The easy intro here is some sort of pithy sentence built around the phrase "flamenco death metal." Those three terms, juxtaposed just so, convey in short order both the duo's history as well as the aural styling of their music. Guy/girl duo from Mexico City thrash metal scene pack up and move to Ireland to forge new sound playing acoustic covers of Orion and Stairway to Heaven in local pubs, or when times required, on the streets busking for cash. Self-titled 2006 debut beats out UK heavyweights Arctic Monkeys for #1 status on the charts. Chaos ensues. It's a solid hook for a story, certainly, and those three words capture it somewhat. "Flamenco death metal." It traces the edges of his - Rodrigo Sanchez - lead strum-and-drum work on the traditional Spanish acoustic. It sketches the outline of her - Gabriela Quintero - staccato chord bursts on gut-strung rhythm. You really can get a high-level walk away for the sound from nothing more than that singular phrase. So if that's what you're looking for, it's yours. Rodrigo y Gabriela play flamenco death metal. 11:11 is their fourth studio album, a minor masterpiece of the form. Granted, the form "flamenco death metal" is sort of new in the world, but there you have it. You're free to go if you like.
The first time I heard these guys I was freezing cold and miserable in Wilmington, Delaware. Granted, in my experience, it is always freezing cold and miserable in Wilmington. Nonetheless, so it was when I first opened ears to Rodrigo y Gabriela. It all comes down to Gary Irwin. This will require a bit of back story.
Gary works in the IT department of a major American financial institution. As with most American financial institutions, Gary's employers are based out of Wilmington. Don't let that "First State" bit fool. What makes Delaware special isn't what it has, but what it doesn't. Namely, corporate taxes. Gary himself was based out of South Jersey, which is another kettle of fish altogether, but for the sake of this tale he works in Wilmington. Yours truly, I work for a software company out of the more middlebrow of the middling Midwest. We sell our wares to companies such as those fine financiers of Greater Wilmington.
As these things work out, Gary and I ran into each other sometime in 2007, he the IT guy assigned to put up with the latest round of software consultants cycling through the offices, me one of said cyclers. At this particularly client, our team had a large conference room, around which we all sprawled whilst not flipping through PowerPoint decks or chasing down bug fixes. One day, I'm sitting in my shadowy corner, trying to look inconspicuous lest I get pulled into the "issue tracking" meeting that was brewing across the table. I have in ear buds, head down, brows furrowed to discourage human interaction. Gary, who is also attempting to avoid said developing brouhaha, scuttles around to my side of the table, makes himself known, and when I take out ear pieces asks innocently enough, "Whatcha listening to?" This is where the conversation normally dies.
In the world of corporate marketing you rarely get an indie rocker. Normally my honest answer to Gary's query - "Godspeed." - would be met with a polite "Who is that?" Three sentences into an attempt to explain Constellation Records to someone that listens to Sheryl Crow on purpose and things usually trail off into mumbles and awkward silences. Thus, my expectations were low.
"Uh, Godspeed? A band called Godspeed! You Black..."
"You're listening to Godspeed!?! No way."
Apparently apocalyptic post-rock is equally rare in corporate IT departments. Who knew?
So, that's Gary. And that's how Gary and I started yammering about music in the inevitable bouts of downtime that accompany any major IT initiative. And that's how one day Gary comes sauntering into the conference room of doom lugging a sixteen pound artifact that he swears is an MP3 player, and that I swear to this day was Jurassic, but did in point of fact hold and play MP3s. And so on and so forth, eventually, ad infinitum, along we trundle until Gary asks, "You ever listen to Rodrigo y Gabriela?" Absolutely nothing illegal transpired, double-cross super-promise swear, but somewhere along the way I ended up with Live In Japan loaded onto my much sleeker, much lighter, much more TSA-friendly MP3 player.
There is something refreshing and cathartic about Rodrigo y Gabriela's music. Over the course of the years, one grows accustomed to band after endless shoe-gaze band marching onto the stage and beginning their pre-show ritual of pedal arrangement. Reverbs jacked through stacks of chorus effects, piped through lines of distortions. Digital delays and loop backs. Maybe a tremolo for good measure. Don't get me wrong. I love warped and warbled sounds as much as the next guy, and truth be told I can't play my own guitar without some magical electronic assistance from the pedal gods, but at some point, it becomes noticeable. You wonder when a musician stops playing the guitar and starts playing the boxes at his feet.
