It is a rare thing that a remix album is worth the time, all things told. And the first thing you need to know about Area 52 is that it's a remix album. There's not a new song on this album. About half of the tracks are rearrangements of tunes from 2009's 11:11. The other half are pulled from 2006's self-titled Rodrigo y Gabriela. As remixes go, these are pleasant enough, but in their extravagance they tend to undermine the duo's entire artistic concept.
The thing that set Rodrigo y Gabriela apart to date was the fact that they were pretty much the only performers in the world that could claim to play flamenco metal. Their bio was so fully intertwined to their sound that it was sort of a zen-state singularity. Struggling musicians are flaming out in the Mexican metal scene, break for Europe, and somewhere in Ireland start playing Zepplin and Metallica covers flamenco style. Six months later, a cult act is born.
There was something entrancing; enthralling; completely and utterly new in the duo's sound. The rough spun syncopation of percussion pulled exclusively from staccato hand-muted strumming and body drumming on the acoustic guitars themselves. The muffled pseudo-bass of Gabriela's gut-strung box in combination with Rodrigo's more traditional steel strung fretwork. It was entirely different. It was, in fact, unique. There was just nothing like it at all. As a critic weaned on the unbreakable habit of hearing every influence in every new band – "oh, that sounds like first gen Orange county punk; is that the latest revival sound?"; "I hear a lot of Archers wannabe in this, but third tier ripoff at best!" - to hear something so fresh and new? There's a lost joy in finding yourself at sea without a map, and for a moment there, Rodrigo y Gabriela provided that like no one else.
But Area 52? It's gone. This is not unique. This is not a dark spot on the map marked only "here they be dragons." It's not bad by any means, but it's not special by any stretch.
Being a remix album, Area 52 takes existing Rodrigo y Gabriela tracks and remixes them with Cuban jazz. Most tracks feature a named guest. Samuel Folmell Alfonso adds salsa oriented drums to Santo Domingo. Anoushka Shankar throws a sitar into the mix for Ixtapa. Le Trio Joubran adds ouds to Master Maqui, but not before someone opens the arrangement with what sounds suspiciously like a friggin' pan flute. Carleto Teresa Polledo Noriega shows up in the last bars of 11:11 to add what must be traditional tribalish vocals to the mix. It's like someone took the record store's World Music selection and threw it into a blender and just hit pulse a few times. And throughout the whole thing, a collaboration of Cuban session musicians calling themselves C.U.B.A. flavor everything with salsa keys and brass highlights.
The only mostly interesting sound here is the near concerto-like piano opening to Logos, and that only lasts four bars or so before we move back to guitar work that sounds fantastically similar Kirk Hammett's soft bridge breakdown from Master of Puppets. Or maybe it's from One. Slightly interesting jazz piano fills be damned, I think I need a damned mojito.
There's nothing wrong here, per se. But there's not a lot right here either. When I played the first three studio albums, much less the jaw dropping live recordings, I was amazed. I'd stop the wife as she walked through and ask, “Did you hear that?!” I might play Area 52 as background music for a dinner party while guests milled about catching up on the last few years. Maybe I'll serve tapas and cubanos with desert.
As with most new releases from a favored artist in the prime of their careers, I wanted to love this album. I wanted to be blown away by the infusion of Cuban sound into the brilliant space these guys had forcefully carved out for themselves where nothing similar previously existed. But I don't. I wasn't. Instead, I'm listening to a lot of songs that could fit pretty comfortably in the mix of easy listening they play in the elevators in the home offices. Instead I'm hearing something utterly bland, completely happy to exist in the confines and strictures of unchallenging and unchallenged "lite jazz", spruced up with a slice of pineapple, a twist of lime and a toy umbrella to make the AOR listeners feel like they're being hip and worldly. I am sorely disappointed here. If I wanted to listen to NPR, I'd just listen to NPR.