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.

By now I’m more than accustomed to hearing Omar’s dulcet tenor on his solo work, but when Un Escorpión Perfumado was released in 2010, it was enough of a novelty to be commented on. It’s not strictly the first album he provided vocals for; on Xenophanes, he’s accompanied by Ximena Sariñana, and he also appears on Tychozorente, although his vocal contribution there is spoken word rather than singing.

It’s revealing to go back to read contemporary reviews that comment on this novelty; Sputnik Music noted “As surprising as it is to hear Omar sing on this album, he isn’t well-developed as a vocalist and that’s because he has not had much practice. To make up for this, he uses an immense amount of vocal effects to make them a bit more interesting, which works in some moments. This album may in fact be Omar’s stepping stone into developing his singing abilities. This fits with my speculation that the reason mid-era ORL vocals are so blanketed with delay and other various effects was that he wasn’t confident in his abilities, but of course this could be complete bollocks.

Vocal fuzziness certainly complements Deantoni Parks’ solidly dense drumming that is the chewy, central core of Un Escorpión Perfumado. It’s prominent but doesn’t overcrowd the space, leaving plenty of room for alternately tinkly and squelchy synths, with crunchy guitar merrily slashing through the mix rather than being present as big ORL solos. This relative compactness was also a bit of a novelty compared to early era albums, which tended towards lengthy, improvisational jams that were often later rearranged as Mars Volta songs. With the benefit of hindsight, I can see where Un Escorpión Perfumado marked a little structural side-shuffle towards psychedelic pop, like Umbrella Mistress.

The instruments blend and support Omar’s softly thickened vocals, the beat matching juddery synth, synth marching alongside stabby guitar, vocals pitched to match guitar riffs. As usual, I would argue that any given ORL album should be enjoyed in full, and cherry-picking tracks doesn’t benefit the holistic album experience. This is perhaps most evident on the penultimate tracks, “Mensaje Imputente” and “El Diablo Y La Tierra”, which form two unequal halves of what is essentially the same song and can’t rightly be separated. I continue to bemoan my lack of dedication to learning Spanish, both as a distracted teenager drifting in and out of Hermana Carmen-Marie’s lessons and as a Duolingo failure of an adult, because relying on machine translations clearly robs me of the poetry and nuance of the lyrics, which dance around lofty self-aggrandisement and self-pity:

Yo soy el gran hijo (I am the great son)
De aquel que llaman El Señor (Of the one they call the Lord)
No olvides mi nombre (Don’t forget my name)
Yo soy la destrucción (I am destruction)

Instead of linking to the whole thing, I’ve chosen the two songs below that don’t suffer too greatly from extraction from the whole, as neither blends into a previous or subsequent track. “Que Dice Pessoa?” is punctuated with squelchy, proto Eureka The Butcher synths that swirl around a soft, yearning chorus of someone on the outside looking in:

Si alma se olvida al hijo (If the soul forgets the son)
Que sea lo que ella incurrió (Let it be what she incurred)
Que sepa tomar el trauma (Who knows how to take the trauma)
O de acordase de mi (Or to remember)
Tratar hoy de acordase de mi (Try to remember me today)

It’s probably the spaciest song featured, given seven minutes to expand, slow down, and immediately drop back into feverish intensity that genuinely makes me all weepy and verklempt. I interpret it as a song about wanting to be loved and remembered, but being mostly certain that the frailty of memory will cause the soul to fade away.

According to a YouTube comment, the room in this video for “Agua Dulce de Pulpo” looks like one from the ORL-directed film The Sentimental Engine Slayer (which, like Un Escorpión Perfumado, was released in 2010). The Sonny Kay-penned film synopsis notes a ‘neo-incestuous relationship’, which also links the song “Incesto O Pasión?” to this project, and I suspect the video may have been recorded during this time. It reflects both the claustrophobic beats at the heart of the piece (and album as a whole) and alludes to the cover art’s drum and abstract flames. Omar’s mostly unblinking stare as the camera flickers from him to Deantoni to Marcel without allowing us to see much of their faces at once is deeply unsettling but perfectly matched to the music.

That barfingly objectifying cover notwithstanding, Un Escorpión Perfumado’s magic of three musicians is as beautiful and sonically layered as a Mars Volta record with double the personnel. Lyrics that frequently reference destruction, god, souls, rotting, love, and pain are blissfully filtered through just the right amount of distortion for an era when vocal effects varied from intense to incomprehensible. I’m keenly aware of what I’m missing lyrically, but the near-visceral intensity of emotion is more than apparent. Its deep veined sadness struggling through resigned anger speaks to me on a profoundly intimate level, and happily I’ve got not only this album but the equally powerful alternate versions to enjoy.

*Predictably, this has become that much more involved, since he just released a triple-LP, The Clouds Hill Tapes Vol 1-3, which consists almost entirely of rearranged versions of songs from the Ipecac Recordings albums of 2016-17. At least the song titles haven’t changed!

Track listing:
Estrangular El Extranjero (Strangle the Alien)
Que Dice Pessoa? (What Does Pessoa Say?)
Agua Dulce de Pulpo (Octopus Sweet Water)
Incesto O Pasión? (Incest or Passion?)
Mensaje Imputente (Impudent Message)
El Diablo Y La Tierra (The Devil and the Earth)