Sound: It has been four years since Rodrigo y Gabriela's debut self-titled album. Back then they were relatively unknown, playing quite intimate venues to fairly small audiences. Their acclaim grew quickly. Only a year after I saw them in one such small venue they were filling its larger brother, playing to a hall of a couple of thousand. I can't think of many acts in recent years whose slow but steady climb through the alternative music food chain has been better deserved. Drawing on a mix of influences, most notably Latin, flamenco, metal and jazz, the duo created a unique and full sound from a bunch of crazy techniques exploited to their fullest on a mere pair of acoustic guitars. Rodrigo deftly picks through an assortment of melodies and scales while Gabriela provides the rhythm, tapping and strumming with astonishing speed. Their shows are full of enthusiasm, hilarious stories from their and, of course, unparalleled skill and genuine originality. This was perfectly captured in their first record, which was a furious mix of often uplifting, often hectic, sometimes melancholy acoustic mastery.
It is interesting then that 11:11 steps away from this somewhat. It is undoubtedly still Rodrigo y Gabriela, but from the opening track Hanuman the mood is far less chaotic, far more measured, sombre and melodic. At a show a couple of years ago I noticed Rodrigo started using electric effects on his acoustic guitar. I was worried that the new direction would be damaging, too much of a step away from their acoustic roots giving too much room for self-indulgence. I have to admit this is not the case on 11:11. Effects are used often but very rarely self-indulgently or unnecessarily. Although an over-reliance on effects risks blurring the line between Rod y Gab and other alternative acts or spoiling the purity and freshness for which their debut and act is still praised, the balance is struck fine on 11:11. A perfect example is Buster Voodoo, which is a tribute to Jimi Hendrix. Towards the end Rodrigo adds a wah effect to his guitar, at the same time taking nuances from Hendrix's intro to Voodoo Chile. The effect is similar (though not as elaborate) to their cover of Stairway to Heaven from the first album: nostalgic and great but with a great funky streak. Similarly, Gabriela's rhythm is complimented by added percussion.
In all, as opposed to the flamenco influences that dominated the first album, 11:11 is much more interested in jazz, metal and progression. A case in point is guest guitarist Alex Skolnick's (of Testament fame) fully electric guitar solo on Atman. The guitar work and arrangement are much tighter this time around, sometimes far more complex. This is especially noticeable with regards to Gabriela's flawless rhythm section, but also in the clever handling of the main Rod y Gab innovations: guitar effects, added percussion and piano. // 10
Lyrics: Rodrigo y Gabriela do not sing but it would be unfair to penalise an instrumental band that excels in everything else. I will therefore rate them according to the stories which attach to their songs and the companion DVD that comes with at least some editions of the 11:11 album. Each track is dedicated or concerns someone, for example the song from which the record takes its name is dedicated to Pink Floyd (laying bare the progressive influence on the duo), or Logos to Al Di Meola (whose efforts with John McLaughlin and Paco De Lucia to whom Master Maqui is dedicated can be seen as a clear influence on Rod y Gab). The dedications are followed up with brief introductions to the artists and a recommendation of their best albums. The DVD follows a similar format to that included with the debut an interview, live performance and tutorial for Buster Voodoo. It is always fun to listen to Rod y Gab talk about music or just rant, and the interviews follow the album, discussing, for example, the reasons for inviting Skolnick, Strunz and Farah into the studio, as well as a tour of the studio itself. The duo's bitterness at the commercialism of the record industry has always been strong but understandable, and it is good to see that with growing recognition they seem to remain thankful and surprised. // 10
Overall Impression: 11:11 is a bold but clever move for the acoustic duo. It makes a step away from their debut, introducing a wealth of new sounds, instruments and nuances. Yet at the same time the shift of emphasis from flamenco and Latin to progressive, metal and jazz is not so great that it would alienate the original fan base (who, in any case, contain far more metal heads than might be thought at first). The new direction is clearly carefully measured and judged, at once flinging the door open for further exploration with any future material and retaining the unmistakable riffs that made their debut a masterful breath of fresh of air. The virtuosity, especially on the Eastern-inspired Atman, is as ever astounding, but the sheer enthusiasm of the 2005 release has been tempered. The new album is at times moody, at times frantic, often surprising but always sleek and impressive. It will certainly be interesting to see where Rodrigo y Gabriela's next release takes them. In the meantime the converted flock to ever growing venues. // 10