Mestis – Basal Ganglia EP (2012)

A few months ago I was gushing about a cold, calculated, intellectual, and yet ferocious and fantastically talented act called Animals as Leaders – more specifically about their first album, masterminded and realized, almost single-handendly, by guitar hero Tosin Abasi on his eight-string guitar. Ever since, the unexpected success of this first album has led to the recruiting of two more members to the AAL team – drummer Matt Garstka and second eight-string guitarist Javier Reyes. Mestis is Reyes’ side project, issuing this first EP last year and reminding me just why I liked AAL’s first album so much and confirming, if there was ever any doubt, that he’s a perfect match for the extended format of the main band.

Javier Reyes

Javier Reyes

That’s enough band history however – this short but very powerful offering will take a bit of eloquence on my part, as a would-be critic, just as it unveils itself to the listener’s ears with a wonderful and rare balance of virtuosity and expressiveness. Comprised of five songs spanning very diverse moods – from the intense, gathering storm of Te Mato, to the breezy, slightly sentimental Olvidala – this EP is special, if for nothing else, for the amazing ability to show patience and restraint in such a short format, in which most performers would probably choose to dazzle at any cost. The intention behind this record seems quite far removed from hollow showmanship though, in spite of the lofty technical proficiency displayed by Javier Reyes at all times. His style, although demanding and uncompromising, is marked by a certain ability to contain the potential onslaught of notes and techniques within a very hard, structured shell of melody and expression. Thus, the music avoids turning into pure math or, arguably worse, a garbled cavalcade of flamboyant demonstrations, and finds its foundation in the subtle and yet completely transparent compositional honesty which comes with love for one’s own songs rather than one’s skill.

Javier Reyes composes with great patience, refusing to cram too much in any given song – the themes follow each-other with great clarity, seamlessly, and as a result, the songs which contain them end up crystallized in shapes which seem to me of absolutely immense strength and brilliance, in a process which my imagination wants to believe is not unlike carving gemstones into rhomboid shapes with the sheer power of one’s will. It’s rare that I get such an epic feeling of control and structure from music, especially in the case of a record barely longer than a quarter of an hour. And yet that’s all it takes Mr. Reyes to convey his spine-tingling vision of how sound can be brought as near as possible to solidity. The name of the EP is exquisitely chosen, given this overall mood – the basal ganglia acts as a very powerful control element of the vertebrate brain – responsible for a variety of functions ranging from motor control to “action selection” – all of which seem to relate to the razor’s edge between voluntary choice and force of habit.

I think it’s pointless to go too deep into the interpretation of the relationship between the record’s name and the nature of the music. There is but one point to be made here – in the war between the structuring and the expressive minds, Javier Reyes has achieved a position of neutrality, or rather, has risen above the petty conflict and has strenuously forged a formidable hybrid, almost intimidating in its stability and shimmering clarity. Enjoy!

Top 12 for 2012

Hi everyone! I’m sorry I pulled such a disappearing act during the past few weeks, I’ve just been very caught up in the holiday preparations and I haven’t had time to immerse myself in a lot of music. However, I’ve got something special planned for you all today. Is it a mixtape? Is it a bird? Is it a plane? No! It’s a big fat cliche heading straight for you, hopeful in the desire to entertain! It’s the ZaRecords Top 12 tracks (and albums) of 2012!

The songs are not arranged in any particular order, other than following the vague, heartfelt guidelines for making a mixtape. The top is not, thus, based on any objective factor, save for the fact that all of these albums and songs have been released in 2012. It covers, as you’ll see, very diverse musical areas, from experimental, to jazz, to metal and rock and so on. I hope it proves to be an eloquent and interesting retrospective of the year, and, why not, a bit of an attempt to define certain trends currently observable on the musical scene.

There’s also a game to be played! Send me your own tops (3, 5, 10, 9 3/4, I don’t care how many tracks, just that it’s a well thought out top for 2012) and I’m sure there will be some lovely opportunities for debate and expansion of musical horizon, and even some (sur)prizes! I’m not saying anything more. Who’s game? I hope you’ve had a wonderful year, my friends, and I wish you a prosperous and harmonious 2013!

Ibrahim Maalouf – Diagnostic (2011)

Some years ago, my country’s mainstream music had been overtaken by a new wave of performers, drawing from an oriental musical tradition. These sonorities have since been associated not only with a more-or-less stereotypical idea of middle-eastern culture, but rather with a particular type of very base, very aggressive subculture in Romania. It was a great disservice to the source material. The other day, I have stumbled upon music which catalyzes freedom in this respect.


Ibrahim Maalouf’s music is difficult to approach. If ever I was faced with sounds which make me think of alchemy, these are them, because there is no area he will not cross, there is no reference he will not make, there are no limits on his staggering root system – from hip-hop to post-rock, from jazz to metal, this album moves through all of these as if they were water. But this is not music to be dissected in terms of influence. This is music which will simply not allow itself a minute to rest, it has some of the most urgent, most dynamic structures I’ve ever heard.

The album is a push, a struggle, not without humor and detachment, but of unrelenting intensity and creative drive, forging together all of its elements into an alloy of unique and highly peculiar properties. When left alone, it resonates. When struck, it releases torrents of energy which it then amplifies over and over, emitting heat and light and sizzling, only to swallow it all up again and instantly cool down. It’s jazz, reforged, notes welded on metal sheet music. It smells of acetylene and cardamom, it tastes like licking a nine volt battery, with a hint of pistachio.

Ibrahim Maalouf’s trumpet is always accompanied by a subtle percussive whisper, that fine, human little sound the brass makes right before the air stream makes it vibrate properly. As much as the notes themselves, that whisper is what makes me feel that this is so much more than his instrument. Truth be told, I’ve always had a fear – I almost want to call it a prejudice right now – that the trumpet has very little subtlety. My impression started being eroded when I heard Nils Petter Molvaer for the first time, but it has been completely shattered by Ibrahim Maalouf. The level of expression and the range he can give this instrument is simply remarkable. This is his voice, and he speaks well.

I really hope you enjoy these samples… Diagnostic is an album quite capable of leaving me speechless. I’m surprised I’ve been able to write as much. Enjoy.