Mexican acoustic-guitar duo Rodrigo y Gabriela have earned a stellar reputation that crosses genre boundaries. Granola-munching world-music types love them every bit as much as the sandaled hippies populating the jam-band festivals where they’ve performed. Meanwhile, their roots in Mexico’s underground metal scene has brought shredders like Testament guitarist Alex Skolnick and Metallica bassist Robert Trujillo onto their stage as guests. Their music mixes flamenco-ish (but not strictly flamenco) strumming and slapping — they frequently use their guitars’ hollow bodies as percussion instruments — with metal-style riffing and intense showmanship. On record or live, they’re a thrill. And until now, for the most part, it’s been a two-person show.
On their latest release, though, Rodrigo y Gabriela embark on an album-length collaboration with C.U.B.A., a 13-piece Cuban orchestra that includes horns, electric guitar and lots of percussion. In addition, veteran metal drummer John Tempesta plays on several tracks, sitar player Anoushka Shankar contributes to one, and the oud ensemble Le Trio Joubran can be heard on another. There may not be any new compositions here (four tracks come from their self-titled 2006 album, the other five from 2009’s 11:11), but the radical expansion of the songs renders them nearly unrecognizable at times. And it’s not all about simply adding salsa blare to their stark, hammering guitar work. Sometimes melancholy vocals or isolated violin lines are spotlit, and Shankar’s sitar adds an element of real surprise to the eight-minute “Ixtapa.” Similarly, on “Master Maqui,” the combination of a Fania Records-style orchestra, hard-strummed guitars and three delicately plucked ouds makes for a sound never heard before.
It’s not often that one gets to hear a genuinely new musical synthesis, but Area 52 offers exactly that. As such, it could be the album that breaks Rodrigo y Gabriela beyond their already sizable cult.