You’ll all have to bear with me on this one; I don’t think I’ve ever had to write a review as challenging as this. When a band doesn’t have lyrics, and no vocals, a significant portion is gone at least to those of us who’ve grown accustomed to the traits of popular music. At first I thought ‘where are the themes?! I need lyrical themes to open the whole thing up!’ Lyrical themes help set up a mood for the music to follow. So it seems with Rodrigo y Gabriela that the music isn’t following anything or saying anything or portraying anything, it’s just there. Then, it all clicks. The music is talking to you, every instrument telling you something and getting you in a mood. And, if there’s one word Area 52 screams at you, it’s this: Party.
The traditional elements of Rodrigo y Gabriela alone wouldn’t be enough to install a lively feeling inside you; as lively as their guitar work is, it’s more tremendous and awe-inspiring; something you’d enjoy as connoisseur and sit and enjoy. On Area 52 the band employ the collective known as C.U.B.A., “a thirteen piece Cuban orchestra composed of some of Havana’s finest young players” according to rodgab.com, and it’s the inclusion of this collective that adds a whole new musical dimension on top of Rodrigo y Gabriela’s insane fretwork. The flashes of brass instruments and percussion that appear regularly throughout the album do more than just add colour to Rodrigo y Gabriela’s musical world, they breathe a new lease of life into the album, sometimes taking songs to different places altogether.
“Santa Domingo” starts with the usual guitar work and a smattering of percussion that sounds foreboding, then almost out of nowhere, a fanfare of trumpets takes over instantly lifting the mood to somewhere between ecstasy and hip-shaking. From there you’re treated to pianos and wind instruments alongside expected stunning guitars, pulling you along for the most thrilling of rides and you won’t know where you’re going next. It’s amazing how much this formula is used throughout Area 52 without sounding old and tired, and more importantly, without boring the listener. “Ixtapa” shifts styles seamlessly from Latin to Indian, and then back again. “11:11” is a bonafide rock song, only played on acoustic guitar with an electric lead section. It starts with purpose before becoming soft and airy, gets that purpose back, adds a lofty guitar solo then regresses in technicality to traditional chanting vocals.
What strikes me about Area 52 is how much Rodrigo y Gabriela as guitar players take their cues from the other instruments, especially in terms of mood setting and tempo. They are slaves to the rhythms and sounds around them, and rather than be the driving force of some songs, they’re reactionary and, in some cases, complimentary players to C.U.B.A. The downside of this is that the guitars do tend to get lost in the mix, with the lead sections being the only opportunity to hear them clearly. I’d imagine fans of the band would want to hear them more. That’s the debate; should Rodrigo y Gabriela be front and centre all the time on Area 52, or does it say more about them that they’re able to take a backseat for the sake of the song? (I’m going with the latter.)
Usually this wouldn’t be my ‘thing’, but I was pleasantly surprised by Area 52. It’s an enjoyable album, and the playing is astoundingly good. Because of its traditional nature it’s quite a niche-y album so there might be some days you really have to make yourself get into it; it requires certain moods just like any other Rodrigo y Gabriela album. Nevertheless, once you do, it’s incredibly rewarding. The next step is getting these guys on the next Mars Volta album, because on the evidence of Area 52, they’re a match made in heaven.