by Jeffrey Wright
The SXSW festival has served as a prime opportunity for Latin American bands to gain exposure among US audiences, label execs, and industry scouts, and this year that tradition continued to build. The SA Current was on hand Friday, March 19 for the Gibson Latino venue at Austin's Opal Divine's Freehouse on 6th Street downtown, showcasing rockers Verona of Caracas, MegaRex of Sao Paulo, and, from Mexico, Yokozuna, The Hong Kong Blood Opera, Division Minuscula, and supergroup attraction Los Odio.
In the end, the star power brought to the evening by Los Odio, made up of guitarist and lead vocalist Paco Huidobro (Fobia), guitarist Jay De la Cueva (Fobia, Moderatto), bassist Quique Rangel (Cafe Tacuba), guitarist Tito Fuentes (Molotov), and drummer Tomás, failed to draw a large public. In fact, it failed to do much more than shine a spotlight on the egos of some talented musicians so intent on displaying disinterest in their star status that disinterest permeated their entire set. That apathy set the stage for Yokozuna and Hong Kong Blood Opera to steal the show.
Yokozuna, from Mexico City, comprises two brothers, Arturo and Jose Antonio Tranquilino – who, while mild-mannered backstage, belie their surname with their sweaty energy and talent onstage. They opened, Arturo on guitar and and Jose Antonio on drums, with "Drógame," a musically dense, relatively slow-paced and melodic piece that steadily builds into a Helmet-like chord-driven intensity which announced to the smattering of attendees that we were in for some highly original talent with this duo. But that hardly prepared listeners for the next song, "Crank," which exploded into a crushing Mastodon-esque juggernaut. It bowled us over as though we had stepped in front of an acoustic charge from Yokozuna's eponymous sumo grandmasters.
The rest of their set maintained a relentless aural punishment all the way through to the climactic "Huevos Al Motor," a mind-bending instrumental duel between Arturo's ecstatic guitar and Jose Antonio's bruising drums. Against a backdrop of eerie howling, Arturo leaped from the stage and fell to his knees as he ripped through a wrenching solo on a guitar held behind his neck a la Hendrix (and Jimi's riffs were woven through the cacaphonous melody in tribute); without missing a note he finally regained the platform and released us to a ferocious drum solo from Jose Antonio, so thunderous it likely triggered tsunami alerts in the Indian Ocean.
Despite the obvious technical limitations imposed by a two-man act, the band has achieved notable recognition in Mexico over the past four years, opening for such giants as Bad Religion, NIN, Flaming Lips, and the more musically akin Mastodon. And in their first US tour, steeped in the fervor of the SXSW, Arturo disclosed to the Current — for the first time to a media outlet anywhere — that Yokozuna will soon be three: Famed Molotov bassist Miguel Ángel Huidobro (Pacos's brother) will join the band for their third full-length CD, due out in the middle of this year. That will likely launch the brothers into commercial success. But don't wait, especially if you missed Thursday's San Antonio performance at the SWC Club. Pick up their current cut, "Yokozuna II," on the independent Mexican label Intolerancia now.
Immediately following the brothers' act came the Hong Kong Blood Opera out of Hermosillo, a Sonoran desert city more known for its musica norteña and blistering sun than a youth underground with blistering hardcore. But, in fact, Hermosillo is producing some of the freshest hard rock bands in the country these days, including names such as Grito, Suciedad Discriminada, and most notably, Saturday's sensational guests, who have performed in venues throughout Mexico, Europe, and the United States. (This was HKBO's second appearance at SXSW.)
As HKBO assembled before the audience, it was hard not to feel a little skeptical: Anytime you see a guitarist wearing a Black Flag t-shirt with the 1976 four-bar band logo posing next to an afro-coiffed synth player, you have to wonder what kind of insipid second-wave screamo might be in store. But all doubt dissipated when the band, led by 22-year-old frontman Sebastián Samaniego, abruptly convulsed into a spasm of noise with its first song, "Heat Rises," off their outstanding 2009 album, Not For The Faint Of Heart (also on the Intolerancia label).
Sebastián describes the band as punk hardcore with an industrial edge (thus the synthesizer). The SXSW bio goes a bit further, listing hardcore-noise-punk, digital hardcore, hip-hop, trash metal, industrial, electro, tribal elements and “other” influences. At times this scattergun shooting misses the mark and Blood Opera's potent aggression cedes to a more diffuse sound with hackneyed electronica sequences. Luis Alvarez's synth works when it accentuates the band's punk rock roots with pounding bass underpinning industrial noise harmonies, such as in tracks "Fill Me Full Of Hate" or "Level 5 Song"; it detracts when it veers into exultant electro-pop, a somewhat cheesy style reminiscent of early Mr. Bungle.
Nevertheless, HKBO easily commanded the greatest crowd energy of the night with an in-your-face performance flushed out by mesmerizing guitar from Luis Andonaegui, frenzied drumming by Miguel Valdez, and screaming vocal and guitar backup by Memo Ibarra. “They have always known how to set the crowd on fire,” says Hermosillo native Faride, the hardcore ax behind the surging Tijuana punk band Verbal Desecration who grew up with HKBO band members. This is, indeed, a band you should see live at the next opportunity. But until then, Not For The Faint Of Heart is well worth adding to your collection.
Though Yokozuna and HKBO unquestionably stole the spotlight on Friday, Los Odio weren't exactly a tough act to steal it from. The supergroup plodded through a set of uninspired rock and roll compositions that literally brought nothing new to Mexican rock en español. That may represent a common supergroup pitfall, but Los Odio have tumbled into it hard.
Paco Huidobro crooned through the group's original songs – self-consciously irreverent pieces such as "Pelos en el Mouse" and "Superpompis" – while the other musicians strutted around the stage showboating their undeniably high level of technical musical skill. But talent aside, not only was Los Odio unable to break new ground beyond what the individual artists achieved in their hugely influential respective groups Fobia, Cafe Tacuba, and Molotov, the band doesn't even approach the originality of those original acts.
After the first three songs the Current reporter found himself thinking, “Why do I feel like I'm watching the Mexican dinosaur rock band El Tri?” On cue, Austin-based Daniel Schechter, a former SXSW stage manager who previously lived in Mexico City for nearly a decade, leaned to the reporter and said, “These guys are just like the El Tri. The singer [Paco] is like a young Alex Lora.” Ouch. That's the kiss of death for a new Mexican rock act, but that was the critical consensus. And aside from the front-row groupies lavishing “we are not worthy” bows on the band after every song, it was a consensus the largely unmoved audience seemed to share.
Los Odio's best performance of the night came at the end from a cover of The Beatle's "Helter Skelter." “We play this song mas chingón than they do,” Paco declared in his introduction of it. They then plunged into a lengthy, rousing guitar-jam rendition. It was pretty chingón, no doubt. But if the best a superstar rock ensemble can come up with is yet another compelling cover of a song that was groundbreaking more than three decades ago, it's a good sign the musical experiment has failed.