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Apr 22

Omargeddon #29: Xenophanes

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Despite the fact that I haven’t listened to an actual, physical CD in many years, a select few hold an almost talismanic power over me. Unfortunately, after various flat-decantings over the years, my once-alphabetised CD collection has become considerably un-Kondo-ed; after the last one, I realised to my dismay that I cannot currently locate Old Money. This is fine; I’ve bought it from Bandcamp because of the very real possibility that it might randomly vanish off Spotify, but I did a little cry anyway. I hate losing shit, and I wouldn’t have donated it to the chazza, so it must be some-fucking-where, and I really need to know where it is, dammit! 

It also happens to be part of what I consider to be the musical holy trinity of Omar Rodríguez-López albums: Old Money, Cryptomnesia, and Xenophanes. They have a particularly cherished place in my heart because they were the first ORL solo albums I ever heard and marked the beginning of my ongoing love affair with his music. It’s also worth noting that all three were gifts from top-quality human and my partner-in-silliness, Glynnis. 

I’ve been dying to gas on about Xenophanes since I started this project but found myself continually kicking it into the long grass. Like Cryptomnesia, this is another Mars Volta-down-another-pant-leg-of-the-Trousers-of-Time album (even Thomas Pridgen, who was the Mars Volta’s drummer at the time, assumed he was recording for that band). Also like Cryptomnesia, it’s very dense, with layers I’m still parsing through after more than a decade. But I hadn’t realised until fairly recently that it’s also a concept album. And what a concept!

The Wikipedia page quotes an old MySpace (aww) blog:

“A conceptual journey through life, death, and rebirth, the album tells the story of a selfish and judgmental female caseworker who falls in love with a male client, only for him to die soon thereafter. Over the course of eleven subsequent lifetimes, the woman experiences life from every conceivable vantage point as her soul evolves, thereby allowing the maturity and eventual letting-go of her ego, which in turn enables the realization that the man was, and always has been, her father spirit. Suggesting the fractal and holographic nature of both consciousness and physical reality, the concepts embraced on Xenophanes will appear at least vaguely familiar to anyone with experience in the psychedelic and/or shamanic realms, concepts which Xenophanes himself was likely the first to express within the confines of Western philosophy.”

Great three-toed sloth from the Ice Planet Hoth, this is some impressive (and almost certainly self-aware) pomposity. From the weirdly specific eleven lifetimes, to the Electra complex plotline, to the subtle shade-throwing at those inexperienced with the psychedelic and/or shamanic realms, there is a lot to unpack. With the realisation that there was a story to follow, I decided that I needed a proper translation of the lyrics before I could get stuck in. Machine translations are better than nothing, and I do use them to get an idea for basic themes, but increasingly I began to feel like I was doing myself and the music a massive disservice without this accuracy, and this is entirely the reason why Xenophanes wasn’t Omargeddon #2. 

It’s been on heavy rotation of late, and if anything, my deep and abiding devotion has grown exponentially. I’ve now come to accept that I don’t actually require a full translation, because like other ORL concept albums, this isn’t a traditional story with a linear storyline. And if I’m honest, even if I did get a proper translation, the odds of achieving full comprehension are slim to none. In truth, my emotional response has always been the focus of these reviews, but now I have a basic narrative framework to hang it on.

Possibly due to time restrictions, the opening instrumental track “Azoemia” doesn’t feature on the vinyl version, which is a shame. For the most part, Xenophanes is incredibly tight, bar the rare instance of grating vocal effects, and losing this excellent intro is like chopping a prologue from a novel. As slow plinkiness gradually shifts towards a grinding, mechanical whirring, an important motif is established that recurs overtly in “Ojo al Cristo de Plata”, is subtly mixed in throughout the piece, and then reappears to conclude the album. These flourishes aren’t essential, but they do help create borders for this sprawling tale. And I really, really love me a bookended motif.

My tiny nitpicking comb does have to come out for “Ojo al Cristo de Plata” to note the rare but jarring instance of Effects Gone Wild, present as an annoying ‘demon voice’ plonked after said motif. It does nothing but add awkward rather than controlled dissonance to what is otherwise a cracking tune where the slow-fast-slow flow matches the intense emotions evident in the vocals. It probably does fit the concept, but I’ve never been a fan of this particular effect, and it winds up subtracting from the soaring power of the beautiful, dissonant crashing guitar, not to mention distracting from the beat

Having said that, the perfect *chef’s kiss* of blended vocals on “Amanita Virosa” is an elegant shift from the squalling dime-turn of “Ojo”’s outro. A big old serving of ORL shred is almost (just almost) too much, and part of me wishes the effects were totally switched off the vocals to better showcase his lovely pipes, because he truly does shine on every damn song.

