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The name of Argentine band Cucamonga will not fail to ring a bell with Frank Zappa fans, as it references the Californian suburban city (now called Rancho Cucamonga) where Zappa’s Studio Z was located. Unfortunately, the information available on this quintet – led by guitarist Oscar “Frodo” Peralta, who is also the band’s main composer – is very sparse, and they currently have no active website or social media presence. Their debut album, Alter Huevo, recorded in early 2011 in the northern Argentine city of Santa Fe, was released a year later by AltrOck Productions.

Not surprisingly, Zappa is a major influence on Cucamonga’s sound, which comfortably straddles the line between avant-progressive rock and classic jazz-rock/fusion, with liberal doses of humour thrown in as an added bonus. Clearly a bunch of talented and dedicated musicians, their particular brand of music may not be extremely innovative (nor does it claim to be), but it is sure to intrigue the discerning listener, with enough complexity to please the most demanding fans and an endearingly light-hearted attitude to temper the technical dexterity. Though Alter Huevo is mostly instrumental, voices and bursts of laughter add a quirky touch to a few tracks. Warm hints of Latin music are scattered throughout the album, while the accordion – the iconic protagonist of tango music – lends its distinctive Old World flavour to some of  the compositions. However, Cucamonga’s sound rests on three main instruments – guitar, sax and drums – effectively complemented by keyboards and mallet percussion.

With a running time just under 40 minutes, Alter Huevo is a compact, well-balanced album that is easy to enjoy without getting overwhelmed by an excess of notes. Opener “Tetascotch”, the longest track on the album, and the most complex in terms of mood and tempo changes, kicks off with a funny circus-like tune, then takes a more laid-back turn, with all the instruments getting their chance to shine in classic jazz-rock fashion. “El Dengue De La Laguna” continues on the same path, showcasing Julian Macedo’s stellar drumming – propulsive and textural at the same time – while the instrumental interplay often suggests a dialogue without words, with an elegance that hints at vintage Canterbury. “Tu Guaina” and “Variaciones Sobre Tu Hermana” veer towards the Avant end of the spectrum, the latter throwing in some dissonance and moments of rarefied calm enhanced by the cascading tinkle of the mallet percussion.

With “Tillana”, Cucamonga tackle a traditional piece of Carnatic music (the classical music of Southern India) originally rearranged by legendary percussionist Trilok Gurtu for his 1993 album Crazy Saints – which, as can be expected, pushes percussion to the forefront, though guitar, sax and piano also play a strong role. “Cerrazón En Al Teyú Cuaré” alternates slow, melancholy moments with sudden surges of power. The short, upbeat “Dominguillo” introduces album closer “Cletalandia”, based on a hilarious radio broadcast about restoring sensuality in marriage – something that would have definitely won Zappa’s seal of approval. Those familiar with Spanish will enjoy reading the text in the CD booklet. Musically speaking, the track is bookended by energetic sections very much in classic jazz-rock style, powered by Adriano Demartini’s groovy bass lines; while the central part, which includes the broadcast, is accompanied by sparse yet expressive sax.

In keeping with AltrOck’s reputation for stylishly packaged products, Alter Huevo comes with a nicely illustrated booklet (courtesy of the label’s resident graphic artist, the multi-talented Paolo Ske Botta) that successfully combines elegance and whimsy. Udi Koomran’s experienced mastering guarantees excellent sound quality, emphasizing Cucamonga’s varied instrumentation and the impressive skill of the players. Lovers of eclectic jazz-rock with a pinch of avant-garde and world-music spice (as offered by bands as AltrOck’s own Calomito or MoonJune’s Slivovitz) will appreciate this solid, classy offering by an interesting new band. However, it would be a good idea if Cucamonga took a more active role in promoting their music on the Web, which in this day and age is nothing short of indispensable.

Links:
http://www.allmusic.com/artist/cucamonga-p2600792

http://production.altrock.it/prod2.asp?lang=eng_&id=179&id2=180

http://soundcloud.com/udi-koomran/sets/cucomonga-alter-huevo-altrock/

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TRACKLISTING:
1. Beginning (1:51)
2. Progressions (4:53)
3. What (2:23)
4. In Memoriam (5:39)
5. Guantanabu 1 (7:07)
6. Guantanabu 2 (1:38)
7. Guantanabu 3 (4:15)
8. Straviko (5:59)
9. Before the End (0:32)
10. Mereditika (7:34)

LINEUP:
Carolina Restuccia – vocals
Pol González – vocals
Paul Torterolo – drums
Fernando Taborda – guitars
Nahuel Tavosnanska – bass
Alan Courtis – guitars
Carlos Lucero – guitars
Fabian Keroglian – vibraphone, percussion
Sebastian Schachtel –  accordion
Sergio Catalán – flutes
Federico Landaburu – clarinet
Will Genz – bassoon, double bassoon
Mauro Rosales – soprano sax
Nolly Rosa – alto and baritone sax
Dana Najlis – clarinet
Mauro Zannoli – electronic processes

