Posted 30 July 2019 - 12:10 PM
Here you go. I wrote these at the time, and have just copied/pasted from that document, no edits. I remember being pleased with these, but whatever. Enjoy!
Still with us? Welcome back. You’re joining around the midpoint of this, one man’s attempt at covering the 24 Ipecac “solo” albums from At The Drive In’s Omar Rodríguez–Lopéz, given that this is probably more material than is healthy to digest in such a condensed time. Still, here we are, taking the hits so you don’t have to.
Records 13-18 then: there are surprises here, with old material re-imagined in ways that swivel-eyed Volta fans may find absurd, but I’d hope not (<i>Ensayo De Un Desaparecido</i>), and some of Omar’s most progressive and forward-thinking material put out to date (<i>Zen Thrills</i>), the ongoing collaborations with Deantoni Parks and Teri Gender Bender bearing yet more fruit. It’s not all quite so successful though, some of this music borne of the more cast-aside elements of the supposed vault of unreleased material this series purports to represent. But amidst those glimpses behind the veneer of studio finesse, some real gems. Without further ado…
Dreamscaped night clubs as curated by David Lynch, a bled-through rendition of half-remembered hedonism and disturbed excess, an alchemist’s vial full of nauseating, ever-tempting nightmares, some hallucinatory gothic brew and potentially referencing of the 20th Century American philosopher Arthur Lovejoy, this dark delight landed somewhat unexpectedly on New Year’s Eve, and would have found suitable contexts in the Dionysian revelry of the sweaty hours to come.
Through baroque turns of phrase and a limited but industriously channelled palette of 1980s inspired electronic instrumentation, A Lovejoy plays out like the kind of vampire Italo-pop that Johan Agebjorn might make, given a suitcase full of yayo and a pre-existent fascination with 18th Century European music traditions. Indeed, closing track Tlaquepaque indulges this theoretical grounding to absolute conclusion; a near thirteen minute, largely midi-programmed behemoth of intricate strings and inventive live-drums from collaborator Deantoni Parks drawing out allusions to King Crimson, Mozart and Can all at once.
Elsewhere, 303 patterns take up Parks’ mantle to great effect. Transparent sounds most convincingly like a Mr Oizo out-take: Quentin Dupieux’s relentlessly daft approach to pace and texture here deployed as foil for atonal bass stabs and vocal deliveries that seem serious and ridiculous all at once. Close your eyes and many of this record’s more kinetic moments seem almost purpose built for a certain yellow puppet’s delirious, emphatic head-banging. In all its unexpected softness, Nobodies is easily the most gorgeous thing here, a sweet paean to the open-eyed realisation of love’s onset, full of symphonic gratitude for that transient moment, for bliss: seeing and being seen.
Acerbic pieces like Faceless And Tired and Fortuned Life are followed by subterranean, hazy segues that restore a drugged tranquillity, I Bet He’d Like That in particular, harking to some incanted medieval darkness, a chant invoked by secret candlelit corridor. As opposed to the earlier series record <i>Weekly Mansions</i>, these instrumental transitions work convincingly as conjunctive shifts from one mood to another, establishing a fine narrative across and between this dark, playful, nostalgia-soaked, quite beautiful record.
Borrowing the sonic design of earlier record <i>Sworn Virgins</i>’ loop-pedal wrought constructs, <i>Roman Lips</i> leans more towards melodic grunge than futurist punk. Stripping riffs to bare bones, keeping instrumentation light, Roman Lips underwhelmed at first. A somewhat dull, unenthused mix limits the production, which doesn’t boast the finessed sheen of <i>Sworn Virgins</i> – and where that album benefitted so much from Teri Gender Bender’s backing vocals (a breezed, necessary counterpoint to Rodríguez–Lopéz’ more earthen snarl), here Parks and ORL fend for themselves across the record’s 14 tracks.
I found this a particularly claustrophobic record, despite the sweet allusions to 1980s synth-pop and a delicious homage to film noir soundtracks in the album’s mid-section; more difficult than others to get through start to finish. However, the album has grown on me in recent weeks: individual tracks here aren’t the most intellectually gratifying or emotionally affecting, but there’s fine material expressed here, perhaps without all of the resplendent polish found elsewhere in this series, and it’s an engaging enough listen in certain contexts. Personally, bike rides along the Thames.
