Rodrigo y Gabriela: “Area 52”

No less an authority than Rodrigo himself has said that, when he and Gabriela first conceived the Area 52 project, they viewed it as something of a stopgag– not as the true, proper follow-up to the gangbusters 11:11. I can see why they’d say that. They toured for the last album incessantly, devoted some time to scoring the fourth Pirates of the Caribbean movie, and then faced the daunting task of writing a new album’s worth of material. The material wasn’t coming, and the duo decided a change in scenery could inspire them anew. They headed to Havana and teamed with the thirteen-piece C.U.B.A. orchestra, plus arranger/soulful British pianist Alex Wilson, to cut spirited new versions of some of their previous songs. This new album is the result.

Regardless of original intent, though, there’s nothing about Area 52 that suggests it’s a sub-standard Rodrigo y Gabriela album. It may have begun as a search for inspiration, but it ends up an embodiment of it. It illustrates one of the things I love most about this duo, and that is their resourcefulness. On 11:11, they used nothing more than a pair of acoustic guitars to render sonic fireworks of incredible intensity. Area 52 is equally amazing. Here, they show that these songs are sturdy enough, and their performer’s instincts smart enough, to keep the intimacy and energy of their music in tact even as they re-imagine it for an entirely new setting.

Which is just to say that Area 52 is a scorching hot record, and even if you know the original compositions by heart, this album really does feel like something brand new, not just a tweaked rendering of old favorites. It’s an album fueled by jazz improvisation, heavy metal heroics, flamenco dexterity, big band swing, Latin groove, and cinematic scope. Everything their music has always suggested is fleshed out in brilliant Technicolor here. Yes, some of the scaled-back volatility of the duo recordings is lost, but a whole new world of complexity and depth is gained, and the music’s vital energy is never dampened. It is a different kind of Rodrigo y Gabriela album, but still the equal of their past recordings.

And it’s an album that flows as a seamless tapestry, an endless celebration, yet there are moments that stand out. Initially, I was most impressed by the songs that pack the biggest full-band wallop, like the razzle-dazzle opener of “Santa Domingo.” Then, the more subtle moments and rich variations began to stand out. “11:11” sounds even more spacey and psychadelic here. “Hanuman” has a scorching, Santana-esque electric guitar solo that pushes the whole track into the stratosphere. “Ixtapa” is masked in the magnetic aura of the sitar. Wilson himself has some wonderful piano showcases that suggest a possible future for Rodrigo y Gabriela in fronting a small-band jazz ensemble.

I have heard other listeners remark that this is the Rodrigo y Gabriela album they find easiest to warm to. I can understand why; where a record like 11:11 dazzles with the simplicity of its virtuosity, this one just dazzles, in a full blaze of showmanship and spark. I am sure other listeners will find Area 52 to be something of an offense to the duo’s purity, when really I think it expands their sound while remaining very true to their core. For me, the record does not replace those earlier duo recordings, nor does it try to. It’s a knockout piece of music in its own right, and evidence that Rodrigo y Gabriela’s powers are pretty close to limitless.

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