Cumbia seems to be around every corner in today’s broadly-construed folktronica scene, a versatile base for plugged-in pop music from the atmospheric to hard-hitting dancefloor tracks. No one, though, takes quite as thrillingly offbeat an approach to it as Bogotá-based artist Eblis Álvarez, better known as the creative mind behind the Meridian Brothers moniker. On new album Cumbia Siglo XXI, he and his crew set themselves even further apart from the mainstream, letting loose with innovative instrumentation and unpredictable, even whimsical arrangements that never cease to intrigue.
The beating heart of the Meridian Brothers’ sound, more often than not, is a warbling synth, the star at the center of a system of alien sounds. First to emerge on opening track “Los Golpeadores de la Cumbia” are hard-slapped beats; fuzzy guitars pass by, rocking and rolling at a slower pace only to come into alignment with the drum machines. Scattered in the heavens are high-tech sounds generated by algorithms and other electronic sources that add celestial noise to the mix. Álvarez himself sings with a tilted axis, his voice swaying and even jumping as it moves over the melody.
He lets himself get even wilder on “Cumbia del Pichaman”, instantly recognizable as a cover of “Son of a Preacher Man” — albeit with a whole lot more reverb and creative percussion. Here, the vocals get wild, running back and forth across an entire spectrum of Muppetesque emotions from gleeful to melodramatic. Lest it seems too frenetic to last, though, “Puya del Empresario” brings us back to earth with a slightly more straightforward synthwave take on the well-balanced puya rhythm, the Meridian Brothers’ cool strangeness entirely in motion.
Playful bass notes introduce “Cumbia de la Igualdad”, a stripped-down piece focused on voices and minimal synth cues. “Cumbia de la Fuente” is classic, cosmic Meridian Brothers: electrified bass notes squeezing at the foundation as another constellation of synth notes rush upward; vocals swaying and echoing. The dissonant heterophony of “Cumbia de la Amistad” gives it a psychedelic touch.
“Cumbia del Relicario” is a fast-paced cover of Rafael Orozco’s “Relicario de Besos”. Club beats break into a glitching pulse behind “Cumbia Totalitaria”, while “Cumbia de la Soledad” sees rhythms build quickly. Closing track “Cumbia de los Proletarios” ends the album on notes as masterfully bizarre as it deserves, as though Ween had decided to start embracing Colombian roots music. The album comes to a close with melancholy sighs in an eerie harmony.
Unabashedly avant-garde, the Meridian Brothers’ approach to cumbia is as idiosyncratic as ever on Cumbia Siglo XXI. While it may take a moment for the uninitiated to settle in, they should do it anyway. Álvarez consistently shows us a good time and exceptional performance skills even in studio albums, as well as technological ingenuity unmatched thus far in the plugged-in cumbia scene. A masterclass in taking novelty to the brink of good taste and then hanging its toes off the edge, the aptly-named Cumbia Siglo XXI scrambles tradition while simultaneously drawing on it, positioning the Meridian Brothers once again as leading the way to a future of endless — and endlessly unique — cumbia possibilities.