18
Jul 22

Omargeddon #30: Zapopan

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Friends, so far 2022 has been exactly as lousy as it is brilliant, both on a personal and a global scale. And while I do feel somewhat obligated to keep well-informed about current events, they’re far too packed with the constant rollback of basic human rights, mass murders and abuses of power so flagrant they’d be shit-canned from the grimmest of dystopian plots for stretching suspension of disbelief way beyond all reasonable limitations. I end up reading the news in a really half-assed way, usually by scanning the first sentence of an article and then almost immediately closing it while thinking NOPE NOPE NOPE NOPE time to check the weather forecast I already know is predicted to be clement. Sometimes, just reading the headlines alone brings enough horror, and I end up unwillingly filling in the blanks myself. It’s a bit like I’m trapped in that old Kids in the Hall sketch that had no beginning or end, just a middle. Although I had to specify ‘old’ because there is a new season of KITH, and it’s actually quite good, so things aren’t entirely terrible, right? 

If I’m really honest, for me this year’s saving grace has been “Blacklight Shine” and “Graveyard Love’‘, the first new Mars Volta songs in a decade. Hooray for me! There is a current tour (yay) but only in the US (boo), however rest assured I am already making Cunning Plans should there eventually be a UK tour (fingers crossed forever yay!) soon enough (that’s not soon enough!) Both singles are very short, with longer videos gorgeously shot in black and white that hint at a larger concept yet to be revealed.

Naturally, I’ve listened to both dozens of times in the last few weeks, which led me to return to Zapopan and my years-long obsession with this particular roster of frequently re-recorded Omar Rodríguez-López songs. As most of the tracks feature first on the vexingly mixed Unicorn Skeleton Mask, Zapopan is very nearly the remake I crave. Except it isn’t entirely – in addition to USM do-overs, it also remakes material from Saber, Querer, Osar y Callar (and by extension The Ramrod Tapes). In all honesty, I would prefer a total re-recording, as with Nom de Guerre Cabal’s take on ¿Sólo Extraño?; however, as frequently as ORL giveth, he also withholdeth.

The good news is that the vocals are now as fresh and crisp as starched linen. The bad news is that the first three songs are “Happiness” pointlessly split across three tracks, with a repeated fadeout on the chorus. The Quietus observes that they…cut across any kind of stability, the track fading into static every time a chorus appears; until the last cut lets the track play out. Knowing the original track from USM and seeing it cut and faded here begs the question: why? The chorus lyrics speak directly of a ‘happiness’ which until the third movement is forever out of reach – it’s a design that arguably detracts from the song and I would recommend returning to the USM original.” 

I lift this quote wholesale because I think it’s a pretty solid take and agree that this treatment is indeed frustrating and unfortunately does spoil my enjoyment. 

Having said that, I immediately disagree with a good deal of the rest of that review, in particular the argument that “…the cleaner vocal take on these tracks also does the original a disservice: There was a sadistic humour to Omar’s muffled delivery on the earlier version that is made more literal, forever bleaker, with the clarity afforded to it here.” I find that the sting of the lyrics is lost on USM because if you can’t understand what fuck he’s singing, the words kinda lose their bite, no? While isolating each verse is a clever technique that emphasises the sheer vitriol, I find it too jarring to appreciate. The addition of ambient noises to each fade-out contributes to the overall lack of cohesion. 

Happily (sorry), the rest of the album is near to perfection. “What’s Left in You” ties with the Corazones version of “Sea Is Rising” as my favourite (in second place is the instrumental version from The Ramrod Tapes). It’s the softest track, stripped of the sneering cruelty present elsewhere. Instead, it relies on a beautifully relatable metaphor as a snapshot of the paralysis felt when it’s over but no one wants to make the first move. Most songs don’t work well as poetry, but this piece belies that axiom, and the backing vocals add depth and poignancy, as well as providing a glimpse into the silent other / subject of accusation.

“Spell Broken Hearts” opens with “Smile your way through teeth serrated”, the sibilant sarcasm snarled with a smug hiss. Every bitterly enunciated syllable drips with betrayal at the loss of love’s magic. It’s not entirely fair to class this angry mourning as coded male entitlement, but it’s hard not to imagine this kind of fury festering into a violent turn. The immaturity of the argument can’t be logicked away: this used to be magical, this used to be perfect, why did this change, why did YOU change? The music almost seems tertiary to this fury, the beat possibly mirroring the tachycardia experienced during a huge row, and ORL’s piercing wail is pretty difficult to hear. But despite this, or maybe even because of it, it’s a song that has powerful emotional resonance, even if I’m not quite sure exactly why, since I find it so problematic. It’s probably because even though I adore ostentatious solos and weird, trippy interludes, this album just gets on with rocking, and does it quite capably, albeit angrily.

