To call Omar Rodriguez Lopez’s musical output prolific – both as a solo artist and as a founding member of bands like At the Drive-In and the Mars Volta – might very well be an understatement; few if any guitarists can lay claim to having made appearances on more than two dozen recording projects in the past ten years, much less those with the astounding technical ability of Rodriguez Lopez. To some, the Puerto Rico native’s highly cerebral blend of avant-garde prog-rock and improvised psychedelia is nothing short of genius. To others, Lopez’s consistent urge to commit every little bit of guitar skronk to tape and release it on an album – five separate records planned for 2009 alone – smacks of self-indulgence.
Admittedly, much of Rodriguez Lopez’s solo output has sounded uncannily similar to his day job with the Mars Volta: ear-splitting dissonances, interminable passages of brooding ambience, and startling blasts of furious guitar riffage. It’s no wonder then, that there was little hype in the build up to the release of his newest (and also 12th) record, Xenophanes (so named for the great Greek philosopher and social critic). After all, why should we expect this concept album about life, death, and re-birth to distinguish itself from the other myriad releases the man has put out since 2004?
If you’ve devotedly followed this 21st century guitar virtuoso up to this point, then your patience is to be rewarded; Xenophanes might be the most concise statement Rodriguez Lopez has ever made (11 tracks in 45 minutes), and its tidiness is evident from the (mostly) taut song structures, urgent pacing, shortened solos, and singable melodies. That’s right, melodies. And for the first time, they’re sung in a sultry Spanish tongue by Rodriguez Lopez himself.
On album opener “Azoemia,” things feel deceptively trite: a couple minutes of instrumental noodling that include abrasive synth drones, heavy breathing, and the fragments of a melody that sound as if they’re being played on steel drums run over by a Mack truck. After the tentative feedback bursts and drones have subsided, the explosive guitar bombast of “Mundo de Ciegos” is bound to catch those listeners unfamiliar with Mars Volta-style catharsis off their guard. Quickly, Juan Alderete de la Peña (bass) and Thomas Pridgen (drums) set up a vicious groove that is so disjunct and erratic, it’s hard to tell that we’re still in 4/4 time. Less freakish and theatrical than his Mars Volta counterpart, Rodriguez Lopez’s voice blends surprisingly well with the track’s jazzy piano riffs and Ximena Sariñana’s supporting vocals. Throw in the catchy chorus melody and a scorching guitar solo, and you’ve got yourself a formidable single.
“Ojo al Cristo de Plata” stands out as being one of the album’s most uncharacteristically mellow tunes. Featuring sustained harmonies, layers of texture, and a simplistic drumbeat that keeps things at an unnervingly slow pace, the sudden eruption into RHCP-esque psychedelic funk at the halfway point feels like a needed release. Our guitar hero does some dances around the fretboard, showing off his trademark acerbic tonal quality and dissonant melodies. Only the unwarranted (and thankfully brief) presence of some Darth Vader vocal noises tampers with the song’s momentum.
Other album highlights include the space rock of “Desarraigo,” the strobe light rhythms of “Perder el Arte de la Razón Sin Mover un Sólo Dedo,” and Marcel Rodriguez-Lopez’s (Omar’s little bro) commanding keyboard work on “Asco Que Conmueve los Puntos Erógenos.” “Desarraigo” shows the band in the throes of psychedelia, with vocals processed through a phaser, guitar chords darting back and forth across the stereo mix, and some intense perfect 5th harmonies in the bass that give the low end some added heft. Much like “Ojo al Cristo de Plata,” the song does a U-turn at the midway point, this time into a scathing 7/8 jam.
A few of the song titles may be pure prog rock goofiness – English translations include “Bleeding From Behind the Eyes” and “Sickness Moving the Erogenous Areas” – but Xenophanes still finds Omar Rodriguez Lopez at his most accessible. Get a taste before he returns to the Mars Volta and writes a companion piece for “Day of the Baphomets.”