Which is not to say that Rodrigo y Gabriela don't use pedals. They do. There's a hint of wah-wah across their live sets and their studio work is certainly worked up. But at its heart, the music these two generate is about a guy, a girl and two oddly shaped wooden boxes strung with wire and catgut. There's a freshness to that.
11:11 is either their third or fourth official studio album, depending on how you treat Foc (2001) and re-Foc (2002.) It kicks off with Hanuman, a track dedicated to Carlos Santana. (Each track on the album is dedicated to the artist that provided the inspiration for that composition.) It walks through intricate fretwork on the main, with both players slapping an upbeat percussion on the instrument bodies. Gabriela adds percussive intricacies with hard strumming behind Rodrigo's masterful plucking and picking. And yes, it sort of reminds the listener of a double-fisted acoustic Santana, minus the distracting yahoos singing poorly up front. Track 2 is Buster Voodoo, a dedication to Hendrix.
The astute reader will notice here a certain unselfconscious earnestness in the dedications that serves as what poker players call a "tell." While these guys are experiencing a modicum of popularity in indie circles on the strength of this album, Rodrigo y Gabriela aren't really "indie rockers." They're not paying tribute to The Pixies or Black Flag. They're not doing ironic covers of Soft Cell. These guys made their name playing straight up flamenco-metal covers of Metallica and Led Zepplin. They cite Megadeth as favorites, and they lovingly call out to Santana and Hendrix as inspirations. This too is refreshing. Santana's a fantastic musician, once you scrape away the cultural barnacles and hyphenated sub-genre identity casting. He deserves some respect (but please, Carlos, do not play the Superbowl).
Track 3, Triveni, opens with a by-now familiar body-played percussive intro, then flows into more furious strum-and-fret, but about a minute and a half in everything settles into a gorgeous plucked piece of melody that then spins out into a frantic finale. The next two tracks, Logos and Santo Domingo, work best as complimentary movements of combined orchestration, the former's electrified whole notes - the first real amplification we've heard - bleeding seamlessly into the latter's staccato bursts of intro rhythm. Santo Domingo leads into Master Maqui, a shared work featuring fusion flamenco duo Strunz & Farah and dedicated to Spanish classical/flamenco legend Paco de Lucia. Suffice to say, we're well down the rabbit hole of traditional Mexican and Spanish folk at this point. It is gorgeous, a landscape of delicate, interwoven nuanced sound.
Savitri and Hora Zero, while excellent by their own lights, fade somewhat beneath the shine of the previous five songs. You might find them blurring together at this point. But whatever let down has occurred is rectified forthwith, as Chac Mool creeps into sight.
Chac Mool is dedicated to Jorge Reyes, a Mexican electronic artist, with clear elements of "mixing" interceding the guitar work. But while the song is dedicated to Reyes, what I hear is Metallica's One filtered through a keener, more beautiful ear. Like Logos, Chac Mool blends seamlessly into the next track, Atman, the most metal song on the record. Here the duo is joined by former Testament axeman Alex Skolnick. Skolnick, when not shredding for foundational thrash metal gods, also plays a little electric jazz, and his contributions here are reminiscent of his work with Trans-Siberian Orchestra, albeit with a bit more of an edge.
The album closer, title track 11:11, is dedicated to Pink Floyd. While there are elements of early Floyd in the hand claps and intro, think more Gilmore and Learning to Fly than Animals-era. Regardless, this is simply a gorgeous song. Everything builds in layers, the sonic waters carrying us along until, utterly unexpected, the last minute introduces a perfect little piano tink. We haven't heard keys the entire album, and they just throw this little thing of beauty at us just as the album fades? Simply amazing.
All told, 11:11 marks a real step forward for the band. Prior to this release, they existed mainly as a curiosity adjacent to the post-metal scene. This album proves that they are more than a novelty act covering AOR standards with their cute little Spanish guitars. The midsection might sound repetitive if you're not interested in investing the listening cycles, or if you're not a fan of unfiltered guitar work for the sake of unfiltered guitar work. But the closing trio - Chac Mool/Atman leading into 11:11 - suggests a truly inventive and as yet untapped potential for "post-rock." Less pedals than usual, perhaps, but in their place a pristine edifice of earnest, virtuoso playing.
I give 11:11 six sponges. It's probably not for everyone, and you don't have to have it at all costs, but if you love traditional guitar music - much less have a little metal in you - you'll relish the sounds. Also, flamenco death metal. How can you not love that?