This Week’s Best Albums: January 24, 2012

Each week, editor-in-chief Chris Force and music editor Scott Morrow choose ALARM’s favorite new releases for This Week’s Best Albums, an eclectic set of reviews presenting exceptional music.

Rodrigo y Gabriela: Area 52Rodrigo y Gabriela: Area 52 (ATO)

Rodrigo y Gabriela: “Juan Loco”

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With their last album, 11:11, dueling guitarists Rodrigo Sánchez and Gabriela Quintero exploded into the spotlight, gaining a new swell of fans with their blend of acoustic rock and Latin sounds. Now the duo — whose original material already is infused with the energy and frenetic fretwork of classical guitar and metal — has re-imagined its own material with the aid of a 13-piece Cuban big band.

Area 52 is full of horn stabs, jazzy piano accents, and flute flourishes, but it goes well beyond being a traditional Cuban record. A healthy diversity is borne from psychedelic guitar effects and unexpected guest appearances, including sitarist Anoushka Shankar, bassist Carles Benavent (Chick Corea, Miles Davis), and drummer John Tempesta (Testament, White Zombie).

“Hunuman,” one of the duo’s biggest songs, is re-imagined — and nearly unrecognizable from its powerful acoustic-thrash beginning — as a dramatic string-tinged intro paves the way for the song’s main melody. It even bears shades of Carlos Santana. Though fans will have to keep waiting for brand-new songs, these selections nearly qualify.

– Scott Morrow

Gangrene: Vodka & AyahuascaGangrene: Vodka & Ayahuasca (Decon)

Gangrene: “Vodka & Ayahuasca”

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In November of 2010, rappers/producers The Alchemist and Oh No released their first full-length collaboration as Gangrene. The album, Gutter Water, showcased the duo’s subtly sophisticated production techniques as well as Alc and Oh’s emcee skills, although the latter fell flat in moments of self-aggrandizement or gratuity.

Now Gangrene returns with its follow-up record, Vodka & Ayahuasca — a grimy, tripped-out nightmare. Like its predecessor, V&A tends to suffer a bit from outlandish lyrics and occasionally clunky deliveries, but its hip-hop beats fused with psychedelic effects, distorted-guitar and piano samples, and as clips of ayahuasca freak-outs provide a satisfyingly weird, unnerving atmosphere. (For those unaware, ayahuasca is a DMT-laden hallucinogenic.) Though the album may be unappealing to those outside of drug culture, the bizarreness of the whole experience will keep you listening track after track.

– Meaghann Korbel

Victor Villarreal: Invisible CinemaVictor Villarreal: Invisible Cinema (Joyful Noise)

Victor Villarreal: “Enters”

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Following his years as an unheralded but influential guitarist in Cap’n Jazz, Ghosts ‘n’ Vodka, and Joan of Arc, finger-picking virtuoso Victor Villarreal went through a musical disappearance. He finally resurfaced in 2009 with Alive, a tribute to his late brother that featured Villarreal’s vocal debut over strummed singer-songwriter pieces.

Invisible Cinema is, in the words of Joyful Noise, his first “fully realized” effort. The complex guitar passages are restrained but more frequent, and with them are a handful of accompanying instruments as well as, seemingly, more self-confidence as a singer. Though Villarreal’s vocals can be hit or miss, he has made ample progress since Alive, and the opening track, “Enters,” is proof. After two minutes of amazingly melodic guitar work and backing strings, the piece is joined by drums before Villarreal launches into a 3/4-based vocal phrasing — something that he might not have tried on Alive.

With bits of trumpet, bass, guitar feedback, and drums and other percussion, Invisible Cinema has enough flavor to keep from getting old. If being a solo performer is the next chapter of Villarreal’s career, he should do just fine.

– Scott Morrow

Plug: Back on TimePlug: Back on Time (Ninja Tune)

Plug: “Feeling So Special”

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Back on Time is the latest collection of tracks from oddball electronic musician Luke Vibert, whose aliases of Wagon Christ, Plug, and many others have tens of albums to their credit (in addition to officially “solo” releases). In gathering these 10 tunes, Vibert rummaged the depths of his apparently massive catalog of Plug material from 1995 to 1998, a time when he was putting his own stamp on the drum-and-bass genre.

Though these previously unreleased songs are roughly 15 years old, the record sounds, for the most part, strangely renewed. Tracks like the break-beat-driven, semi-glitchy, semi-jazzy “Yes Man” display Vibert’s creativity in fusing different electronic styles. But the album’s freshness is in part due to his playful humor: the industrial “Come on My Skeleton” throws a curve-ball with the sober warning “you might also become aware of your anus or genitalia”; “Mind Bending” jerks back and forth between Speak ‘n’ Spell-style synthesized speech and a stoner’s awe at some “fucking excellent acid house.”

Melodies and beats are aplenty, in nearly whichever style you prefer. But when the album threatens to become a tad too serious, you can count on that humor to cut the tension at just the right moment.

– Meaghann Korbel

Gonjasufi: MuzzleGonjasufi: MU.ZZ.LE (Warp)

Gonjasufi: “Feedin’ Birds”

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Written as an emotional and spiritual outlet while on the road touring, MU.ZZ.LE is psychedelic rapper Gonjasufi’s latest “mini-album” since his 2010 debut, A Sufi and a Killer. The combination of down-tempo beats and haunting lyrics on this album make for a dark and introspective atmosphere, but his voice is his most powerful and versatile instrument. At times, it’s something of a hoarse croak, a barely audible mumble; at other times, it reaches a sorrowful croon and a creeping howl, often in a sudden, drastic shift. The effect is unsettling — and unforgettable.

– Meaghann Korbel

Honorable Mentions

Abigail Williams: Becoming (Candlelight)

Bleubird: Cannonball!!! (Fake Four)

Dodecahedron: s/t (Underground Activists / Season of Mist)

Imbogodom: And They Turned Not When They Went (Thrill Jockey)

Lamb of God: Resolution (Roadrunner)

Nada Surf: The Stars are Indifferent to Astronomy (Barsuk)

Pyramids / Horseback: A Throne Without a King (Hydra Head)

Rhyton: s/t (Thrill Jockey)

Zomes: Improvisations (Thrill Jockey)