Chamber orchestra directed by Marcelo Delgado

Hailing from Buenos Aires, the capital of Argentina (a city generally not associated with progressive music, rock or otherwise, in spite of its venerable musical tradition), Factor Burzaco are the brainchild of composer Abel Gilbert. However, Gilbert is not part of the impressive line-up performing on the band’s second album – while he was directly involved as a musician on Factor Burzaco’s debut, released in 2007 on the homegrown label Viajero Inmóvil.  The album was greeted with lavish praise in RIO/Avant prog circles, and also managed to win over a few of the more conservative fans of ‘mainstream’ prog. Their sophomore effort, simply titled II, was recorded between 2008 and 2010, and released in the first half of 2011.

Calling Factor Burzaco a band in the rock sense of the word would be very limiting, as well as rather inaccurate. With a staggering sixteen musicians credited as playon on the album, the term ‘chamber ensemble’ would definitely sound more appropriate. Additionally, the music showcased on II only bears a slight resemblance to conventiona ‘progressive rock’, even more so than in the case of other RIO/Avant outfits. Though Abel Gilbert mentions bands like King Crimson and Henry Cow among his chief sources of inspiration, while listening to the album I was sharply reminded of the work of classical composers such as Debussy or Stravinsky (also listed by Gilbert as major influences on his writing).

Though the album, at under 40 minutes, is very short for today’s standards, it is definitely not an easy listening experience, not even for  devotees of all things RIO/Avant. The 10 tracks, rather than as individual numbers, are meant to be seen as movements of a single composition, a true chamber piece that commands the utmost attention from the listener, and will not tolerate being relegated to the role of sonic wallpaper. Indeed, II is not for the faint-hearted, and will appeal to those who like music to stimulate the mind rather than the body. As the liner notes illustrate quite clearly, this is a highly intellectual musical effort, and not one for the casual listener.

Factor Burzaco’s most distinctive feature lies in Carolina Restuccia’s acrobatic, unconventional soprano, which has drawn comparisons to Kate Bush and Dagmar Krause. A couple of tracks also brought to mind another intriguing new band in a similar vein, Italian outfit Nichelodeon and their outstanding singer Claudio Milano. While Restuccia’s voice is pivotal to the fabric of the music, it does not dominate it, performing the function of an additional instrument rather than overwhelming the others. In a few tracks she is flanked by male vocalist, Pol González, which creates an intensely dramatic contrast imbued with a sort of skewed operatic quality.

In spite of the sheer number of musicians involved, the music on II comes across as somewhat minimalistic, and eminently sophisticated – the kind that you cannot just let run in the background and more or less ignore. Its complexity does not come from piling up elements, or packing more tempo changes into a single track than anyone can wrap their heard around. Its layers are gossamer thin, its moods a play of light and shade, the music itself forming sharp peaks and valleys of sound, with sudden climaxes and equally sudden pauses, moving from whispers to screams. Some passages are intensely cinematic, their sparse, ominous quality the perfect foil for some movie based on psychological horror rather than in-your-face gore. Though conventional melody may be thin on the ground, the dissonant patterns are expertly handled, so they never feel gratuitously jarring.

With an album of this nature, a detailed track-by-track description would be ineffective, as well as counterproductive. In fact, as previously intimated, II should be approached as a single composition divided into separate movements, the shorter ones intended as interludes or introductory pieces – as in the case of the aptly-titled “Beginning”, in which slowly mounting keyboards and vocals set the tone for the entire album – and making use of electronic effects to evoke a sense of anticipation or sheer tension. Mallet percussion instruments produce cascades of tinkling sounds to fill the pauses, while melancholy reeds paint delicate soundscapes reminiscent of Debussy – especially noticeable in “Straviko” and “Mereditika”, a magnificently atmospheric number that provides a perfect ending for the album. On the other hand, “In Memoriam” relies on the theatrical effect produced by vocal and guitar bursts interspersed by whispers; while “Guantanabu 1” and “Guantanabu 3” revolve around the stunning interplay of Restuccia and González’s voices emoting and chasing each other over a loose, haunting instrumental backdrop.

As the previous paragraphs should make it abundantly clear, Factor Burzaco’s sophomore effort is not recommended for those listeners who find it difficult to step outside their individual comfort zones. Those looking for the rock component in the ‘progressive rock’ definition are also quite likely to be disappointed, as II qualifies more as modern chamber music than conventional rock  (though typical rock instruments such as guitar and bass are featured in the line-up). Open-minded, inquisitive listeners, on the other hand, will find a lot to love in this album, although it may need repeated spins in order to fully sink in. All in all, another excellent release from the ever-reliable AltrOck Productions, and a must for fans of RIO/Avant prog.

