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El Guapo



El Guapo is a decidedly cerebral and often peculiarly beautiful earful emanating from various points within the East Coast independent rock diaspora, with Washington, DC the band's nominal headquarters. Things started in college (as they so often do), at Wesleyan University in Middletown, CT, with founding members Justin Moyer and Rafael Cohen trading guitar and drum duties as they mounted a frenetic, visceral hardcore attack with such force that they risked (and occasionally sustained) serious bodily injury during live performances. Now, Wesleyan is well known for its adventurous, experimental-leaning music program, and before long, the work of a few fairly famous faculty members, including avant-garde composer Alvin Lucier, and especially seminal free jazz saxophonist and composer Anthony Braxton, began to influence El Guapo's sound almost as much as, say, Minor Threat. Around '97, the duo became a trio, adding Nate Smith on drums, and the music became increasingly rhythmic, dubbier, more skeletal, with Moyer and Cohen showing as much propensity towards free jazz improvisation as punk rock freakout. Things kept getting weirder. Pete Cafarella added an accordion to the mix. Cohen started playing oboe. El Guapo began to sound like a schizophrenic Ornette Coleman, recently turned on to punk rock and set loose in an instrument store.

Throughout the personnel changes and stylistic experimentation, the white hot spark that initially drove Cohen and Moyer to start making fierce, ragged noise together has remained a vital element in El Guapo's music, occasionally finding expression in the group's sparse but pointed lyrics, which range from detached irony to obtuse, vaguely academic observations to steam-of-consciousness polemicizing. However abstract or esoteric El Guapo may sometimes be, there's a serious passion beneath their music that makes the experiments work. There's also a lucidity, a feeling that somehow these disparate styles and sounds were meant to be sewn together into this weird patchwork and hung on this minimalist frame. And with the band's brilliant eclecticism comes a feeling of zany, off-kilter liberation.

After playing together and refining their sound for a couple of years, El Guapo issued two releases on DC-based Resin Records: the five-song The Burden of History EP and the 13-song The Phenomenon of Renewal. The buoyant, guitar-driven instrumental "Braxton" comes from the former, while the stripped-down semiotic meditation "Symbol-Object" comes from the latter. These were challenging and eclectic efforts that combined elements of avant-garde jazz, dub-flavored post-punk, and much more, but the band's next release, The Geography of Dissolution, on Moyer's fledgling Mud Memory label may have topped both of those records for sheer strangeness. A live album culled from a pair of '99 performances (the first, recorded at DC's Black Cat, yielded "Zelda"; the second, recorded at John Zorn's Tonic in New York, produced the bizarre "Information Session"), Dissolution showcases the quartet at their absolute furthest out, really more free jazz than rock now, a m?lange of reedy, angular oboe and English horn improv, guitar improv, deep, molasses-thick bass grooves, haunted keys, stormy percussion, and prerecorded sounds. Just listen. Words can't describe the strange wonder of this stuff.

Moyer and Cohen will seek to reinvent themselves again as a duo with the forthcoming RE: Solve.