almost works, capturing a dark, densely layered atmosphere similar to those of Nine Inch Nails… yet without any of the sonic subtlety or melodic hooks.
Omar Rodriguez-Lopez is undoubtedly a talented guitarist and producer. His recent LP series has showcased the full range of his creative capacity. Yet sometimes, as he strives for new, inventive sounds, he can push the limits of the avant-garde a bit too far. And with its languorous melodies and harmonies, Nom de Guerre Cabal simply doesn’t offer much in the way of musical innovation, but rather a grating and pointedly abstruse listen (albeit one that is elevated by some truly impressive drumming from Parks). Even his song titles reflect this fierce desire to be “radical,” with the nonsensically phrased “Riot Squid” and grammatically incorrect “Life Proves It’s Worth” topping the list of absurdly named tracks.
While the album may maintain the frenetic energy that catapulted At the Drive-In to mainstream success, it is bogged down by some of ORL’s more esoteric tendencies. This all may, of course, enliven the listener of decidedly eclectic taste. However, for the rest of us, perhaps it would be best to merely wait for At the Drive-In’s upcoming record.