Ah, the neverending dialectic between innovation and convention. If nothing’s shocking here on the other side of modernism, what happens to the avant garde? El Guapo’s live recording, Geography of Dissolution, is a nice reminder that, whatever the pitfalls of this jaded era, earnest and intelligent attempts at innovation still have some purchase.
Initially a duo from Weslyan University with a drum machine and a pretty straightforward aggressive sound, El Guapo careened through genre after genre, adopting everything from salsa to drum ‘n’ bass. On this live album they are a quartet and added such oddballs to their sound as the oboe, clarinet, and glockkenspiel. The result is something like postpunk Albert Ayler, an influence which apparently made its way into El Guapo’s music by way of classes co-founder Rafael Cohen took at Wesleyen with avant-jazz composer Anthony Braxton.
Which brings us, ahem, back to the notion of avant garde or even punk for that matter: isn’t it supposed to be new and sort of raw? A quiet Ivy League course in composition is not exactly what comes to mind when I think of aesthetic extremism. But, outside of avant-jazz outfits like Tim Burton’s Bloodcount, who nevertheless stick closely to standard jazz articulation, I’ve never heard anything quite like El Guapo’s free jazz stylings. And yes, at times they sound like Dianogah or Bardo Pond, but only insofar as the occasional vocals and guitar-driven phrases might adopt a similar aesthetic. These stylistic elements, while distinct, are almost completely transformed when overlaid against a breakbeat or punctuated by groaning oboe and squaking clarinet.
I say almost. Although I couldn’t help asking myself whether Geography of Dissolution was endless style shuffle for its own sake, or a genuinely new sound, I have to say I decided I don’t quite care as long as it’s a good listen. And it is, sort of. I found it really soothing for some reason while I paid my bills. It’s not difficult or grating, but to these ears at times it can sound like noodling as the drums and oboes trade toots and smacks without much more than an occasional cymbal ride to hold it together. You might put it on at a hip cocktail party or something, but you wouldn’t sit down and give it a good hard listen more than a few times.
Which is why Geography of Dissolution seems a particularly apt title. I mean, it isn’t easy to surprise or intrigue these days, and El Guapo does a reasonably good job of pushing the proverbial envelope. As long as the rhythmic movement of the innovation/experimentation pendulum captivates me, I’m glad these bespectacled, Weslyan kids are around to map the space between scatter and pull.