I think what makes Xenophanes so remarkable is how the vocals are smoothly blended and swapped over a blaze of frenetic chaos, maybe exemplified best by “Mundo de Ciegos”. ORL sounds clear and confident, and apart from a very subtle delay on Ximena Sariñana’s backup, there aren’t any strong effects in place. Guitar and keyboards dance around each other like maenads, led by Thomas Pridgen in full-on ‘Animal with the Electric Mayhem’ mode. It’s glorious and utterly exhilarating, a perfect microcosm of all I love best about this album. 

“Desarraigo” is the song that made me first appreciate, then fall madly in love with, Ximena Sariñana’s voice. She takes the lead for the bulk of this song, though eventually ORL muscles in and overpowers her lead (perhaps to counter the Selfish Caseworker’s hot take or to be the voice of conscience?) Just like a man, to interrupt a woman’s story! From what I can understand, these lyrics are particularly batshit, including a stanza about being born to castrate her own child and doing so without forgiveness. Big O, little k! I think it’s best heard on headphones, very loudly, just before the point of brain-scrambling, to better appreciate the bouncy, zig-zag stereo sound.

Listening to “Asco Que Conmueve los Puntos Erógenos” is like falling into a fever dream while stoned. Its bwoingy intro is delightfully startling despite being entrenched thematically. It’s like the aural equivalent of seeing someone in extremely effective camouflage step out to reveal themselves. The vocals absolutely kill me, rising above layers of sound and alternating texturally between thick and thin, fast and slow, plinky and pounding, which hearkens back to “Mundo de Ciegos”. I also really appreciate (and weirdly enjoy) the harsh whine of feedback that makes up the outro – nearly twenty seconds that drives up just to the edge of unbearableness before dropping off. I love this so much that there must be a frustrated noise / musique concrète fan somewhere in me, desperate to escape and start sharing her  many opinions.

“Asco Que Conmueve los Puntos Erógenos” also has an ORL-directed video attached, which is like a horror microfilm. I don’t know if the story is about revenge / karma bitching on the Selfish Caseworker, or if it is about an entirely different and unrelated set of people, but it’s pretty gruesome. Kudos to ORLs’ ACTING talent – his creepy chuckle at 3:21 is soul-chilling. 

The final three songs are movements of a larger piece. The story’s denouement is capably introduced in the chorus of “Perder el Arte de la Razón sin Mover un Sólo Dedo”; the lyrics are repeated in the final two movements and at first, the vocals are evenly matched / purely duetted. But as the music progresses, ORL’s resigned vindication overpowers Ximena’s plaintive cries lamenting the lonely daughter / Selfish Caseworker, who will repeatedly cheat and confess secret kisses. It finally concludes with “Azoemia”’s motif, which, like Frances the Mute’s own bookend, makes me want to listen to it all over again, and I (occasionally) have. The two of them have racked up more listens than any other ORL album, but if it weren’t for this project and reading the associated Wikipedia page, I might have gone another decade before realising there was a storyline attached to Xenophanes. And, like with Frances the Mute, it’s tempting (and fun!)  to create my own interpretation of the story based on the known framework. 

Lately I’ve been especially drawn to narratives both with unreliable narrators and (somewhat relatedly) the myth of Pygmalion and Galatea. With this fizzing in the back of my mind, I’ve become aware of how very one-sided this story is. By presenting the caseworker – ostensibly the lead character – as selfish, she’s assumed to be a villain. She’s often drowned out by another voice – i.e., the father spirit –  who can be interpreted as an anti-Pygmalion, one who is disgusted by his own creation. When she does get to lead (speak), she’s often singing about very primal male fears, as in “Desarraigo”. As a result, her story is filtered and diluted, and I am left questioning whose Truth is the least unreliable.

When I mindfully succumb to the Xenophanes experience, I’m convinced that within chaos, a kind of structure can be discovered. There’s lots of muscle-memory joy too; it reminds me of marathon Google chat sessions with Glynnis that spawned dozens of inside jokes that continue cracking me up to this day. And just when I thought it couldn’t get any better, I was floored by the release of Ensayo de un Desaparecido, the 2017 reworking, which only today caused me to stop what I was doing to have a little cry, but in a good way.

Track listing:
Azoemia
Mundo de Ciegos
Ojo al Cristo de Plata
Amanita Virosa
Sangrando Detrás de los Ojos
Desarraigo
Asco Que Conmueve los Puntos Erógenos 
Oremos
Perder el Arte de la Razón sin Mover un Sólo Dedo:
A) Flores de Cizaña
B) Maria Celeste

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