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May 21

Omargeddon #20 / #21: ¿Sólo Extraño? / Nom de Guerre Cabal

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Since the beginning of his solo career, song reworkings and rearrangements have appeared frequently across Omar Rodríguez-López’s oeuvre. Samples and sequences recur on most of his electronic music, and many of the spacey instrumentals that featured on his earliest albums eventually became Mars Volta tracks. 

So it wasn’t a surprise that much of the material released in 2016/17 by Ipecac Recordings contained quite a few new interpretations. Nom de Guerre Cabal revisits ¿Sólo Extraño? in its entirety, although the song order has been shuffled around, and three of the songs have added lyrics where their counterparts don’t. As with other albums in this series, the remade songs on NDGC have simplified titles taken from the lyrics, apart from “Common Condescend” / “Nom de Guerre”, where the title is from lyrics from the original song rather than the remake. ¿Sólo Extraño? itself is heavily influenced by Unicorn Skeleton Mask, a record whose influence habitually pops up like a bad penny, if bad pennies actually increased in value the longer they remained in circulation.

The enhanced production quality is the main difference between the two albums. I hadn’t actually heard ¿Sólo Extraño? until I started this project, and to be honest, I couldn’t hear many massive differences at first. Maybe years of cheapass stereos or my solidly mid-range headphones and Spotify habit mean that my ears just aren’t sophisticated enough to truly appreciate the improvements. I’m reminded of 1984’s Winston Smith’s inability to properly enjoy fancy wine because his tastebuds were blasted off from decades of Victory gin and fags rolled from floor-sweepings.

After more active listening and side-by-side comparisons, what is most conspicuous to me is that NDGC sharpened the edges and flattened the thickness from the bass while maintaining the intensity of Deantoni Park’s always brilliant drumming. The vocal mix is a lot crisper, meaning the lyrics are much easier to understand. The exceptions are the three songs that had been instrumentals on Solo, where the vocals are considerably distorted. “Riot Squid” adds buzzy yet intense lyrics to “Horror (Original)”, which I struggle to understand, though I can hear a lot of anguish and pain, and I wonder if masking the lyrics with distortion is a protective device. I really appreciate how the guitar is brought to the front, but in reversal of my previous Winston Smith-ness, I actually feel a bit like T-Rex when comparing them. I don’t think either of these versions is living its best life compared to the long, spacey jam from the live album Dōitashimashite aka どういたしまして aka You’re Welcome (where it’s titled “My Horror Is in Park, Drive Me Away Troubled Heart”). 

The drum track from Unicorn Skeleton Mask’s “Tennessee” is nearly lost among that song’s pitched-up, fuzzy vocals and waspy synths. This isn’t the case for “Invisible Laziness” / “Bitter Sunsets”. I slightly prefer the latter version due to the lovely double-tracked vocals, which are also pitched up but let Omar serve as his own female backing singer. Being able to hear the lyrics is another bonus, particularly the bite of “we might be lucky enough to die for a god who never cared”.

The slightly lumpy bass and Dr Buckles-esque synth-sting of “Machu Picchu” could be a distant cousin to Octopus Kool Aid (an album that of course features elements from Unicorn Skeleton Mask). I prefer “Victims of Power”, which adds pleasingly croaky lyrics; they are mid-level distorted but still recognisable. I continue to love the double tracking that really does add depth and emotion and smoothes the texture while maintaining the seesaw-y undercurrent felt in the original.

I don’t think that “Violet Rays Again” entirely benefits from its added lyrics; however, I am enamoured with “Quemamos Lo”, probably because both are prototypes for “The Editor” from Weekly Mansions. My deep and abiding love for that record cannot be overstated, so it’s no surprise that this and “Common Condescend” are my favourites from Solo. They add messy and complex layers with Deantoni absolutely hulksmashing the beats.

The Quietus praises NDGC by rubbishing Solo, gushing “This is future punk, it’s rock music as cyber warfare, as hallucinatory neuro-work-out. Nom De Guerre Cabal adds so much in instrumentation and design, new vocal renditions and reinterpretations of tracks, from ¿Sólo Extraño?’s meagre sonic space to this incarnation, that it’s hard to understand why that initial record was in any way considered final or releasable. As such, it now acts positioned as a demo record, and a fascinating insight into snapshots of production development. Which is pretty much how I feel about Unicorn Skeleton Mask

But it’s impossible to ignore how deeply entrenched Solo and NDGC are in the Unicorn Skeleton Mask ecosystem. Elements of “Right of Way” appear on “House in the Sand” and therefore “Life Proves Its Worth”, whose lyrics contain the line “it’s better to hang a dead husband than to lose a living lover” (nice). That lyric later turns up as a titular song on Saber, Querer, Osar y Callar, some of which was reworked for Zapopan, which consists of a mixture of songs from that album and Unicorn Skeleton Mask. Finally, the start of “Discursos” / “How Does One Love Go Blind?” features as a tiny blip at the end of “Devouring a Sibling” from Minor Cuts and Scrapes in the Bushes Ahead. It took me forever to trace the origin of this, and when I did, I felt like I’d won the lottery, but then to my chagrin realised the one and only YouTube comment on “Discursos” points this out.

Both albums offer a different experience, marking the transition from early techniques of his electronic music, which tended towards wooliness, and towards a slicker production, given a rockier spin in the remake. Until recently, I preferred to listen to NDGC, partly because the lyrics are easier to understand, but mainly out of laziness because it was easier to stream from Spotify, whereas Solo was only on YouTube and cut up with annoying ads. Happily, it has now been added to Bandcamp with the rest of the pre-2016 back catalogue, which is useful because sometimes, I crave the thickness of Solo’s stew and others the crispy stir-fry of NDGC.

Track listing:

¿Sólo Extraño?

Nom de Guerre Cabal

Salt Lines

Uncovering a Word

Horror (Original)

Riot Squid

Turn for Caring

Healed and Raised by Wounds

Invisible Laziness

Bitter Sunsets

Discursos

How Does One Love Go Blind?

House in the Sand

Life Proves Its Worth

Machu Picchu

Victims of Power

Common Condescend

Nom de Guerre

Quemamos Lo

Violet Rays Again

 

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