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18
Aug 19

Omargeddon #10: Despair

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2009 was a prolific year for Omar Rodriguez-Lopez, with a total of six albums released. Cryptomnesia and Xenophanes are comprised of material that was originally intended for the Mars Volta but took a left turn at Albuquerque. Solar Gambling features the magnificent Ximena Sariñana on vocals, as do three of the five songs on the live album Los Sueños de un Hígado. Megaritual is a glorious exercise in trippy jamming, recorded in Amsterdam with longtime Volta member/even longer time brother Marcel.

And then there’s Despair.

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4
Aug 19

Omargeddon #9: Zen Thrills

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There are some musicians whose stage presence is so powerful, it creates a visual tunnel around them, making it nigh on impossible to pay attention to anyone else. Cedric Bixler-Zavala has it with his slinky salsa moves and microphone swinging. Jack White has it with his cryptic un-banter and towering stature. And Teri Gender Bender of Le Butcherettes has it in spades. The combination of her frenetic dancing and piercing stare with the sheer volume of her voice nearly swallows the room regardless of venue size. She’s mesmerising and slightly terrifying. I love her.

I’ve only been to two gigs this year, both of them blinders and both of them Le Butcherettes. I’ve seen them a few times before as opening acts, so I knew to expect fiercely intense performances, and I was not disappointed. Each time I brought friends who hadn’t seen them before and, as I’d hoped, each time left with new fans. The set lists drew from across their four albums, and whilst there has definitely been a progression from raw, garagey rock to a sleeker, tighter sound, the fury and passion has, if anything, been ramped even more. Maybe this is because year on year, there’s so much more to be pissed off about or because the recent shows I’ve attended have been in more intimate venues. Either way, they were exhilaratingly life-affirming.

Teri and Omar Rodriguez-Lopez have been collaborating for several years now; she
provides backup and lead vocals on many of his solo albums, including Zen Thrills. Although three songs revisit previously recorded material, the flavour is very TGB, and I’m guessing she wrote the lyrics, as this seems to be the case for other releases where ORL doesn’t sing. Listened to out of context, you might mistake some of them for Le Butcherettes tunes, and this is a very fine thing indeed.

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31
Mar 19

Omargeddon #8: Umbrella Mistress

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Back in the day, I had a very fixed idea of what an Omar Rodriguez-Lopez album should sound like. I was still in recovery from the rockism that had clouded and limited my horizons since I was a teenager, and often struggled to identify what it was I actually liked. Did I like or dislike something because of my perceptions of its genre, or did I like or dislike it because I felt I should or shouldn’t based on other people’s opinions? I really did waste a lot of fucking brainspace worrying about this kind of thing.

But I empirically knew what I liked from ORL, and what I liked was what I wanted and therefore expected – nay, demanded – to hear: lots of very loud, very crunchy guitar steeped in trippy effects. If there were vocals, they should be at least mildly distorted and preferably sung in Spanish, even more preferably sung by Cedric Bixler-Zavala. When I didn’t get what I wanted/expected/demanded, I didn’t like it as much, as when I bought Omar Rodriguez Lopez & John Frusciante all prepped to have my ears blown off and was rather let down when it turned out not to be the dueling guitars freak-out that I had assumed it would be.

Although you can never tell which genre of ORL record you’re going to get based on the cover artwork (particularly Sonny Kay’s busily detailed digital collages), it’s fun to try and cobble a message out of them. When I look at the Umbrella Mistress cover, it seems to suggest a hushed shh, don’t tell anyone Omar done a pop record! Because this is hella pop, and I wonder what my reaction to it would have been a decade ago. Would I have liked it with qualifiers, justifying it by defining it as indie/psychedelic/folk/country/power pop, not pop pop? Or would I have rolled my eyes and waited a couple months for something else? I’ll never know, and besides, the past is a foreign country populated by idiots. Even if I had initially dismissed it, this project would have changed that, because Umbrella Mistress is pure perfection.

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17
Feb 19

Omargeddon #7: Solar Gambling

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Since I started the Omargeddon project, I’ve been paying less overt attention to new music, both new-to-me and newly released material. In fact, my sole contribution to the FT Readers’ Poll was Janelle Monae’s “Pynk”, totally forgetting about the divine “The Way You Make Me Feel” despite nominating Dirty Computer as my album pick. This year, I’m making a concerted effort to be more aware of new tunes and have started a 2019 playlist to help me keep track. For the most part, I’ll be using Spotify’s Release Radar playlist to facilitate this. I usually listen to it at least once a week, and it’s been the source of several new musical discoveries, even more so than the Discover Weekly playlist. Discover Weekly too often labours under the delusion that I want a mix of metal and weedy indie tracks liberally sprinkled with artists I already know about and thus don’t need to discover. That’s not to say Release Radar doesn’t bring up its dud track – apparently since I nostalgically listened to You’ve Come a Long Way, Baby approximately eighteen months ago, it thinks I need a Fatboy Slim remix every single goddamn week. I do wonder how the algorithm susses out what to give me – did I get “Alpha Centauri” by We Are Impala because it’s given me Tame Impala before or because of the At the Drive-In song of the same name? I also had “Bread & Butter” by Horsey, though my feelings about it tend towards “neigh”.

