I am making a concerted effort to both seek and recognise joy, in whatever form it takes, as often as possible. As such, I am recognising the shit out of the sheer unmitigated joy experienced at the Mars Volta’s Troxy show and the ripples of yay that still emanate. Friends, it was everything I’d been hoping for and delivered a metric tonne-sized consignment of rock. Prior to the event, I had been positive I’d become overwhelmed with weepiness but that proved impossible, because I was too busy grinning from ear to ear in a sea of equally ecstatic fans. As with the North American tour, half the setlist consisted of tracks from De-loused in the Comatorium, with three from Frances the Mute. “Cygnus…Vismund Cygnus”* featured the kind of gloriously extended / taffy-stretched middle-considerably-more-than-eight, I’d been dreaming to hear, which managed to be both soothingly familiar and totally fresh; totally worth the wait.

Since then, I’ve been looking to replicate that shivery joy via my favourite ORL solo records and gas on accordingly. El Bien y Mal Nos Une consists of tracks reworked from Un Escorpión Perfumado, apart from “Agua Dulce de Pulpo” (presumably because that song has already been revisited numerous times), along with a few new songs. Like Escorpión, ORL is supported by Marcel Rodríguez-López on synths and with him as always often, Deantoni Parks on drums, but with the extra added bonus of Teri Gender Bender providing backing vocals and 100% RDA of the stated shivery joy I seek. 

El Bien y Mal Nos Une is a severe tonal shift away from the claustrophobic angst of  Escorpión and its heavily manipulated vocals and dense synthy rhythms. “Va Voz” perhaps best exemplifies this difference with the addition of TGB’s Arnold-esque sweetness and light behind breathless lyrics and joyful carnival-esque notes. The rebooted tracks do keep the original dark and haunted lyrics, but their energy has shifted towards the ethereal.

The Quietus agrees this record is dope, but in terms I do not recognise at all, calling it variously “sinister…altogether darker [than Escorpion]…ruthless…arrives like a nuclear strike…abetting a restlessness and dread that abounds throughout the record…punishes with implied violence.” Reading this review was like someone describing a dress constructed with a velvet bodice and tulle skirts using adjectives for tweed and leather. 

Still, we all contain multitudes, and what I perceive as blue may actually be orange to everyone else, yadda yadda. Musically, El Bien is flawless, and my only notes relate to my post-Covid reaction to the cover. When this was released in 2016, I was vaguely aware that it was common to wear masks on public transport in southeast Asia, but now all I can think when I look at the cover is ‘pull it up over your face, dude, you may as well be wearing a chin diaper!’ Though a bit unsettling, it’s fairly benign compared to many other ORL album covers. 

As much as I disagree with the textual description, I can’t entirely dismiss the Quietus’s review. As with the songs from Escorpión, lyrics on the new songs are drenched in spiteful bitterness. “Violencia Cotidiana” juxtaposes layers of scratchy percussion and airy vocals with hopeful backup vocals that belie their cruelty: eres un talento mediocre que está envejeciendo (you’re a mediocre talent that’s getting old) and sigues pretendiendo que tienes valor / pero en el fondo sabes que no eres nada (you keep pretending you have value / but deep down you know you’re nothing). To whom the “Everyday Violence” is being deployed could be the you being slandered or the accusatory I. I’m not sure if this would hit me with English lyrics the way the Spanish does, but it’s just so damn sparkly I can’t help but love it.

I will grant that “Un Acto De Fe” opens with a slightly menacing half-gasp, half-growl, but it segues neatly into strong vocals and indie-style guitar rolling in harmony with some unusual poetic images. The almost insect-like hissy interlude of “Humor Sufi” (previously “Estrangular el Extranjero”) can be viewed as sinister when taken outside the context, but overall, there’s much more space and light present on the album, such as “Va Voz”, a short track giving a real focus on Teri so that it’s probably better described as a duet. “Amor Frio” (“Incesto O Pasión?”) is another example where Teri’s influence adds a whole new weird angle.

But for the most part, El Bien is the yang to Escorpión’s yin. “Yo Soy La Destrucción” has combined “Mensaje Imputente” and “El Diablo y la Tierra”, the epic centrepiece of Escorpión and transformed it from the opaque paranoia of a thickly carpeted confessional room into a grand, high-ceilinged chamber. That it manages to do so at half the time typifies the soul of this reimagining.   

The energy of “Acuérdate” has refocused from the heartbroken angst of “Que Dice Pessoa?” to something more introspective. It’s several minutes shorter and yet allows time for decompression; it helps that the squelch-o-matic 2000 has been turned down just a scooch without compromising the very evident influence of Eureka the Butcher. There are some minor tweaks to the original lyrics, and although the pathos is broadly the same, it’s more hopeful than the panicked anguish of the earlier version. As is often the convention with reworked tracks, the new title (“Remember”) is present across the lyrics, and the final line tratar hoy de acordarse de mi is expressed without the desperation conveyed previously. I suspect my perception is influenced in no small part by Teri Gender Bender bringing her sweet vocal game to the chorus, injecting some air into the density of the original.

The colour blue frequently features in Teri’s lyrics, such as its use as a metaphor for sickness on the Bosnian Rainbows self-titled album. On El Bien, “Perdido” references dientes azulados y molidos – a theme also seen on Azul, Mis Dientes (an album featuring her as lead vocalist and presumably lyricist). This is another track I’d argue is more of a duet, trading sulky sultriness across stretched syllables. The playfulness extends into an unexpected piano interlude that’s like a spot of dappled sunlight filtering through a leafy copse.

In many ways, El Bien y Mal Nos Une is an album charged as much by its pauses and reflections than the slick production and glossy twist on a fuzzy favourite. This is evident on “Planetas Sin Sol”, the spacy and distant coda to “Yo Soy La Destrucción” that flows thematically into “Estrella Caida”, my favourite kind of outro, which serves as a microcosm of the whole album in less than two minutes. 

And in all honesty, I think I enjoy the album even more knowing my perception differs so greatly from another viewpoint; diff’rent strokes for diff’rent folks, etc. I maintain this album is joyous and summery, and I’ll die on a hill for that semi-spicy take.

* I maintain that all I am is contained within the lyrics of “Cygnus…Vismund Cygnus”, and even though I can totally appreciate how deluded and pretentious that sounds, I’m standing by it because it’s also 100% true. Further, the closest I ever will get to believing in any kind of deity is when I hear that song live. Some hyperbole is also true!

Track listing:
Violencia Cotidiana
Un Acto De Fe
Amor Frio
Humor Sufi
Va Voz
Yo Soy La Destrucción
Planetas Sin Sol
Estrella Caida