Brevity pervades throughout, and there’s a sense that tracks like He Gave Me A Key To Nothing (a gorgeous, marimba-adorned spy theme soundtrack) and the staccato foundations of What Could Give Did Not are slightly under-developed in their sub-2 minute runtimes. Other pieces, such as the lightweight bubble-gum guitar-pop of Don’t Fight Back, don’t deserve to stretch much further. Soulless Doubts borrows an inoffensive synth line straight out of 1980s Rod Stewart and taunts the Mars Volta fan base with a guitar solo breakdown that vanishes as soon as it’s revealed, Deadlight is just about as effortlessly cool as it gets, and Bitter Tears probably started life as one of Deantoni’s Technoself tracks, all sample triggers and beat-invention, before being passed here for Omar to cascade pizzicato riffs over. A reworked version of Nobodies appears on this album: it’s such a lovely song that I can’t begrudge him releasing it on consecutive records, and here it comes repurposed with a sky-tearing solo in the middle, no doubt pleasing some, but losing some of the original’s innocence along the way.
Referring to the period in which these albums were recorded as one marked by a particularly furious rate of output, what’s both frustrating and gratifying about albums like <i>Roman Lips</i> is perhaps just a consequence of the surrounding context and the pace at which this music was conceived and recorded. There’s plenty of fine material here, supreme riffs, a swaggered indifference, and moments of astounding synchronicity between Parks and ORL, but this album remains slightly aloof, ever so slightly out of reach.
What’s curious about this series of records is the peering behind the veil of creative practice: pieces transmute through instrumentations and reappear on other albums, born anew. <i>Roman Lips</i> represents a particular aesthetic, coherent enough across these fourteen tracks: reduced, taut, dripping with postmodern cool. It’s the kind of the record that doesn’t seem to care too much whether anyone else is listening, catering instead to the sound of two guys driven to make music for their own kicks, throwing it all up, no riff left behind.
Ostensibly comprising the <i>Cell Phone Bikini</i> band, it’s easy to read <i>Zen Thrills</i> as a sequel of sorts. That earlier record has been one of the highlights of this Ipecac series, a kind of pedal-free Volta aesthetic affording Teri Gender Bender opportunity to soar in the role of prog-rock frontwoman – <i>Zen Thrills</i>, through wider influences, more varied instrumentation and a significantly punchier mix, represents a defiant, powerful leap above that record.
The Vespertine-like Burning Those Bridges opens the album. It’s an airy piece built from delicate bell loops and swelling synth chords, ORL’s reverb-drenched guitar gliding above the chorus. It all culminates so marvellously: synth upon synth, guitars echoing like beams of light prying eagerly between clouds. There’s a futurist/industrial feel to much of this, typified by Scream, What Do I Do – as otherworldly as it is caustic; Teri Gender Bender’s hypnotic poetry sung with an ethereal layering of voices. Oscillating between dreamy art-pop and dynamic cyber-punk, <i>Zen Thrills</i> marks a perfect midpoint between the more forward-thinking moments of The Mars Volta and the more laid-back, expressive work of Bosnian Rainbows.
The record just gets better and better as it plays out, angular indie punk piece Nowhere Sides marking a turning point as the album raises the stakes. The run of tracks from Where Did Youth Go to Lounge For A Tongue astounds in every instant: virtuoso pieces where mastery of craft, technique and studio come together to thrilling effect. It’s goosebump inducing prog: razor-wire guitars that slide in and out of Youth as Teri dreamily calls to nowhere “she kicked me down!” – repeated with increased urgency as everything collapses into the kind of hazy drone music that ORL drenched Mars Volta’s grandiose narrative album <i>Frances The Mute </i>in. When the band launches back in, it’s all delirious licks dancing across the channels: bouncing, joyous, elated.
Over music of such refinement, Gender Bender’s vocal performance really can’t be overstated: she commands it, pushing and tugging, forcing the music into corners, twisting it up in a ball and spitting it out on command. Whilst Parks and Rodríguez–Lopéz construct delighted excesses underneath, myriad architecture of apocalyptic guitar tones and academically complex drum patterns, and far from acting meekly or in opposition to their work, her vocals engage dynamically with these pieces.
In this records finest moments, they sound like a band performing in complete synchronicity. When considering that this is fairly avant-garde prog-punk music, with great prominence afforded for the poetry of the lyrics, that’s no small feat. Take Lounge For A Tongue, the record’s final vocal track. An angular riff over juddering drums offer staccato rhythm, little room for manoeuvre. Yet the vocals dance between the gaps, moving with the music and against it at will. As it bleeds into the chorus, the eye of this track’s storm, Gender Bender pulls a lullaby melody out of nowhere and everything shifts into a dreamlike haze. The trick works both ways, the inevitable guitars which emerge from subsequent static cast in ever-more sinister light. Lounge culminates in an astounding final movement as vocalist and drummer fight for ownership of the beat. I haven’t the foggiest what she’s singing – “open up the open custard” perhaps, but it’s exhilarating, mad, hedonistic stuff.
