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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.

This record is as esteemed by Omar as it is by Cedric, as the liner notes attest. These comments exemplify a profound self-awareness of their own ridiculous pomposity (not unlike The Mars Volta): To soothe the symptoms of a cursed go-between, this magnetar of a record (an uncomfortable meditation on bad manners) was recorded in the foul summer of 2006. It then sat in my grotesquely overpopulated roman holiday of a closet, awaiting its vocal tracks, which were finally realized in the illustrious Australian summer of 2008. Being predisposed to insults, I would like to say now that I love this record with all my guts and find it very much worth the wait (I hope you’ll agree, though I sense some of you may not). This project, as many before it, though one small step in my (our) personal therapy, still bears the question: is our footing sure enough to be trusted?

I do love Cryptomnesia with most of my guts, but I definitely have to be in a certain kind of mood to listen it. For the most part it’s a smoothly flowing, multi-layered piece, anchored by scorching beats* and some of the best lyrics CBZ has ever penned. However, it’s also peppered throughout with jarring vocal effects and film dialog samples that distract from rather than enhance the songs. Omar’s cinematic influence is clearly evident; he’s written, produced, and directed a few films himself. In fact, he’s recently done a horror flick, and his first solo release was the soundtrack to the never-released A Manual Dexterity. He obviously has a lot of love and respect for the medium, but I just don’t understand why so much of it is crammed in here.

Normally, I’m all about recurring motifs used across the ORL album experience, and I’m by no means dissing the use of effects, samples, or vocal distortion. It’s just that here, they feel tacked on rather than a creating a cohesive elemental blend. It’s frustrating, because he’s previously incorporated dialog into songs with much better effect. Old Money’s “I Like the Rockefellers’ First Two Albums, But After That…” fuses the dialog to the song with distortion, in effect serving as replacement lyrics, so it’s much less conspicuous than the samples used on this record.

From the beginning, there’s a pause, the static of a needle placed on a record…and then some weird, raspberryish blurbles that make me scowl “That’s just a noise!” As a one off, I might overlook it, but it follows into the next track, and nearly every song barring the last three have moments that make me wonder “Why is that sound there?”

That in and of itself wouldn’t chafe too badly, but the presence of my least favourite kind of ORL vocal effect, the “helium balloon voice”, is another irritant. But most vexing of all are the snippets of dialog that appear to have nothing to do with anything. Title track “Cryptomnesia” begins with 54 torturous seconds of a pointless go-nowhere story, interspersed with what can only be described as erotic laughter. It’s a real shame, because the rest of the song is a deliciously dense wall of glorious sound.

I’m making it seem like I only tolerate this album, when in fact I do love it immensely; in total, the irritating moments make up only a couple minutes of play, and I endure the itchiness because everything else is sublime. The heavy sound referenced by CBZ manifests itself via rich, dark basslines skulking behind supercharged drums, with guitar acting as a supplementary glue.

“Shake Is for 8th Graders” is a prime example of the itchy-sublime dichotomy. The dialog sample it opens with rudely interrupts a mere 30 seconds later. However, I’m enamoured with the batshittery of the lyrics:

Beneath you drips my type
I’ll keep tabs on her wardrobe
Especially if the negligent negligee
Slips ever so gently
Off the slip of her ass

CBZ swaps between a bratty staccato akin to his At the Drive-In vocals, which mimic the intensity of the beat, and stretchy, elongated vowels. But then we’re given the helium balloon treatment for the outro. It’s a vexing stew – damn tasty, but still hard to swallow.

“They’re Coming to Get You, Barbara” frustrates with whispered non-lyrics over what I am assured by Steve is a microKORG arpeggiated preset, but the beat is simply glorious, so I usually manage to overcome my annoyance. “Noir”’s soft, hushed intro lulls you into a false sense of quiet before crashing into a near cacophony of cymbals and peals of Old Money-esque guitar. Sometimes, it’s exactly what I’m in the mood for, but others it’s a load of bloody racket, and the dialog at the end never ceases to baffle and irritate me.

The last three songs more than compensate for all of this. They’re more like movements of a whole piece, an extended intro to the chaotic frenzy that is “Warren Oates”, the album’s greatest track.

Reading YouTube comments is nearly always a terrible idea, but when it comes to ORL there’s always something bizarrely apt. Of course, you do have to sift through the obligatory waffle regarding the use of psychedelics to further enhance the tunes, and the inevitable flamewar. A scan through the “Warren Oates” selection brought up two faves: *sings* Mister F says “god it sounds like Omar descended into the centre of the earth and recorded the very sounds of hell itself! it’s the most amazing fucking horrific noise I’ve ever heard.” I’m pretty sure this is a compliment, although Bearded Hoplite advises “Needs more Warren Oates”. I don’t know why I find this so completely hilarious, but I do. Incidentally, Steve misheard me and thought I’d said “War and Oats”, which is also a perfectly cromulent ORL song title. Further, fellow Volta fan and dear chum Glynnis noted that it could also be referencing War & Oates, the as yet unformed supergroup.

It would make sense for Cryptomnesia to conclude on this excellent note, however sense is totally beside the point. The listener may always be on the periphery of the ORL musical vision, but the outro track “Fuck Your Mouth” (very bad manners indeed, Omar!) is a playful thank you spoken over the strains of circus-like music:

“…and that concludes the festivities for the evening. I want to thank each and every one of you, the haters, the lovers, the doers, the shakers, the movers, the flaunters; and, of course, anybody who is still listening at this point who bought it, stole it, or otherwise. Thank you for enjoying these canciónes of mine, and I guess I’ll see you next time.”

To which I reply: you’re most welcome, and I really hope the next time I see you is very soon with The Mars Volta.

*I imagine that at the conclusion of each song, Zach Hill collapsed in a heap like the First Church of Springfield organist after playing “In the Garden of Eden” by “I. Ron Butterfly”.

Track listing:
Tuberculoids
Half Kleptos
Cryptomnesia
They’re Coming to Get You, Barbara
Puny Humans
Shake Is for 8th Graders
Noir
Paper Cunts
Elderly Pair Beaten with Hammer
Warren Oates
Fuck Your Mouth

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