However, I was super chuffed to get Ximena Sariñana’s new single “Lo Bailado”, a cheery tune that injected much-needed warmth into the playlist. It also reminded me that initially I was a bit hesitant about her vocal input to late noughties/early teens Omar Rodriguez-Lopez albums. With the Mars Volta still extant and producing music, I found it difficult at the time not to wonder how Cedric Bixler-Zavala would have sounded in her place.

Solar Gambling is the first Omar Rodriguez-Lopez solo release with Ximena providing lyrics and vocals. It was one of his six albums released in 2009, and at the time, it wasn’t a particular favourite. I didn’t actively dislike it, streaming it from the Rodriguez Lopez Productions website often enough for me to recognise quite a few of the songs when I began listening to it again more earnestly. Up until around this point in his discography, vocals tended to serve as more of a supporting role, and even with the Mars Volta, the music was written first with CBZ composing lyrics and vocal melodies to fit around it. Solar Gambling reverses this trend, with Ximena’s vocals front and centre to the supporting music.

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12
Jan 19

Omargeddon #6: Corazones

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There’s The Mars Volta and there’s The Mars Volta Group, and it’s important to understand the difference between the two. The Mars Volta is the partnership of Omar Rodriguez-Lopez and Cedric Bixler-Zavala, and The Mars Volta Group is the evolving lineup of musicians who support them in the studio and on tour. Granted, some of these musicians appear with such frequency as to be considered full-time band members, like bassist Juan Alderete, saxophonist Adrian Terrazas-Gonzalez, and percussionist/brother Marcel Rodriguez-Lopez. However, keyboardist Ikey Owens was probably the closest thing TMVG had to a truly permanent member.

He joined the very first iteration via De Facto and remained through 2011, when he left on amicable terms. Even for this constantly changing group – and knowing TMV’s history of restructuring the group by asking musicians to leave or by outright sacking them – Ikey’s departure felt slightly out of the blue. So when he joined Jack White’s touring band, I instantly thought: worlds are colliding, but in a good way! I couldn’t quite believe it wasn’t actually a figment of my fevered imagination. He initially joined The Buzzards, the all-male backing band supporting the Blunderbuss tour, and remained on keyboards for the Lazaretto tour three years later. In October 2014, he died of a heart attack, aged only 39.

Jack White/The Mars Volta worlds collide further on Corazones (“Hearts”). The usual instrumental foundation of guitar/bass/drum/keyboards is present as expected, but I think I can say with some degree of certainty that here is the first time I’ve ever heard harmonica or ukulele on any ORL release. His music has always defied genre via a giant sack o’influences, but here they feel compacted, resulting in an umami-like Jack White flavour sprinkled throughout. It’s very folky, like alt-country that’s sunned itself in the warmth of pop. All of these elements have been evident across his other work, but scattered over larger soundscapes.

It’s also a record haunted by bereavement – Omar has said that the main inspiration for the record was his mother, who was dying of a terminal illness. Knowing this, it makes me associate Corazones with Ikey even more. However it’s not so much an exercise in anguish as it is a celebration of love.

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15
Dec 18

Omargeddon #5: Cryptomnesia

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This is the cover art for the album Cryptomnesia by the artist El Grupo Nuevo de Omar Rodriguez-Lopez. The cover art copyright is believed to belong to the label, Rodriguez Lopez Productions, or the graphic artist(s). (for the picture description as per fair use terms).Most Omar Rodriguez-Lopez albums are released under his name, but there a few variations: El Trío de Omar Rodriguez-Lopez, the Omar Rodriguez-Lopez Quartet, the Omar Rodriguez-Lopez Quintet, and when touring, the Omar Rodriguez-Lopez Group, (though Woman Gives Birth to Tomato! was also released under this name). And then there’s El Grupo Nuevo de Omar Rodriguez-Lopez, the least literal and most tongue-in-cheek of them all.

Omar’s “new group” consisted of himself, Juan Alderete, Zach Hill, Jonathan Hischke, and Cedric Bixler-Zavala. He may just as well have called it “I Can’t Believe It’s Not The Mars Volta!” and in many ways, it’s the Volta album everyone was expecting but didn’t get with “acoustic pop album” Octahedron, released the same year. Cedric admitted it himself, noting “if anyone’s bummed that Octahedron is too simple or too pop, they can buy [this] album and it’ll take them right back to that [heavier] kind of sound. It’s one of my favourite things I’ve ever worked on. It’s pretty much a Mars Volta record, just without Thomas [Pridgen], Ikey [Owens], and Marcel [Rodriguez-Lopez].”

When I listen to Cryptomnesia, which is fairly often, I feel like I’m snuggled in a beloved, decade-old Fair Isle knit jumper covered with intricate, brightly coloured patterns. Unfortunately, it’s also very itchy in places, to the point where I have to rip it off and stash it away for a while. And then I remember how pretty and warm it is, so I eventually come back to it.