Ending with two instrumental tracks, built from looped synths is a slightly disjointed coda to an otherwise masterful album – and that’s not critique of them in their own right. Drown It All, No One Will Miss It is like staring drunkenly agog into a vacuum – it’s also like so many fever dreams I’ve had; the kind where angles bristle with precision and every molecule erupts in an incomprehensible, maddening fury. The track is painful, entrancing and hilarious at once. Final piece That’s Hell Alright sounds like 2004 era Squarepusher, if only someone had told whoever mixed </i>Zen Thrills</i> to turn the ridiculous slap bass up, and the name is entirely appropriate.
If there’s been a disparity between these releases, some comprising collections of demos to some bearing the marks of finished conceptual wholes, Zen Thrills has to be regarded as one the series more distinctive and accomplished works. This record is undoubtedly one of the series’ highlights, one of Omar’s most fully realised and purposeful albums with any band. As with earlier album <i>Cell Phone Bikini</i>, it marks an astounding unison of musicianship – but more, it’s a dynamic mid-point between the potential of analog and digital, and it quite utterly marks Teri Gender Bender’s finest vocal performance on anything, the high point of this trio’s collaborative work.
CHOCOLATE TUMOR HORMONE PARADE
With no gratuitous indication, <i>Chocolate Tumor Hormone Parade</i> purports to be a live document; through sleuthing one can deduce a circa 2010 date for recording this concert but there’s a certain postmodernity in this album’s construction that it’d be remiss not to address.
Seemingly culled from a few disparate performances, the source recordings found here have been complemented by the addition of some studio additions, recorded after the fact. I can hear the purists groaning already; but there’s hefty precedent for this approach to refining live materials in the cold light of day. There’s nothing added here that significantly changes the realised effect of the whole when compared with audience recorded bootlegs of those performances so I’ll remain grateful for what has been added here.
I haven’t returned much to this record, it’s sequenced strangely and never finds a mood to settle on. Although the track listings merely spell out the album title, the performances here represent older ORL material from the albums <i>Un Corazón De Nadie, Octopus Kool Aid </i>and this series’ earlier LP, <i>Zapopan</i>. Opening a concert with Querer and Mono from Corazón seems particularly sadistic, conceived of as meditations on loss they are both pained, awkward pieces that explode only as screams of agony tearing up the soul. Tentaculos De Fe and Spell Broken Hearts follow, the former’s tremendous guitar solo let down by underwhelming bassline noticeably different to the studio version, the latter benefitting from a raised volume on the crunch of ORL’s guitar that elevates it frankly above the <i>Zapopan</i> version.
The final tracks are taken from <i>Octopus Kool Aid</i> and feature the vocals of Teri Gender Bender. For me it’s only really at this point that the record opens up. <i>Octopus Kool Aid </i>was the first album that ORL released with Teri, and at the time marked a shift into more synth-led music. Those album tracks come alive here, with soaring vocal performances and the benefit of Deantoni Parks’ ever engaging live drums.
ENSAYO DE UN DESAPARECIDO
A few records from this Ipecac series have taken previously underdeveloped work and carried them to more satisfying aural conclusion (<i>Zapopan, Nom De Guerre Cabal</i>), but the best way of reading <i>Ensayo De Un Desaparecido</i> is to regard it as an altogether different point of view, an expression of old music recast under altered exposure, viewed through a different lens, and an entirely complementary repositioning of earlier material.
2008’s ORL record <i>Xenophanes</i> was a record characterised by the absurd instrumental excess of The Mars Volta’s album of the same year, <i>The Bedlam In Goliath</i>. It was also one of ORL’s more coherent bodies of work, its eleven tracks together speaking to a narrative concept around the ancient Greek theologian of the same name, time travel, inter-dimensionality, etc (if you’re not on board yet, I can’t help you). Drummer Thomas Pridgen, whose characteristically frenetic work typified The Mars Volta’s <i>Bedlam</i> phase and who appeared on <i>Xenophanes</i>, was convinced that the band were recording it for a Mars Volta record. Vocals instead passed to the Mexican singer-songwriter Ximena Sariñana Rivera, who had collaborated with Omar on a number of records in that era and whose subsequent performance afforded <i>Xenophanes</i> an elegance in softening counterpoint to the band’s otherwise fevered rhythms and riffs.
Where that album was largely hedonistic and fevered, <i>Ensayo De Un Desaparecido</i> has been bathed in sweetness and sincerity. It’s as if a window has been opened on a smoke-filled room, all the claustrophobia of <i>Xenophanes</i>’ delirium, hugely enjoyable as it is, dissipates in crisp air and light breezes. <i>Ensayo</i> has been recorded anew, from the ground up – with profound changes. Replacing Thomas Pridgen with Deantoni Parks being the most critical of these: the drummers have such wholly distinct styles – I’ve discussed previously the extent of Omar’s affection for his collaboration with Parks. Here, ORL reworks an entire album, one of his most successful solo records, through the prism of Deantoni Parks – and it’s joyous.
