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Omar Rodriguez-Lopez

Solar Gambling


[Rodriguez-Lopez Productions; 2010]



By ; January 20, 2010 


Purchase at: Insound (Vinyl) | Amazon (MP3 & CD) | iTunes | MOG

Omar Rodriguez-Lopez has made himself a career in being over-the-top. Not that it’s necessarily a bad thing—his propensity toward balls-to-the-wall bombast and intensity helped turn out one of the most influential post-punk bands of all time (At the Drive-In, for the unacquainted) and produced a rather impressive Mars Volta discography, not to mention countless solo records.

Ever since The Mars Volta’s debut full-length, De-loused in the Comatorium, Rodriguez-Lopez (the sole songwriter for the band) has written songs with layers upon layers of epic, schizophrenic guitar solos and riffs and put them at the forefront of Latin-tinged rhythm sections and vocalist Cedric Bixler-Zavala’s histrionic vocals. At times, even for the most devoted fan, it can be overkill. Their fourth full-length album, The Bedlam in Goliath, brought the overzealous machine gun style of new drummer Thomas Pridgen and thus reviewers began categorizing the band as “prog metal.” After Bedlam, Rodriguez-Lopez released his solo album Old Money with Stones Throw Records. Old Money’s slightly more spacious soundscape was a welcome respite from the claustrophobic intensity on Bedlam. 2009 saw the release of two of some of the most relentlessly intense releases in the ORL discography: Cryptomnesia and Xenophanes, two albums with explosions of sound and little room for dynamics and breathing room.

However, Solar Gambling is an album that utilizes space better than the majority of Rodriguez-Lopez’s discography. There are definitely points on Solar Gambling (namely on tracks like “Lorentz”) where Omar plays softly and emotively—beautifully, even. It feels as though he allows the keys to breathe instead of letting the guitar rudely shout over them. In fact, Rodriguez-Lopez uses the guitar in a peculiar way on the entire album. It seems as though Solar Gambling was intended as a showcase of utilizing the guitar for atmospherics or as a straightforward communicator (i.e., the direct opposite of how the guitar is used on albums like Cryptomnesia, which mostly consists of in-your-face soloing at every turn). There is soloing on the record, sure, but when ORL doesn’t use the guitar for ambience, what you get is very to-the-point playing that isn’t overwhelming or irritating. Perhaps the best example of this is on the funked-out standout track, “Un Buitre Amable Me Picó” (which means in Spanish, “A Kindly Vulture Pecked Me”), where Omar restrains himself and plays effectively and straightforwardly, letting the vocals (provided by girlfriend and Mexican pop musician Ximena Sariñana-Rivera) serve as the focal point of the track instead of the guitar. The track leads into a coda of sorts, “Poincaré,” which illustrates another point I made previously: there is plenty of breathing room. It is chill-inducing to hear a stark track in which there is only the presence of a voice, some well-placed and effective vocal distortion, and piano.

Solar Gambling has been a divisive album among the Mars Volta fanbase, primarily due to the glaring omission of longtime vocalist and Rodriguez-Lopez’s creative partner, Cedric Bixler-Zavala. There have been unfair comparisons made between Bixler’s and Sariñana’s vocal capabilities. My response to that is that she is a nice change and works very well for this album, bringing a melancholic quality to the songs. Given the fact that she typically works within the constraints of fairly simple Norah Jones-style jazzy pop, I give her enormous credit for even attempting to work with her partner’s unconventional brand of music.

The album’s flaws are small in number, but rather noticeable. There is a lack of consistency in production and the sound of the album. Regarding the production, the drums seem very crudely tracked on “Los Flores Con Limón,” which might be intentional but that doesn’t necessarily make it good. Omar’s predilection for distortion, feedback, and effects is legendary, but when he succumbs to it toward the end of “Vasco da Gama,” drowning out Ximena’s voice, it borders on unlistenable.

The album’s similarities to 2007’s Se Dice Bisonte, No Búfalo are unmistakable: the pace of the album, the haunting vocals, the breathing room…even the punk-ish opening track, “Locomoción Capilar,” which bears similarity to Se Dice’s closing track, “La Tirania de la Tradición.” Similarities within a corpus of work are not necessarily bad, but with someone as prolific and challenging as Rodriguez-Lopez (who describes himself as an ever-changing musician), you can’t help but anticipate a little more variety throughout the discography.

In short, the album is a nice break from the oppressively intense records Rodriguez-Lopez has released lately. The highs on the album are very high, and at 34 minutes, it is sufficient enough to keep you interested and not so long that it will lose your attention. If you felt intimidated by The Mars Volta’s Bedlam in Goliath or ORL’s solo records Xenophanes and Cryptomnesia, give Solar Gambling a fair listen.


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