The sometimes iffy content of the lyrics can be contextualised with vocals just as powerful as an instrument. As much as I love classic ORL shred, I don’t think it’s needed here, especially when strong emotions lead. “If It Was a Snake It Would Have Bit You” advises “Given the time you will do everything wrong / Turn around and see you’ve been cursed by me”, a taunt that plays into the classic “it’s not you, it’s me” game. “Hollow Change” and “Archangel” are both taken from Saber, Querer, Osar y Callar, and lyrically fit in with the themes here. They’re both re-arranged from the bleepier version, with its fuzzy mix and delayed vocals. Some of the pettiest lyrics are from these songs (ugh) (“I gave up everything I had / still she looks away / she says the changes make me look hollow / pathetic lonely slave and hollow”). I find it somewhat telling that these often petulant songs don’t have a female backup/counterpart and do involve a lot of repetition, like a one-sided argument going around in loops.

The intro for/to “Harboring a Sadist” hammers a beat that mimics the tedious repetition of endless rows, nudging boundaries near breaking point. This version is far superior to “Careful Me”, which I find unbearable. Given a cleaner mix, it’s easier to process and appreciate Deantoni Parks’ excellent drumming and actually hear the lyrics. The original version was too badly mixed to even register the synth parts, and now they’re much more audible (and I even think I can distinguish hints of Octopus Kool Aid). The incongruity of these relatively gentle vocals magnifies the actual cruelty of the lyrics, and although I’m not sure whether the sadist in question is the object of the song or the narrator, I don’t think it matters when wading through the weeds of years-long held resentment.

There is no version of “Tentáculos De Fé” I don’t love, and I honestly can’t pick a favourite. Fitting for this aggressive album, this version is pretty traditional blues-informed rock with some trippiness added via distorted background chatter. 

Within the context of Un Escorpión Perfumado, the lyrics felt more abstract; now I’m getting more of a scorned lover vibe befitting the album’s theme. The addition of another anguished wail needs no translation. 

Zapopan concludes with “Random Bouts of Shadows” (conversely the first track on USM), quite possibly the most lyrically self-aware song when contextualised within the overall ‘burn it all to dust’ theme. Contrasting with the opening lyrics swathed in confused self pity (“she doesn’t love me anymore / she doesn’t think I’m capable of trust”), it openly acknowledges and welcomes the wallow in post-relationship depression (“won’t you give way to shameless bouts of sorrow?”). 

Switching between passive and domineering vocal styles effectively mimics the kind of emotional rollercoaster of pain felt during and in the aftermath of a breakup, regardless of whether it was acrimonious or on relatively good terms. Somewhat tangentially, I’m reminded of Neil Tennant on “Rent”, whose lyrics read somewhat dispassionately but are delivered with a faux-sweetness that amplifies deep-rooted cynicism. I find this motif just as effective as flatly delivering emotional bombs, which Neil also excels at.

It’s probably best to consider Zapopan on its own merits as a brilliant non-amicable separation soundtrack rather than as a remake of USM. I will drain the chalice of this kind of delicious misery elixir, while continuing to maintain the great cultural and personal importance of a break-up record. White Blood Cells soundtracked my divorce and kept me sane. I am positive Zapopan’s mixture of sneering savagery and genuine bereavement will be a source of great comfort to many. 

Finally, because I feel obligated due to my ongoing brain problem (I already did!), I’ve updated my USM table accordingly:

USM title

Other version(s) title

From the album

Storm Shadow

Random Bouts of Shadow

Zapopan

Happiness

Reap the Roots/Tandem Happiness/Fielding Souls

Happiness – demo

Ahza

Zapopan


Ramrod Tapes


Infinity Drips

Right of Way

Sanity a Dream

House in the Sand / Life Proves its Worth

Some Need It Lonely

¿Sólo Extraño? / Nom de Guerre Cabal

Sea Is Rising

Sea Is Rising

What’s Left In You

Sea Is Rising – demo

Corazones

Zapopan

Ramrod Tapes

Tennessee

With You If You Give a Damn

Invisible Laziness / Bitter Sunsets


Various

Zen Thrills

¿Sólo Extraño? / Nom de Guerre Cabal

Octopus Kool Aid

Maria Te Canta

If It Was a Snake It Would Have Bit You

Zapopan

Remember

Scream, What Do I Do

Zen Thrills

Names

n/a

n/a

Bored to Burns

Drown It All, No One Will Miss It

Want, Need, Scream In a Dream

The Editor

Common Condescend / Nom de Guerre


Quemamos Lo / Violet Rays Again

Zen Thrills

Weekly Mansions

Weekly Mansions

¿Sólo Extraño? / Nom de Guerre Cabal

¿Sólo Extraño? / Nom de Guerre Cabal

Careful Me

Harboring A Sadist

Zapopan

Track listing:
Reap the Roots
Tandem Happiness
Fielding Souls
What’s Left in You
Spell Broken Hearts
If It Was a Snake It Would Have Bit You
Hollow Change
Archangel
Harboring a Sadist
Tentáculos De Fé
Random Bouts of Shadows

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