Since their formation 15 years ago, the Austin, TX-based collective Grupo Fantasma has developed a reputation as being one of the US’s preeminent, independent Latin bands as the collective has been nominated for multiple Grammies and won a Grammy for their 2011 effort, El Existential, as well as praise from the likes The Wall Street Journal, Billboard and USA Today, who specifically called the band “Latin funk masters.” Adding to an extensive national profile, the collective has had music placements in a wide array of film and TV shows including AMC‘s Breaking Bad, ABC’s Ugly Betty, NBC‘s Law and Order, Showtime‘s Weeds and the John Sayles‘ film Casa de los Babys. They also have a long-held reputation for being one of the best live funk bands in the country, and as a result they’ve backed Prince for The ALMA Awards, The Golden Globes and CBS‘ Super Bowl Bash, Fania All-Stars‘ pianist Larry Harlow, Sheila E., The GZA, Gina Chavez, and renowned indie rock band (and fellow Austinites) Spoon.
It’s been a while since we’ve heard from Groupo Fantasma. Perhaps because of the finances behind being a large band, the current lineup — now comprised of nine full-time members — has occasionally split off into a variety of side projects and other musical concerns, including a Turkish pop-inspired project and the renowned funk and rock-based project Brownout, which has spent the better part of the past two years touring with a unique concept — Latin funk-based interpretations and reworking of Black Sabbath that the band dubbed Brown Sabbath. (Imagine some of your favorite Black Sabbath tunes with horns, congas and the like. Yeah, seriously. And it’s honestly pretty fucking awesome, as it adds an unexpected nuance and a different interpretation on songs that have long been familiar – without ruining the song’s intent and spirit which is extremely difficult).
Grupo Fantasma’s fifth full-length effort Problemas is slated for an October 30 release through Blue Corn Music and the album marks the first time that the band works with an outside producer — in this case, Steve Berlin, who’s also a renowned horn player and keyboardist. As bassist Greg González explains in press notes, “We thought a new process would help us find a unique voice and create a story. It would’ve been easier and cheaper to record everything ourselves and reuse the same techniques which successfully garnered us a Grammy and two nominations for successive albums (Sonidos Gold and El Existential) but the desire was to push ourselves in new directions.”
During the writing and recording process, Berlin influenced the members of the band to streamline their music as much as possible so that the band’s songwriting and unique approach would come out to the forefront of their recorded sound — and to give voice to their experiences and influences without falling into being pigeonholed as merely a Latin, Texas or “World Music” album or be dismissed as a calculated attempt at crafting a crossover album. In fact, the album reportedly draws from a variety of influences including heavy metal, indie rock, funk, hip-hop, jazz, African music, Eastern European music, gypsy music, South American. Cuban, Tex-Mex and others.
The album’s first single “Solo Un Sueno” reveals a stripped down sonic approach, which naturally focuses the listener’s attention to the song’s lyrics. But sonically, the song draws from funk, Latin music, rock and gypsy music and as a result, it possesses an unusual twisting and turning song structure that proudly displays each instrumental section’s chops. The song manages to be challenging yet accessible, sensual and danceable, and clearly has the band actively attempting to set themselves apart from a crowded field of Latin-inspired acts.