Links:
http://www.myspace.com/factorburzaco

http://production.altrock.it/

 

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TRACKLISTING:
1. 4378th Day (15:41)
2. No (5:59)
3. War, Act 2 (21:06)

LINEUP:
Rodrigo San Martín – electric and acoustic guitars, bass, mellotron, hammond organ, Moog synthesizer, piano, keyboards, orchestra arragements, synthesized glockenspiel, drum programming
Jelena Perisic – vocals
Craig Kerley – vocals

South America has been a hotbed for progressive rock ever since the beginning of the movement, and Argentina – with its richly diverse musical heritage – is no exception. Even though Argentine prog bands are rarely household names, keen followers of the genre are well aware of the generally excellent level of those outfits. While many of those bands and artists follow in the footsteps of the classic symphonic prog tradition (with some of them displaying Italian prog influences – not surprising in a country where about half of the population is of Italian origin), many of the newer acts have embraced other styles, like progressive metal, and are not afraid of incorporating them into a traditional symphonic fabric.

Rodrigo San Martín is a gifted multi-instrumentalist with a lot of experience on the Argentine music scene as a musician, composer, producer and event organizer, in spite of his young age (he was born in 1988).  He is the lead guitarist of prog band De Rien, as well as the mastermind of the project Souls Ignite. His debut album as a solo artist, simply called 1, was released in April 2010, and featured a 40-minute composition performed solely by San Martín. Conversely, on his sophomore effort, There’s No Way Out (released in November of the same year), San Martín avails himself of the contribution of two guest singers, Jelena Perisic from Serbia and  Craig Kerley from the US.

Clocking in at a mere 42 minutes (a very short running time for today’s standards), There’s No Way Out has a distinctive structure, with two epic-length tracks bookending a more conventional song. The three numbers are different enough from each other to sustain the listener’s interest, and even the two epics are rather nicely balanced, projecting an impression of cohesiveness which is not always the case with long compositions. San Martín handles all the instruments with admirable expertise, though the unmistakably artificial sound of programmed drums is hard to miss, and sometimes clashes with the overall warmth of the music. On the other hand, the vocal performances are consistently good, both singers handling the material authoritatively and stamping their own individual mark on the songs.

Opener “4387th Day” is the closest the album gets to traditional symphonic prog, especially in the first half, dominated by atmospheric keyboards, mellotron and orchestral arrangements with flute and strings, as well as Jelena Parisic’s melodious, yet not sickly sweet voice. Then pace and intensity increase with the introduction of heavy guitar riffs and whistling synth, while towards the end things calm down again. “No”, running slightly over 5 minutes, functions as a sort of interlude between the two ‘main events’, and brings a classic rock note (with touches of AOR) to the ambitious prog context of the album. Distorted guitar, with a distinct Seventies flavour, features prominently here, and Craig Kerley’s gutsy vocal performance is a perfect fit for the overall tone of th song – though the juxtaposition of a more sentimental mood, enhanced by strings and harmony vocals, with harder-edged suggestions occasionally teeters on the brink of cheesiness.

The third and final track, “War, Act2”,  is the undisputed highlight of the album, and – at least in my view –quite superior to both the previous numbers. In spite of its 21-minute running time, it never outstays its welcome, and manages to paint a near-perfect sonic rendition of its title. Here, the contrast between furiously riff-driven sections bordering on extreme metal and dreamy, rarefied passages which, nonetheless, suggest a slow but relentless build up of tension works very well. Jelena Parisic’s voice, while still soothing and well-modulated, reaches for a lower register in order to convey a subtle feeling of menace, and the beautiful guitar solo in the middle brings to mind David Gilmour’s signature style, melodic yet faintly brooding. The frequently occurring changes o mood and pace, unlike what happens in other compositions of comparable scope and length, do not project an impression of patchiness, but rather create an impressively organic whole.

Though not without flaws (mainly lying in the use of programmed drums, whose all too recognizable sound often detracts from the listening experience), There’s No Way Out is a very promising album from an extremely talented young artist, featuring a healthy dose of eclecticism. While the more conservative set of prog fans may be turned off by the strong metal component, particularly evident in the final track, those with a more open-minded disposition are likely to appreciate Rodrigo San Martín’s skill as a composer and multi-instrumentalist. I will be definitely looking forward to hearing the forthcoming De Rien album, to see what he is capable of in a band context.

Links:
http://www.rodrigosanmartin.com.ar/

 

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