El Rodri y La Gabi, Redux

Courtesy of Tina Korhonen

The first time I heard Rodrigo y Gabriela’s cover of Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven,” my mouth literally gaped at the iconic song transformed by classical guitar into an instrumental masterpiece. Seeing videos of the two playing this live was even more astounding; for a while, it seemed as though my jaw would never close in amazement watching Rodrigo Sánchez and Gabriela Quintero not only handle incredibly complex melody, bass and rhythm parts of their cover, but trade these off between each other and transition between sections effortlessly.

“Area 52,” the duo’s new collaboration with C.U.B.A. (Collective Universal Band Association) and a host of special guests, expands their two-guitar formula. Though the novel simplicity of the classical guitar duet is abandoned by these redone versions of songs from their first two albums, this foray into complex orchestration does not suffer for loss of that simplicity.

The album is split almost evenly between the duo’s first two albums, with four of its songs coming off the self-titled “Rodrigo y Gabriela” and the other five coming off “11:11.” Listening to the songs side by side, the original versions don’t seem to lack any complexity gained by the newer orchestrations. The new versions rather seem to make the songs bloom, giving them new life and a dynamic edge.

“Hanuman” is a great example of the dynamic blossom that Rodrigo y Gabriela bring with their special guests. It features John Tempesta, the drummer for White Zombie who is described by Sánchez as “one of the best rock drummers right now” in the album’s credits. Tempesta’s influence is clear from the very beginning of the redone track; emphatic horns and blasted metal drums are a monstrous introduction to one of the album’s most dynamic tracks.

The next track pulls in a different direction, but in a good way. Though still largely pulling from Latin jazz influences, guest Anoushka Shankar’s sitar work during the song’s second movement adds a perfectly melded East Asian fusion. Despite all the inclusion of all these various new assets to the band’s sound, Rodrigo y Gabriela pull off transitions between seemingly unalike movements with relative ease. False ends and transitions are sometimes abrupt but always add dramatic aplomb to their instrumentals.

The most apparent change in sound is the transition from classical Spanish guitar into much more modern jazz. “11:11” is gifted with a piano and distorted guitar interlude wherein fretless bass can’t help but recall greats like Jaco (or perhaps it’s just this writer’s own inexperience with jazz).

Despite not having any new tracks, “Area 52” is still a reinvention of Rodrigo y Gabriela and a variable samba with the brain. Rodrigo y Gabriela manage to do away with the dichotomy of complex instrumentation between two musicians, yet maintain an impressive energy. Points of calmness are few and far between, but one never quite looks at Latin jazz for airy forays into atmospheric sound.

Rating: 4 out of 5