by Phil Freeman
Omar Rodriguez Lopez, formerly of At the Drive-In and best known as the primary creative force behind the currently-on-hiatus Mars Volta, puts out a lot of solo records. His Bandcamp page offers 36 titles at present, including some by his early dub project De Facto; collaborations with former Can vocalist Damo Suzuki, former Red Hot Chili Peppers guitarist John Frusciante, and Lydia Lunch (separately); and a compilation, Telesterion, that offers a semi-succinct (38 tracks, two CDs) introduction to it all. Most of these records are only offered in digital format, though some are available on CD or LP. The three reviewed here popped up on the site last week.
Equinox is credited to Rodriguez Lopez as a solo artist, as opposed to the albums he puts out billed to the Omar Rodriguez Lopez Group, an outfit whose membership fluctuates depending on the day but which lately includes bassist Juan Alderete de la Peña, drummer Deantoni Parks, and keyboardist Marcel Rodriguez Lopez (in other words, the entire current lineup of the Mars Volta, minus vocalist Cedric Bixler Zavala). Still, it sounds like the product of multiple players at times, most notably on the opening track, “Sueños Salvajes,” which features live bass and drums, guitar, and a soprano saxophone squawking from deep within the mix. The dominant sounds on much of Equinox, though, are keyboards and drum machines. Quickly programmed rhythm loops underpin the songs, and the synths issue waves of static and whoosh. When Omar’s guitar is heard, it’s filtered through sci-fi distortion effects that would make Helios Creed shake his head in disbelief, and his vocals are subject to the same level of manipulation. The lyrics are indecipherable—hell, you can’t even tell what language he’s singing in (English? Spanish? Kobaian?)—and they’re half-buried under all the other sounds anyhow. Still, tracks like “Popolon” and “Mermaid Grapefruit” have a cumulative effect that’s somehow warm and disorienting at the same time, like a more benevolent Butthole Surfers. The closest thing to a normal rock song here is the closing track, “No,” which marries a clean guitar riff somewhere between the Police and Naked-era Talking Heads to a vocal melody reminiscent of Suzuki. As always, Omar’s voice is swathed in static, but the chorus is quite pretty. Naturally, he can’t resist sabotaging it all with massive, wobbling dubstep explosions.
Unicorn Skeleton Mask is also nominally a solo disc, offering 10 tracks in 43 minutes (as compared with Equinox‘s eight in 35). It’s in the same general vein as Equinox, though substantially more mainstream-accessible. Songs like “Sea is Rising” and “Maria Te Canta” are built around relatively traditional guitar riffs, and while the vocals are still distorted, they’re much clearer. The electronics still zap and zoom all around the programmed drums and guitars; the rhythms are more uptempo and at times more complex. Other, quieter, more abstract pieces like “Happiness” and “Tennessee,” which feature skittering beats and bass throbs so deep they’re like subsonic synth lines, are reminiscent of the murmuring, don’t-care-if-anyone’s-listening direction Radiohead went in on The King of Limbs, and like that record, it’s easy to think that the music will take a while to register, and demand focused effort to do so—you can ignore it, if you want, but there’s a lot to hear and enjoy if you choose to put in the time. The album peaks with its eighth track, the six-minute “Names,” which is swathed in fuzz like everything else, but underneath you can tell it’s epic and Led Zeppelin-esque enough to have been a Mars Volta track.
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Woman Gives Birth To Tomato! is credited to the Omar Rodriguez Lopez Group, but it’s nothing like anything that band has ever done before—or anything I’ve heard from Omar. It’s an instrumental album of free jazz with electronics ladled thickly on top, featuring tenor and soprano saxophone (only one at a time), piano, bass (sometimes electric, sometimes upright), and drums. There’s guitar, but it’s far from being the dominant instrument, and what he’s playing has little or nothing to do with rock of any kind. More than anything else, this album’s seven tracks named for various cities around the globe—eight if you count the 30 seconds of silence at album’s end, labeled “Tokyo Japan”—remind me of mid-2000s work by pianist Matthew Shipp: Nu Bop, Equilibrium, and Harmony and Abyss all combined ferocious jazz explorations with looping electronics and bursts of disruptive noise in a way very similar to what’s going on here. Most of these pieces are only a few minutes long, but the epic “El Paso Texas” (15:28) and “Zapopan México” (9:25) give all involved plenty of room to stretch out, and they take it. Even for longtime fans of Omar Rodriguez Lopez, Woman Gives Birth To Tomato! is going to require some adjustment of expectations going in, and it’s easy to suspect that’s exactly how he likes it.
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