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4
Nov 18

Omargeddon #4: Weekly Mansions

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I’ve been stuck in a funk of late. Sadly, not a George Clinton-flavoured funk, but a stank, stuck funk of my own making. My compulsive need to trace the original sources for all the revised riffs, beats, and samples that crop up in later Omar Rodriguez-Lopez projects has proved a lot more difficult than I thought it would be, and I thought it would be fairly difficult. And yet, I deluded myself into thinking it would all fall into place. It is, but at a frustratingly glacial pace, and I’m growing resigned to the fact that my attempt to construct an orderly timeline is a fool’s errand.

This is the album that made me want to track this path in the first place. Released in late 2016 on the Ipecac Recordings label as part of Omar’s 24-album back catalog catch-up, Weekly Mansions feels both soothingly familiar and brand-new. Many of the albums in this series can (sort of) be easily identified as a complete album remixed and reimagined; this feels like a bridge linking the more guitar-driven and distortion-fuzzed earlier releases via a silky thread of instrumental segues and sound manipulation. If this were an aural equivalent to a magic eye poster, I’d gaze into it crosseyed, hoping for an optical illusion of The Mars Volta to appear.

Dubbed “an eclectic exploration of neo-electro-dance”, it’s a totally guitar-free collaboration between Omar and his brother Marcel (aka Eureka The Butcher), which positively heaves with bleepy joy. I would fervently press it into the hands of all my friends, were a physical edition available. Such is my deep and abiding love for it that I rate it as highly as I do Old Money, and I do not say that lightly.

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26
Aug 18

Omargeddon #3: Octopus Kool Aid

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It would be inaccurate to say Octopus Kool Aid passed me by, but by the time I learned of its existence, I was too depressed about The Mars Volta’s breakup and too ready to blame this album for causing it. It’s only been recently that I’ve taken the time to appreciate its impact on Omar’s music.

Octopus Kool Aid features lyrics and vocals by Teri Gender Bender of Le Butcherettes, and working with her on this album reawakened Omar’s appreciation for true collaboration. Somewhere along the line, they formed Bosnian Rainbows. Omar decided to put The Mars Volta on hiatus to focus on recording and touring with his shiny new side project. This royally cheesed off Cedric Bixler-Zavala; the two of them snipped bitchily at one another via social media, which was both unfortunate and deeply awkward. TMV’s hiatus became an official break-up in early 2013, and there didn’t appear to be any going back. Cedric’s subtweet “What am I suppose [sic] to do be some progressive house wife that’s cool with watching their partner go fuck other bands? We owe it 2 fans to tour” makes me cringe-laugh, but it’s clear that he felt betrayed personally and on behalf of Volta fans.

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25
Jul 18

Omargeddon #2: Tychozorente

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Last week at work, while creating the dashboard reports for this month’s round of governance boards, I was struck by the idea of creating an Omar Rodriguez-Lopez music matrix. The upper left quadrant would be jazz/experimental, the upper right rock, the lower left electronic/dance, and the lower right pop. This is by no means an exhaustive list of all ORL genres (salsa is missing, to name but one), but using a simplistic visual to map out albums will help me catalogue them, as well as guide me in selecting what to review next.

If Old Money sits in the uppermost right quadrant, its opposite on the lower left would be Tychozorente. They’re both early doors albums, and near polar opposites. It’s his first solo record with nary a guitar present and is also notable because elements of it appear frequently in his later material. The overall vibe is reminiscent of At The Drive-In dub side project De Facto, with a twist of pop via vocalist/lyricist Ximena Sariñana Rivera. Unfortunately, it’s also a pretty mixed bag. The tracks that work are like sweet psychedelic swirls of cotton candy, but they’re surrounded by clunky spoken word pieces that disturb the flow of the album experience.

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17
Jul 18

Omargeddon #1: Old Money

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Old Money is like a crazy quilt with no immediately discernible pattern upon first inspection. There’s so much happening, it’s impossible to take it on all at once. The riff-squares are stitched together with your typical rhythm section, plus woodwinds, plenty of added effects, and some more unusual rock instruments, such as clavinet, wurlitzer, and theremin. As in much of Omar’s early solo work, however, the guitar is the star. It’s the seminal ORL sound – ORL Original Recipe, if you will.

And you should, because Old Money’s rock-out guitar A swirls tauntingly around guitar B’s wah-wah, creating an ecstatic hurricane of beautiful noise to become swept into. Although it’s not his first solo release, it was the first I ever heard and feels like the most appropropriate place to start, and listening to it feels like coming home for me. It was nearly a follow up to The Mars Volta’s Amputechture and in many ways feels like homework for The Bedlam In Goliath. I’m reminded of those heady days of new fandom, that first flush of obsessive love. Though it would be inaccurate to say that it’s the gold standard by which all other releases are measured, it does serve as a kind of guitar-oriented litmus test, and I sometimes categorise other albums based on how Old Money-esque they sound.

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