Cabezas de Cera

En Directo 2005, DVD $30.

Cabezas de Cera (Heads of Wax) is a progressive rock band with traditional Mexican roots, and a vision broad enough to fuse the two together in countless imaginative and inspired ways. Recorded in Mexico City in December of 2003, this 90-minute concert flies swiftly by, due in large part to the band’s unself-conscious presentation of some of the most high-energy, dramatic, and often humorous instrumental music around. En Directo shows how a contemporary trio can create live music of a complexity once found only in the studio, or with computerized or pre-recorded backing tracks, and deliver it with a spontaneous feel. The audio production and video editing and camera-work are excellent, and make for a transparent listening and viewing experience.

In the first few minutes, this contemporary Mexican trio shows a slow-motion deconstruction of their abstract side. Layer upon layer of broad sonic washes surround Levin-esque percolating Stick bass, spritely wind-synth chirps, and nonsense lyric vocal cries. They expertly build the tension and then release into a fast-paced groove of Stick and sampled tabla, crowned by a frantic wailing clarinet. A theme is introduced, repeated, then just as quickly the "introduction" is finished.

It’s a captivating way to begin a concert, and shows some of what the listener has to look forward to. But there’s much more to the story that’s about to unfold. Though sometimes sonically amorphous or chaotic, an energetic narrative focus runs throughout, driven by musical suspension and tension, and always released in a surprising way.

Though the arrangements are tightly scripted, the players know their parts to perfection, and they clearly have a great time playing them. Their constant shifting from one feel to the next is never gratuitous, and always serves the composition, creating a feeling of spontaneity, rather than potentially typical "proginess."

Cabezas de Cera packs extreme sonic diversity into their tight arrangements. Each member of the band commands a huge palette of sounds. Mauricio Sotelo’s Grid-equipped Stick thumps, churns, pounds and soars into lyrical cello-like solos, that could just have easily come out of Ramsés Luna’s wind synth. When he shifts into bass/melody mode its all about the groove, but he also delivers some searing distorted leads, which he lays down over sampled Stick bass parts.

Francisco Sotelo jumps from acoustic drums to deep sampled mallets to abstract triggered synths, always leaving lots of audio space. Together, the two brothers construct an ever-morphing musical tower that reaches up to heights of big, bombastic major chords and plows deep into heavy minor earth-shaking grooves.

At the apex of the triangle is Luna, who provides "the voice" atop the tower in myriad forms. Flute, alto sax, clarinet, wind synth and vocal chants/shouts/calls in frequently nonsense lyrics that sound sometimes like German, Italian, Spanish or some Native American tongue. His playing recalls free jazz, Klezmer music, Middle-Eastern and South Asian classical, as well as traditional Mexican folk music.

The Mexican elements subtly poke thorough several of the pieces, but then we get to hear a piece like "Encantador de Serpientes" that starts in their now-familiar abstract way and quickly morphs into a bright folk-inspired flute, acoustic-guitar and drums rock tune. True-to-form, Cabezas de Cera won’t stay there long, as the piece shifts into a "jazz" flute solo, then shifts again into an airy acoustic guitar section, then back to the jazz flavor, then back to the rock tune for some solos, including alto sax, then back to flute for a surprise ending.

The surprises keep coming - new sounds and new instruments. At one point Mauricio pulls out the "Tricordio," a three-stringed home-made metal instrument that looks like a lute, but sounds like a demon. He plucks it and whacks it with a stick and bows it, plowing it through heavy distortion. Each player in the band employs synthesizers in a visually satisfying way, whether it’s Mauricio’s live knob-twiddling, Francisco’s deep-pitched electronic mallets or Luna’s bird-like expressions as he wails and chirps on his wind synth. Their use of electronics is as "organic" as the rest of their performance.

The whole video presentation is dynamic, in every sense of the word, without being over-produced. That’s a testament to the quality of the performance and the energy and interaction in the band. These are young musicians, who’ve set a very high standard for themselves to live up to on future projects.

If En Directo is any indication of what that future holds for Cabezas de Cera, we’ve got a lot to look forward to.

Greg Howard