9 Dead Alive – Rodrigo y Gabriela

Rodrigo y Gabriela (Rodrigo Sanchez and Gabriela Quintero) have been turning heads and widening eyes since the release of their first demo twelve years ago and the release of their fourth studio album ‘9 Dead Alive’ sees them trying to continue that trend.

A collection of nine recordings, each one “…a personal celebration of individuals who have passed on, but through their deeds and words still resonate in the 21st century” (these individuals include a great guitar maker, a couple of Nobel Prize winners, a Norwegian explorer and Richard the Lionheart’s mum) it is an album that banishes the memories of ‘Area 52’ – which, in the opinion of some fans, was like having somebody munching through a massive bag of crisps behind you in the cinema – it brings the two guitars right back to the fore; and it does this by removing all other instruments. If it was a drink it would be a Martini, hold the olive – it’s just pure and simple, stripped down, guitar.

There is a much more bluesy, rocky feel to this album (notably ‘Fram’ and ‘The Soundmaker’) , the pair have always cited various metal bands as substantial influences and those influences really poke their heads out at times here. There are sequences that could quite easily have been snatched straight from the ideas board for Metallica’s ‘Master of Puppets’ – both in the style and the number of riffs packed into some tracks – and you get the feeling that this was an album that was written partly as an exercise in getting back to their roots. The heady days of employing a full Cuban band to play with you and get all experimental have been shoved to one side and the essence of what made so many people fall in love with their music has been relocated.

Definitely less elaborate than previous releases ‘Rodrigo y Gabriela’ and the flood of six-stringed wizardry that is ’11:11’, this latest offering is more about solid riffs. It is a marked change in direction which some will see as less exciting but they are missing the point. It may have been assumed that, following the addition of a whole bunch of other musicians on the previous album, their musical progression would continue to see them expand and move further away from the enthralling but humble duo that clawed their way into view so many years ago on the streets of Dublin. So, it comes as a comforting surprise that they have allowed themselves to stick to what they do best and serve up another feast of undiluted guitar music that shows another, slightly different layer to the style.

It is good to see that they are not afraid of changing direction whilst not jumping on bandwagons or forgetting their musical upbringing.

If there is one criticism I could make it’s that this stylistic detour means that the, quite frankly, incredible percussive triplets hammered out by Gabriela’s right hand sometimes take on the feel of a more conventional drum beat to support the more conventional rock riffs and leave the mesmerising, deep chords under the thud of knuckles on wood behind. However, I only mention this because it is the rhythm playing that has always drawn me to their music. It makes me feel like a kid again, trying to figure out how they make a guitar make “that sound” and it isn’t really allowed out to play on ‘9 Dead Alive’.

For similar reasons some fans may not agree with the reliance on riffs and reduction of scorching lead lines cascading from Rodrigo’s side of the mix, however, I would hesitate to be over critical and point out the fact that what this latest selection of compositions do (without a shadow of a doubt) is portray Rodrigo y Gabriela’s music via a completely different palette full of darker tones, fewer sunny days; and after a few listens you suddenly get the impression that this is both a strong album in its own right and also as part of the catalogue of vibrant creativity this pair have spawned.

For somebody being introduced to them for the first time I’d still say head for their eponymous debut album, but ‘9 Dead Alive’ should still be considered a valuable release – it shows progression and that this pony has more than a single trick. Instrumental music often struggles to keep hold of peoples’ attention so variation and evolution is vital – and that, to me, is what these nine tracks represent: continued evolution and exploration as they peel back the layers of their influences.

Technically flawless and still sodden to its undies in heart and soul, ‘9 Dead Alive’ proves, once again, what a (criminally unknown) talent Rodrigo y Gabriela are.