New Audio: Grupo Fantasma’s Fania Records-Inspired, New Single

If you’ve been frequenting over the past few days or follow me through Twitter or Instagram, the annual CMJ Festival, which presents new and emerging artists to music industry folks — namely, college radio programmers, bloggers, journalists, A&R and others, and the general public at a rather insane number of showcases and concerts across Lower Manhattan and Brooklyn. For a music fan and journalist, it manages to simultaneously be the best thing in the entire world and a daunting and exhausting experience.

Last night, I walked out of my apartment at 12:40 to pick up credentials for the festival, saw seven — yes, that’s right, seven — different sets of music across three or four different genres and wound up walking into my door at 5:45 this morning. And I’m about to repeat some of that complete madness today. Fun times.

As you can imagine, as a result I just haven’t had a chance to post as much as I would have preferred over the past couple of days. But I’ll be back to more regular posting as we begin a new week. And yes, you can expect some CMJ-related coverage here shortly; however, in the meantime, let’s get to some necessary business  . . .

If you’ve been frequenting JOVM for a bit, you may be intimately familiar with the Austin, TX-based collective Grupo Fantasma. Since their formation 15 years ago, the collective 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 JournalBillboard and USA Today, who once 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 BadABC’Ugly BettyNBC‘s Law and OrderShowtime‘s Weeds and the John Sayles‘ film Casa de los Babys.  And the collective has also had 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 AwardsThe Golden Globes and CBS‘ Super Bowl Bash, Fania All-Stars‘ pianist Larry HarlowSheila E., The GZAGina 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 frequently split off into a variety of side projects and other musical concerns, including a Turkish pop-inspired project and the funk and heavy metal 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.)

Grupo Fantasma’s soon-to-released  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 worked with an outside producer — in this case, Steve Berlin, who’s also a renowned horn player and keyboardist. As bassist Greg González explained 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 also 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. Now you might have come across the album’s first single “Solo Un Sueno” revealed a stripped down songwriting approach, which naturally forces the listener’s attention to the song’s lyrics. Sonically, the song clearly draws from Latin music, funk and Eastern European music, as it possesses a twisting and turning song structure that’s spacious enough to allow for each section to do their thing.

The album’s latest single “Roto El Corazon” is a bit more of a straightforward-leaning percussive salsa song with elements of atmospheric psych rock towards the song’s coda, that sounds (for the most part) as though it could have been released during the Fania Records days. Obviously in this composition, the incredible horn and percussion sections are the heroes, pulling the heavy weight of the song’s muscle and melody throughout while being roomy enough for the vocalist and his lyrics to effortlessly flow through the mix. But interestingly enough the song manages to have a lot going on — while feeling unfussy and stripped down to nine guys sounding like they were jamming at a club.