The live album proves an expressive challenge for the Mars Volta guitarist.
Omar Rodriguez-Lopez has tricks aplenty. His guitar playing has yet to become exquisitely lyrical, but this umpteenth solo venture shows that it’s certainly still an explosive tool. At its most potent, it provides subtle bedding for the vocals of young starlet Ximena Sarinana, whose contributions make for something of a centrepiece on this typically kaleidoscopic live recording. Made for the BBC in early 2009, it is playful and quixotic, but the very nature of the performance shows up the foibles, big and small.
It is what you would expect to its core. Flashy calypso rhythms form the backdrop, their Can-like insistence decorated liberally with fragments of melodic interest. Shimmering into life, “Boiling Death Request a Body to Rest Its Head On” treads similar territory to Rodriguez-Lopez’s last record, Old Money, but there is a decidedly more ponderous streak to it. It isn’t that melodies are absent, it’s that they are so plainly polarised with atonality that the listener is somewhat urged to only engage with the segments that deal in accessibility. That’s a real shame, because linking passages would’ve made the process gradual, not an unpleasant shock that dully lines up extremes against each other. Live, though, it is proficient in its technicalities – but the facts of the piece remain.
The melodies themselves are pleasantly skewed for the most part, with the aforementioned “Boiling Death Request…” featuring some remarkable work from guitar and keys. It is epic in scope at over nine minutes long, but defined a little too much by virtuosity and not enough by progression. Later examples that use the talents of Ximena Sarinana temper the tendency for instrumental excess. In fact, a more conventional set-up affords the set some focus. “How to Bill The Bilderberg Group” from Old Money is this personified, with the un-tethering of Sarinana’s vocals towards the conclusion standing out as a real human streak amongst all this careful playing.
We reach a performance and creative highpoint on the climactic “Vctimas Del Cielo”, a battering odyssey that truly shows Rodriguez-Lopez and his group at their strongest. At last, the live atmosphere topples them into abandon and there is nothing left but fury to convey. The stabbing homophonic chords that open and close the piece are evidence enough alone that there is a great deal more to the ensemble than playing technical passages with a little character. The frustration remains, though, that it takes so long for the performance to reach this kind of intensity.
Throughout, there is a clear difference between being bracing and being intense. It is all well and good to be bracing and let the natural exuberance in the music be conveyed, but a live performance needs more than note-perfection. It needs the intensity only present when musicians, live, become more than the sum of their compositions. While this only rarely happens on live albums, it is still the intention one must have when recording one. It is the only reason it makes them worthwhile. Los Suenos De Un Hidago shows moments of this, but ultimately is a vehicle more for instrumental prowess than the feeling of listening to live music.