ARTIST: The Reel Banditos
REVIEWER: Matthew J.
With their new release, German duo The Reel Banditos may have created the first true trip-hop concept album. A history in music of the American involvement in the Vietnam War, this album is remarkable not only for its evocative sense of place but also for its incredible sense of time and of culture. It's not enough that band members Ernesto Diablo and Butch Loco create a vaguely Asian landscape, though the nocturnal chirps and oriental percussion of "Indochina" and the reverb-soaked Vietnamese folk song around which "My Lai" is built leave little doubt as to the album's geographical focus. What's more impressive, though, is that Diablo and Loco aren't just creating a place, but also the people who were sent there, the American soldiers camped in the jungle. With its marching cadence and wah-wah guitars, "Grunt" evokes a rock 'n' roll fan marching through foreign tropical forest. "Saigon '67" creates an even stronger sense of displaced soldiers trying to create a sense of home in a city halfway around the world; with Latin and Eastern-style dub rhythms swirling around each other beneath a grooving rock riff, it's half Santana and half Asian Dub Foundation. As the war itself progressed inevitably into a quagmire of slaughtered civilians and burnt out, shell-shocked soldiers, so too does the album move from tense but head-nodding grooves into orchestral solemnity, with eerie bamboo-like percussion and flutes fluttering through "The Cu Chi Tunnels" and symphonic pads evoking the U.S. evacuation on "The Fall of Saigon." As a coda, "The Non Nuoc" closes out the album with the recitation of a pastoral poem by Tan La over the same jungle insect buzz and helicopter blade cacophony that began it, a pointed reminder that helicopters and foreign soldiers and war itself come and go, but the land itself is largely unchanged, the rain forest quick to cover over even the momentary blight of Agent Orange. Very much a soundtrack to a nonexistent documentary, the album is accompanied by a DVD featuring videos for several of the songs; a mixture of stylish and stylized animation and black and white Apocalypse Now-styled freak-out footage, it further ties the music to its underlying concept. This is powerful stuff, tense in places, poignant in others, but always underscored by a bass-heavy groove that will keep heads nodding in spite of the atrocities it evokes. A groundbreaking and yet strangely accessible album, this comes strongly recommended to fans of trip-hop, rock and film alike.
For more information, including a preview of the album, visit www.reelbanditos.com.
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