Where <i>Xenophanes</i> lead instrument was inarguably Omar’s restless, wailing guitar, <i>Ensayo</i> recasts both acoustic and Rhodes pianos in the lead role. And while the cognitive dissonance of “he’s taken prog-punk and turned it into lounge jazz!?” took a quick moment to get over, my initial outrage was entirely misplaced – the residual effect of lingering affection for the fine earlier work.
At times, <i>Ensayo</i> is simply beautiful, plaintive music, light piano expressions revealing nuance in each vocal line, the pulls and tugs in ORL’s voice breaking in Nubes Sin Agua, delicacy wringing all the sweetness out of every melodic turn. In other moments, it’s deeply funky – again a style catering to Deantoni Park’s inventive fills and ability to fight off two or three rhythms at once. Recuerdos capsizes into naked Rhodes solos: jazzy, swaggering and furious – but even in these more frenetic moments, <i>Ensayo De Un Desaparecido</i> is never burdensome, not for a moment unpleasurable.
This is music for Spring. It’s music that makes me smile just to think about – songs culminate in sweetness, the layered vocal melodies and strings of Un Abismo Bendito swelling with every repetition of the song’s climactic vocal lines, the collapse into raw disco at the end of the album’s final movement (three tracks culminating in album closer La Orilla, all 80s inspired synths, Donna Summer beats – it’d be ridiculous if it wasn’t so damn hot to listen to.
Despite the quieter guitars, greater emphasis on nuance and musicality, it’s perhaps one of Omar’s more genuinely progressive records, and beautiful – so profoundly and simply beautiful throughout that you barely notice the album disappearing in a haze of discotheque strings and the dreamlike vibraphone that graces the final moments. Just remember to listen to the earlier <i>Xenophanes</i> record from which <i>Ensayo De Un Desaparecido</i>’s material is reimagined; there’s a great testament between the two LPs to the idiom that a good song just is.
AZUL, MIS DIENTES
<i>Azul, Mis Dientes</i> is one of the series’ more oblique records; it moves between humour and fear, light-hearted dalliances with guitar pop, melancholic elegies cast into the wind and sinister, discomforting howls. First teased as a future ORL release in The Mars Volta’s latter days, <i>Azul</i> represents one of the earlier collaborations with Teri Gender Bender, who appears on vocals throughout.
Most songs seem addressed under the banner of a named other: Marcel is an amusing telling-off, given that it’s likely posted to Omar’s younger brother (whose next album<i> ¡Eureka!</i> for his Eureka The Butcher project, promises much and is out soon). A teasing jaunt retreats for an unexpectedly affecting bridge that departs as abruptly as it emerged before Teri’s playful reprimands resurface over that beat reminiscent of Marilyn Manson’s Beautiful People and PJ Harvey’s <i>Uh Huh Her</i> at once. Elsewhere, there’s the sense that we’re peering behind intensely private veils.
Marcel characterises the albums flitting between states, playful and oppressive, elated and threatening: embodied in a single song. It also marks an entrance into the album, after two difficult pieces (Robert, Kena) characterised by frost and distance, unexpected perhaps after the gambol of opener Isaac. Merit in particular, a song split in V-shaped halves by lullabies at either end and a driving midsection of sombre, insistent drums and pleading vocals from Teri. I just can’t enjoy the mournful defeat that Robert offers or the maddening spirals of Rojo, which tower like some carnivalesque despotic inaugural fanfare. Something, somewhere, remains out of sight. Maybe enjoyment is the wrong card – there’s a confessional, confrontational tone to much of this music that affords only an excluded insight.
<i>Azul, Mis Dientes</i> can be seen amidst ORL records <i>Tychozorente</i> and <i>Octopus Kool Aid </i>as one of his first forays into electronic music. While guitars appear here, they’re reduced and measured, used as base notes stretched, bare riffs played nakedly. Decaying synths and reverb-lapped static are used to affect tension, positioned at the margins: dark clouds of feral, digitised mist blowing gales across the channels.
Album closer Hilo Por Hilo is a richly deserved unwinding, and may come from an entirely different session altogether. Seemingly spun from looped sample, ukulele and atmospheric field recording, Teri and Omar duet a lulled meditation, open eyed, aware, peace-inducing, transportative in its simple beauty – like steam rising on a cold morning, deep breaths and calm. It’s a fine closing piece, redemptive in the context of the stark realities that have preceded it.