Rerecording your greatest hits with an orchestra seems like the uninspired move of a washed-up band who has a record contract to fulfill. Area 52 is not that, rather a genuine undertaking of self-rearrangement and ethno-musical immersion.
For the uninitiated, Rodrigo Y Gabriella is an acoustic guitar duo from Mexico. They take 12 nylon strings as far as they can go: Rodrigo plays explosively fast leads that are equally inspired by heavy metal and Latin forms and Gabriella supersedes the term rhythm guitarist by slapping the body of the instrument while chording to make it equally percussive and harmonious. The music they make together is fairly naked, usually recorded and performed with little or no accompaniment.
Rodrigo Y Gabriela’s decision to record with a Cuban orchestra was not political, as it might be for an American artist. It was purely musical. C.U.B.A. is a crack assembly of violins, horns, flutes and varied percussion under the direction of pianist and composer Alex Wilson. While C.U.B.A.’s rhythms and techniques are alien to Rod and Gab, the two groups share a vital energy that is uplifting, emotive and free. If traditional Cuban music was the treatment they aimed for, they missed, but what it did yield was a fusion with influences so varied that it created something completely unique.
The album begins with unfamiliar sounds: a shuttering palm-muted riff, a wah pedal and short bursts of horns that eventually give way to “Santo Domingo” from 2009’s 11:11. The barely recognizable adaptation that includes a bass solo, active hand-drumming and thunderously sweeping turnarounds, sets a president for how shifty Area 52 will be. Area 52‘s version of “Humanan” is notable both as a vivid homage to Carlos Santana and as a rare occurrence of Rodrigo using and electric guitar. It also features a drum breakdown from heavy metal journeyman John Tempesta (Testament, Exodus, White Zombie). “Ixtapa” at first sounds surprisingly similar to the version from their self-titled album until it breaks into a sitar driven passage courtesy of Anoushka Shankar—showing they are willing to alter not only the instrumentation and arrangements, but also the emotional qualities of the songs. Perhaps the album’s sleeper success is a tender version of “Logos” that is led by chief arranger Alex Wilson on piano; it has a decidedly more limited instrumentation that is still a departure from the original and the perfect lead in for the uplifting closer, “Tamacun”.
For its worldly sound and cultural significance, Area 52 will no doubt be popular with the NPR crowd, but the legions that love Rodrigo Y Gabriela for their guitar work probably won’t be overawed. That isn’t to downgrade the duo’s musicianship on Area 52, it’s fantastic, but hearing Rod and Gab play solo is more impressive because they can make a tremendous sound with a mere two guitars. Here they are in sonic competition with a dense mix of world-class musicians, making the overall result great, but washing out the instrumental singularity that they are known for.
When you examine the global nature of Rodrigo Y Gabriela’s musical run (hailing from Mexico, ascending to fame in Ireland and performing internationally) it makes Area 52 seem more like a layover than a departure—another cultural layer for two limitless musicians. Says Rod in the liner notes: “Playing with all these musicians doesn’t mean this is our new direction. But in fairness we never had one and never will.”