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review of “9 Dead Alive” for The Talkhouse

this review first appeared on THE TALKHOUSE.

Instrumental music occupies a unique niche in my listening habits. While I’m a singer-songwriter who desires and appreciates precision-crafted lyrics, in my down-time I have no remaining appetite to listen to someone else sing words. In fact, when left to my own devices, I hardly listen to music at all, mostly preferring sports talk radio, but that’s another column.

Without lyrics, my mind can stretch out, stop working so damn hard, and relax. I get to experience some of the other, less intellectual, pleasures of music. I hear harmony, rhythm and melody in new ways. I am not a multi-tasker, and am incapable of doing any substantial work if music with vocals is on, but instrumental music can often occupy my anxious mind just enough to actually help me with certain tasks like data entry, dishes, driving, etc.

Likewise, my creative self appreciates limitations. The smaller the set of tools I have at my disposal, the more inspired and inventive I am likely to be. The vastness of the blank page can be paralyzing. But give me a finite number of tracks, a lyric prompt, one instrument, or a looming deadline, and I will likely do my best work.

I first met Rodrigo Sanchez and Gabriela Quintero in the tiny dressing room of the euphoniously named Glasgow haunt, King Tut’s Wah Wah Hut. It was the fall of 2003, and since we were the same age and like-minded guitar nerds, hungry and excited about touring, it was a welcome and sympatico meeting of fellow travelers. Their set slayed, a master class in dynamics and creativity with a limited palette. At the end of the night, I remember a wave goodbye that was accompanied by a nod of understanding and respect: “See you down the road.”

I last saw them a year or so ago at a large theater in the town where I live. I happily noted just how much sound they made with their two acoustic guitars. I also noted, less happily, how the need to fill such a big space had made them exaggerate certain aspects of their show. Moments of shredding and abrupt dynamic changes elicited big reactions from the crowd, and the band encouraged it. How could they not? I would do (and have done) exactly the same. But a part of me felt something sophisticated and detailed had been lost.

As many reviewers have noted, both positively and negatively, Rodrigo y Gabriela have three speeds: fast, very fast and super fast. Initially impressed, I began to tire of this. And, as the show went on, I began to wonder if Rodrigo y Gabriela might ever get tired of this too.

With this in mind, I began listening to their latest album 9 Dead Alive. I’d been sent the press release along with the music, but decided to listen to the album without first reading any of the background information.

9 Dead Alive feels like a reaction to larger sounds, to more commercial collaborations, maybe even to the rigors of the road and the demands of showmanship. However, there’s a big difference between a reaction and a statement, and I wish that 9 Dead Alive felt more like the latter.

On first listen, I was frustrated by the predictability of the music. The songs all follow the same basic dynamic patterns I saw at the live show, and when stretched over an entire album, it became hard to distinguish among tracks. A second and third listening helped me to orient more between them.

The album opens with “The Soundmaker,” a song made of the trademark elements of Rodrigo y Gabriela’s style: a breakneck mish-mash of heavy metal-inspired pentatonic riffs with flamenco flourishes and bursts. First full, then broken down, loud then soft, with a big finish.

Three tracks later, “Sunday Neurosis” makes an impression with an unexpected major chord breaking up a predictable minor key descending line. Later, a touch of organ hovers behind a transition to a series of sound samples musing on God and suffering, virtually the only place on the record where we hear anything but guitars.

Recorded in a natural style and traditional stereo spread, Rodrigo sits on the right, Gabriela on the left, as they do on stage. And they take their usual roles: Rodrigo plays the melodies, Gabriela outlines the rhythms. I have always been more impressed with the complexity of Gabriela’s playing than Rodrigo’s. Perhaps this is because I think I know how to do what he’s doing, and what exactly she’s doing remains a mystery my ears eagerly drink up.

The album ends with “La Salle des Pas Perdus,” notable not just for its baroque-style figured bass head and more equitable distribution of melodic duties, but also for the conversation that precedes and follows it. In a short exchange, Rodrigo insists that there’s time left in the studio session to record one more track. Gabriela and the engineer protest (“It’s too rough,” she says), but eventually accede.  Afterwards, Gabriela seems surprised to have captured a wonderful performance, while Rodrigo is pleased enough to suggest the song as a hidden track.* This conversation, closing out the album, left me feeling unmoored. Intentional or not, it somehow indicates a timidity on Gabriela’s part that I have never experienced in her playing.

At this point, I did consult the press release and to my surprise found that each song was inspired by a historical figure, hence the title. Re-animated figures on the album include 18th century luthier Antonio de Torres Jurado (“The Soundmaker”), psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor  Viktor Frankl (“Sunday Neurosis”), andEleanor of Aquitaine, whose prodigious dining room provides the inspiration for the album’s closing track.

Nowadays, most people listen to music as I did with 9 Dead Alive: absent of context. If they know anything about a song, they might possibly know the artist and recognize the one-inch-square reduction of the album cover. For all the inspiration that Fyodor Dostoyevsky (“The Russian Messenger”) or Harriet Tubman (“Misty Moses”) provided to the artists, will it make any difference to the listener? For Rodrigo y Gabriela’s sake (and maybe their publicist’s too), I worry about this.

But then again, it likely makes no difference at all to a listener if they know where a song came from. One of the joys of instrumental music is the wide latitude to project your own meaning onto the music. However, in the case of Rodrigo y Gabriela, I think there’s something different at work. Most people are comfortable in binaries, and 9 Dead Alive obliges by treading solely in the either/or. Left and right. Fast and slow. Major and minor. Loud and soft. Him and her.

I am someone who is interested in the x and y axis only with the z. You might say binaries bring me down, and on 9 Dead Alive, the limitations that once seemed like springboards to creative expression now feel like closed loops. And thinking back to the beginning of Rodrigo y Gabriela’s career, I can’t help but feel disappointed.

*translation help from Martín Perna and Quiara Alegría Hudes