By Mark Kemp
The trouble with the guitar virtuoso is that he leaves the heart and soul of the song at the music rehearsal-room door—the melodic rush of a pop hook; the buzz and twang of rural folk; the gritty thump and rumble of the blues; the emotional crash and burn of an epic classical or jazz piece.
The virtuoso has speed and technique coming out the wazoo–he knows every chord and scale in the book. But his music doesn’t bleed. It can’t. It has no heart.
Nobody obliterates that stereotype like Rodrigo y Gabriela, the Mexican acoustic-guitar duo whose indie-inspired instrumental music bleeds with the precision of a paper cut. The duo’s latest album, 9 Dead Alive (Red House), opens with the dramatic spit and swagger of “The Soundmaker,” a heartfelt paean to 19th-century luthier Antonio de Torres Jurado, the father of the Spanish classical guitar. The nearly five-minute track blasts into motion with Rodrigo Sanchez delivering a typically robust melody line over Gabriela Quintero’s famously percussive rhythms, then segues into more contemplative territory, builds to a chaotic explosion, and returns to a sturdy groove before ending on a slight sigh.
As the album title suggests, these nine songs represent Rodrigo y Gabriela’s attempt to eulogize the dead by reviving their spirits in fiery instrumentals. The sometimes chaotic “Torito” is the vegan duo’s tribute to animals and nature, moving from bluesy riffs that creep and stalk like ground critters and flutter like birds to a climax of notes that shimmer down like a waterfall. “Misty Moses” honors the bravery of Underground Railroad activist Harriet Tubman by combining a chord progression borrowed from metal with a melody that vacillates from sweet to haunting. “Somnium,” in which the duo’s interplay is by turns delicate and frenetically percussive, was inspired by the 17th-century Mexican feminist poet Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz, who was harshly condemned for defending a woman’s right to education.
Since their 2004 debut, Rodrigo y Gabriela have constantly toyed with the wild and wooly rules of instrumental virtuosity written and rewritten by soulful players from John Fahey to Bill Frisell to Kaki King. Beginning as heavy-metal guitarists with chips on their shoulders, the duo took their nylon-string instruments from Mexico City to the streets of Dublin, Ireland, where they began fusing metal and post-nuevo flamenco pyrotechnics with the beauty and pathos of other Latin styles, creating music of astonishing emotional intensity and dynamic range. By their eponymous second studio album—and U.S. breakthrough—in 2006, Rodrigo y Gabriela even made it OK to cover a song that should never, ever have been played again by anybody: “Stairway to Heaven.” And yet the duo boldly imbued that Zeppelin warhorse with a subtlety and sense of adventure rarely heard in those familiar chords.
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Rodrigo, Gabriela, and their beloved Yamaha NX series guitars have come a long way in the eight years since their self-titled classic brought them to a larger audience—they’ve recorded music for major films, played the late-night circuit, even performed for President Obama. Two years ago, they collaborated with a 13-piece Cuban orchestra for the album Area 52, and while the experiment with brass, woodwinds, strings, and other instruments didn’t quite work, it revealed their desire to continue pushing boundaries.
The good news about 9 Dead Alive is that Rodrigo y Gabriela have returned to what they do best: squaring off, as a duo, guitar-a-guitar—and making their combined 12 nylon strings and hammered-together hunks of wood bleed like few guitars ever do.