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11
Jul 20

Omargeddon #14: Un Escorpión Perfumado

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I recently reread Elena Ferrante’s excellent Neapolitan quartet with the same obsessive passion that consumed me when I read it the first time. It’s a sprawling Bildungsroman packed with evocative characters and slow-burn plotlines that, even on the reread, took priority over all other forms of media I could engage with. But if I didn’t subscribe to the well-known axiom that you shouldn’t judge books by their covers, I doubt I would have chosen them, because of the soft-focussed cheese that graces their covers.

Unfortunately, I didn’t apply this advice to not judging an album by its cover, so I put off listening to Un Escorpión Perfumado (A Perfumed Scorpion) for a very long time. It’s my least favourite ORL cover by digital collage artist Sonny Kay – the scantily draped woman with weirdly cylindrical, gravity-defying knockers makes me both side eye and eye-roll.  But this was a schoolgirl error, because when I did listen to it, the album proved to be both a delicious listen and very important to my ongoing desire to identify every version of every ORL song ever* for the mythical episode of Mastermind that I won’t ever appear on.

I found it particularly satisfying that these seminal versions were immediately apparent to me; usually I’m vainly trying to extract various hooky needles from musical haystacks. “Agua Dulce de Pulpo” (Octopus Sweet Water or possibly Octopus Kool Aid?) has since been reworked twice, first on Saber, Querer, Osar y Callar as “Tentáculos” (Tentacles), and again on Zapopan as “Tentáculos De Fé” (Tentacles of Faith). The remainder  of the songs on the album appear on 2016’s El Bien y Mal Nos Une.

1
Jun 20

Omargeddon #13: Infinity Drips

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Wikipedia has been a blessing and a curse for the Omargeddon project. On the one hand, it’s brilliant for stuff like release dates, personnel and links to interviews. On the other, some of the data is patchy, as when noting and linking previous versions of songs. Plus, not every album has its own dedicated page. But it’s a fairly easy way to find the story of the story of the album, whether that’s dissecting the concept or just detailing inspiration, which is particularly useful for digital releases without liner notes available. So I usually read up on the relevant Wikipedia page before starting a new review, and since I’ve been puzzling over Infinity Drips for a while now, I turned there for some answers. 

Except to my annoyance, I was given sorta answers and further questions confused with half-truths and gorilla dust. Personnel is listed as Teri Gender Bender on vocals and lyrics, with ORL credited with instruments and samples, which isn’t desperately helpful. It’s evident from the first listen that this is a project inspired by Eastern influences, though I wasn’t aware till then that most of the song titles are named after Arabic words for stars. I’d like to know where the samples have been sourced, in addition to the Jerusalem field recordings used in past releases, and which instruments specifically were played by Omar. But probably most personally vexing was reading that “Azha” appears in “Happiness” from Unicorn Skeleton Mask and the first three tracks off Zapopan, thus rendering the table I so confidently constructed for Unicorn Skeleton Mask out of date. 

I find these elements nearly impossible to excavate from the cluttered layers of sound, so I’m not surprised this connection sailed clear over my head. On the first listen, Infinity Drips felt to me like an off-the-cuff piece that was the product of an afternoon working off the effects of a smoothie made from psilocybin mushrooms, absinthe and six whole nutmegs. Two weeks later, Weekly Mansions was released, and for a very long time that was my go-to soundtrack, so I didn’t listen to Infinity Drips again until I started this project. There’s a lot to be confused by but also a fair amount to love, and this is all due to the magically surreal power of Teri Gender Bender. It’s grown on me with repeated listens, and yes, I do love it, in a way. 

11
Apr 20

Omargeddon #12: Unicorn Skeleton Mask

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Despite knowing that attempting to construct a linear timeline for the solo work of Omar Rodriguez-Lopez is a self-confessed fool’s errand, I’m nothing if not stubborn and continue to obsessively trace connections across songs and albums. I’ve now shifted to wanting a Viso-style flowchart or, if I had the artistic ability, something more akin to a series of interlocked family trees.

Unicorn Skeleton Mask is the central trunk that branches out to several other albums. Initially, it totally passed me by, and when I finally did hear it, I felt I’d cracked a cryptic crossword clue. Every song featured here apart from one has been released in a different form on the albums Zapopan, Zen Thrills and Corazones, with elements of some tracks appearing on Some Need it Lonely, ¿Sólo Extraño? (which itself was then reworked as Nom de Guerre Cabal) and Weekly Mansions. I am not confident, but it may also possibly share some elements used in the keysmashy sequences of Octopus Kool Aid. On top of all that, two songs appear in demo form on the Ramrod Tapes. It’s like the textbook definition of a seminal ORL album.

Here’s the above, broken down into a table format: more »

22
Mar 20

Omargeddon #11: Arañas en la Sombra

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I’ve been categorising Omar Rodriguez-Lopez’s solo recordings into three distinct, non-equal eras. Early ORL spans from 2004-2009, mostly consisting of experimental jams that were often reappropriated as Mars Volta songs. The middle period from 2010-2013 has an overall focus on up-front vocals and synths. Finally, the Ipecac Recordings series released in 2016-2017 represents the late era, including a mix of reworked material with a smattering of indie, pop and classical.

But this isn’t strictly true, since he has a tendency to work on records simultaneously, at least two or three at the same time”, meaning records can be released years after they’ve been completed. This is certainly the case with Arañas en la Sombra (“Spiders in the Shadow”), an album featuring the very first Mars Volta line-up and thought by many to be the long-lost Mars Volta album The Somnambulists. This suggests that it was recorded in the early 2000s, and I’m guessing that vocals were added sometime around 2012 due to the presence of Teri Gender Bender, although it wasn’t released until 2016, making it cut across all three eras.

It was instantly familiar to me, and not just because I’d heard several of the tracks in demo form on the Ramrod Tapes. When this tranche of material was leaked in 2013, it felt like the final goodbye from the Mars Volta, and I listened to the shit out of it. It also feels familiar in a brain-itchy way – I’m sure I’ve heard some version of the lyrics to “El Vacio” on another song but can’t identify what it is (and may be totally wrong). But it also feels familiar because it reminds me of De-Loused in the Comatorium, the first Mars Volta album, albeit one recorded down a different pant leg of the Trousers of Time.

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/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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