Reviewed by AJ Miranda.
Where Grupo Fantasma’s Grammy-nominated 2008 album Sonidos Gold had an airy, inviting feel and glossy sound, their recently released follow-up El Existential has a more raw, forceful feel and smoky discoteca sound. This is an aggressive and invigorated Grupo Fantasma, sounding like they have something to prove and not taking one second of the listener’s time for granted.
The horns are fiercer. The guitars are louder and spacier. And the one-two vocal punch of timbalero Jose Galeano and hand percussionist Kino Rodriguez is as potent as it’s ever been. It’s as though the band is still coming down from its Brownout high after releasing a fiery collection of Latin funk under its alter-ego band’s name last year. The 10-piece group infuses some aggression into the more traditional-sounding of the two acts on this album, and it works to compelling effect.
Few rock ‘n’ roll bands, let alone Latin bands, get as heavy as Fantasma does at the two-minute mark of “Hijo,” seamlessly sliding from a güiro-driven cumbia refrain into a pummeling wave of classic-rock guitars and cymbal crashes. It’s what The Mars Volta might’ve sounded like had they learned to read sheet music and converted their minor flirtations with salsa into a full-on love affair. Drummer Johnny Lopez forgets he’s supposed to be drumming for a salsa band when he goes all John Bonham on us at the song’s climax. Not too surprising, since this is the group that covers portions of Led Zeppelin’s “Moby Dick” in concert, but it’s good to see them finally get this heavy on record.
Then, to show their diversity, Fantasma slows it down with a salsa ballad on the very next track, “Juan Tenorio.” Salsa piano legend Larry Harlow guests on the song, pretty much anointing this Austin, Texas, orchestra as the young Latin big band to measure up to. And you have to agree with Harlow. I’m not saying there isn’t a better Latin band out there, but if there is, I haven’t heard them. Grupo Fantasma’s cumbia and salsa elements appeal to traditional Latin-music lovers, while their fiery guitar solos and psychedelic moments appeal to rock fans. And, most importantly, this hybrid of differing styles never sounds like a compromise. The music is as organic as a banana rice-milk smoothie from an Austin vegan juice shop.
Overall, the urgency and fire of El Existential is what elevates it above the catchy and polished Sonidos Gold. If their last effort was worthy of a Grammy nod, El Existential is worth a win.
Red River rating: 9.0 out of 10
Listen to the single “El Consejo” from El Existential below.