Austin’s Grupo Fantasma has been around for a decade now, mixing Latin American styles like salsa and cumbia with rock, funk, reggae, and whatever else strikes their fancy. They’ve made multiple appearances on Austin City Limits, and Prince regularly calls on the band’s horn section to back him up in concert. Accordingly, on their fourth studio album El Existential, they don’t sound like a band with something to prove. Instead they sound like an outfit that’s secure, confident, and willing to try anything.
The album opens with “Realizando”, which begins with a classic funk drumbeat that is quickly joined by Rodolfo Esparza’s bright vocals, Latin percussion, organ, and electric guitar. Then the horns pop up, with Mark Gonzales’ brassy trombone riding high in the mix. The song deftly combines funk and salsa elements into a nearly irresistible dance groove. “La Conozco” slows things down a bit into a loping cumbia punctuated by Josh Levy’s baritone saxophone countermelody and Beto Martinez’s lightly bouncing guitar riff. “El Consejo” is a huge-sounding slice of uptempo Latin funk. It’s anchored by Esparza’s expressive singing and would sound right at home in a ‘70s action movie.
And so it goes for the length of El Existential. Nearly everything the band tries works, even when they push the songs outside of their usual comfort zone. “Hijo” is a slow-paced cumbia similar to “La Conozco”, until about two minutes in, when Fantasma’s two guitarists turn up the distortion and drummer Johnny Lopez starts pounding the skins for a hard-rock interlude. Then they keep the distortion on as the song returns to the original beat. “Montañozo” combines a spaghetti western guitar riff with a syncopated latin dance beat and then throws in a Farfisa organ and a vibraphone for good measure. “Telaraña” features an extended closing guitar solo from the Meat Puppets’ Curt Kirkwood to give what was one of the album’s few mediocre tracks some much-needed intensity.
As a 10-member ensemble, Grupo Fantasma has a lot of elements to juggle. It’s to their credit that they know when to feature certain members and push those elements to the front of the mix. The band has always done things independently, and producer/ guitarist Adrian Quesada clearly knows what he’s doing behind the boards as well as on his instrument. Most of the time, it’s Esparza (or percussionist/vocalist Jose Galeano) and his strong vocals that get highlighted, but the guitars have their time to shine as well. Quesada also handles the horns better than most producers. Whether that’s because Grupo Fantasma has higher-quality horn players or because they just know how to make them sound great has yet to be determined, but chances are it’s a little of both. El Existential should prove to be another boost to the band’s already strong reputation.
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