Crass proclaimed punk dead almost thirty years ago. And in terms of its relevancy as a dangerous, revolutionary cultural movement, they were right. But musically the genre “punk” lives on in the 21st century. However, a band can only make so many albums with aggressive, distorted, three-chord anthems before getting bored, no matter how authentic or DIY they might be. After a while, some bands look for new ways to create something original in the limited confines of their “genre”. So NOFX puts out an 18-minute song, Green Day creates a punk opera, and the Refused blow up the entire concept of punk with everything from electronica to jazz influences. How well they adapt to the new endeavors determines whether it is consider original or a gimmick.
How did hardcore band the Bronx branch out from punk rock orthodoxy? They made a mariachi album…and then another one. Make no mistake, there is something very gimmicky about a bunch of Los Angeles gringos donning churros and playing vihuelas and guitarrons over English vocals. But Mariachi El Bronx pulled it off on their eponymous debut, and now have pulled it off again on Mariachi el Bronx (II). This is not just a good album for a punk band making a mariachi album, this is a good album.
Matt Caughtran’s vocals and lyrics are true to the romantic spirit of Mariachi, even if they are in English. Fast-paced opening track “48 Roses” tells the story of a man tangled in a multi-woman web: “With four different lovers and 48 roses, I need a confessional that never closes / So save some forgiveness for me, I am blinded by love can’t think clearly.” Polka-infused “Norteno Lights”, replete with accordion and a 2/4 time signature, finds Caughtran seeking the love of a new woman, “Commo te llamas? I swear, I’ve seen you in my dreams.” In the stellar and somber “Fallen”, the singer states that he thinks he is falling, only for a subtle female soul chorus to interject with “for you”. The catchy and upbeat “Revolution Girls” details a torrid, cross-border love affair.
Love is the primary, but not only topic of conversation. “Matador” details the death of an aging bull fighter, “Only a coward quits while he is ahead / Only a Matador would take a stand.” The SoCal punk rockers tackle metaphysics on “Everything Dies”, questioning the very nature of mortality.
Musically, the mariachi isn’t an act. This isn’t a band using a few bars of mariachi to segue into punk rock or some half-assed attempt at mariachi-punk fusion. You will find no bellowing screams, distorted guitars (or electric guitars in general), or rumbling bass. You will find swelling strings, blaring trumpets, weeping acoustic guitars and double-noted guitarron bass lines. Instrumental piece “Mariachi El Bronx”, employing the help of the all-female mariachi group Reyna de Los Angeles, best exemplifies this; tempo changes, call-and-response trumpet-strings and authentic mariachi yelps anchor the track.
In the end, the mariachi/punk crossover shouldn’t be such a shock. Both musical forms come from working class backgrounds and stress honest, emotive compositions. Furthermore, the Bronx and their alter ego Mariachi El Bronx can play the hell out of both genres, so here’s to hoping both incarnations of the band continue to tour and create music. And maybe, if we are lucky, it will inspire some more tatted-up gringos to wail on vihuelas.