Thursday, March 11, 2010

Rodrigo y Gabriela - Rodrigo y Gabriela

Listening to old entries in KEXP's Song of the Day podcast, most of which are good if unexceptional, I came across the name Rodrigo y Gabriela and remembered that they recently had an album that was high on the iTunes downloads chart last year. I hadn't known anything about them other than that. So I downloaded the free song and was floored.

Rodrigo y Gabriela are part of what I think is the most exciting trend in music going forward into the 21st century: the international melting pot of popular music. They are two Mexican guitarists who met in a thrash metal band but left to pursue their own brand of acoustic latin folk rock in Ireland. Sentences like that give me hope for the future of music. Their international breakthrough came from this, their self-titled studio album. I picked it up instead of their most recent effort, 11:11, for a few reasons; I prefer preserving chronology when I can, the YouTube videos of them I found included performances mostly of this album's opener, "Tamacun", and it has two covers that I was extremely curious about - Metallica's "Orion" and Led Zeppelin's "Stairway to Heaven."

Before I get to those covers, we have to talk about the music this duo makes first. NPR's Bob Boilen calls it "heavy metal flamenco." I call it remarkable. The first (and apparently common) reaction I had upon listening: "How are just two people making all this music?" The answer was gleaned from watching those YouTube videos (and I highly recommending looking them up or watching their Tiny Desk Concert on NPR's website.) Rodrigo plays the melodies, picking delicate notes in fast succession on his acoustic guitar, while Gabriela furiously bangs out the rhythm, using her guitar like a weapon. She hits the hardtop like a drum while strumming chords like a banshee. Watching her hand fly around the guitar strings is like witnessing a great mystery in life: how the hell does she bang her fingers percussively while strumming these ridiculously rapid chords?

With their background in metal bands, it's no surprise that music influences their style. "Ixtapa", for example, features a riff right out of Metallica's "One" before floating away on a guest violin appearance. Most of their songs take the heavy metal structure: bouncing energetically back and forth between a steady-driving groove with melody layered on top and interruptive bursts of thrashing chords strummed with fury on both guitars. Typically, there are also drum breaks, although here it's just Rodrigo y Gabriela plunking away rhythmically on their guitars like bongos. They make a compelling argument for the lack of necessity in having a whole band; if you can make all the music with just two guitars, and wow these two can, then why shouldn't you?

So here is an album with just two guitarists playing live, and yet you hear a full rock band. Rodrigo's guitar sings and Gabriela is a one-woman rhythm section. These two incredible musicians have a fuller and richer sound than some whole bands do. The cover of "Stairway" is a re-interpretation of a classic rock landmark into a virtuosic classical guitar composition. There is little strumming, save for the classic introduction to Jimmy Page's solo, which Rodrigo tackles faithfully as Gabriela plays the rest of Led Zeppelin underneath. "Orion" has all the swagger of Metallica when they run with the riff but the beauty of this cover is when Rodrigo gets to fly off into the ethereal skies of Metallica's more plaintive moments. I wouldn't be surprised if I was told there were studio effects filtering Gabriela's rhythm in parts of "Orion" ("Vikingman", for example, has a moment of fuzz and static serving as a break in lieu of a typical strum flourish and "Juan Loco" has a rushing reverse echo heading into its final stretch), but then again I woudn't be surprised if I was told she made all those sounds live.

Watching Rodrigo y Gabriela I get that magical sense that there isn't anything they can't do. It's a feeling that's rare in music not just today but any time. Rodrigo y Gabriela is an incomplete document of their genius; it's not that the record has failings but you just have to see them play to believe them. Their music pulsates with the vibrant energy of life that makes music enjoyable on a fundamental level. They are inspiring and wonderful, and I look forward to exploring their next album and all that comes after it.

See their Tiny Desk Concert at NPR Music here


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