A vinyl reissue brings the oft-overlooked prog phase of iconic Brazilian rock group Os Mutantes back into the spotlight.
In Brazil, perhaps no group is as symbolic of iconoclasm as Os Mutantes. A band known mainly for the experimentation it did around the Tropicália scene of the 1960s -- and the political controversy that came along with the group’s refusal to conform -- Os Mutantes has a lengthy discography and a reputation for the unexpected. By the 1970s, though, only one member of the original lineup still remained: Sérgio Dias, guitarist and composer. The sound evolved accordingly, and Vinilísssimo’s new vinyl-only reissue of the group’s 1976 live album, recorded right before a 30-year hiatus, shows the group playing it a little straighter. Ao Vivo is full-on progressive rock, with all the cosmic grandeur and occasionally overwrought melodic structure that entails.
From the gently psychedelic opening track "Anjos do Sul" ("Angels of the South"), Os Mutantes revs up quickly. The spiraling synths of "Benvindos / Mistérios" flow into the faster, heavier tread of "Trem / Dança dos Ventos". The album finally achieves total liftoff, and the group delivers on its reputation as notes slow down, stretch, and slide from pitch to pitch with reckless abandon. Dramatic ballad "Sagitario" finishes off the medley in zero gravity.
With this glorious introduction complete, the rest of the recording is nonstop energy. Decades later, much of it comes across as easily digestible classic rock, but don’t be fooled by sparkly guitar solos and power chords: the members of Os Mutantes prove that they can be just as creative with clean lines as they could in the looser squiggles of peak psych. Tracks like "Loucura Pouca é Bobagem" and "Hey Tu" sometimes sound like two songs playing at once, harmonious in their discord. Spiky proto-punk moments keep the audience good and agitated, providing some much-needed simplicity to keep the crowd from drowning in complex art rock.
Ao Vivo is an interesting choice for a reissue. It isn’t typical Os Mutantes material by any means and sounds a far cry from the outrageous live shows that saw them getting pelted with eggs by groups of conservative students shocked by their audacious performances and unwillingness to stay inside the box. Even in the twists and turns of the material played on Ao Vivo, there is a brightness, a feeling that everyone is just there to have a good time. By 1976, the band had gone down a rocky road -- drug abuse and creative differences sent four members of Os Mutantes their separate ways between 1972 and 1974, and an album recorded in 1973 would remain in limbo until 1992 due to disputes with the record company -- and perhaps this new direction allowed the group a place to retreat. The arrangements are intricate and fantastical, the perfect realm for a little escapism.
The group’s versatility has served it well: Os Mutantes’ last original release was only five years ago, and the band continues to tour and record. It may not inspire student riots, but Ao Vivo shows an oft-unexplored side of a band essential to Brazilian contemporary music - one worth sticking around to hear.