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Babasónicos: A Guided Tour

In anticipation of the upcoming album, we take a look at the band's career.

By | [email protected] | October 2, 2018 3:07pm

babasonicosPhoto via Bizarro FM
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The Argentine rock scene is an intimidatingly vast maelstrom of sights, sounds, and history. You have meat-and-potatoes football-chant rockn’roll, you have technically dexterous prog-rock, you have vaguely New Age-y esotericism, you have confessional singer-songwritery stuff, you have a healthy amount of poppy synth-laden tunes, and a truly bewildering amount of ska. Sometimes, all these things come at you at once, like a malfunctioning car radio stuck between stations. It can be hard, as an outsider, to make heads or tails of it all.

That’s why your trusty friends at The Bubble are here to lend you a helping hand and guide you through the peaks and valleys of Argie music, one artist at a time. Now you can hold your own in conversations without having to default to tried-and-true standards like Soda Stereo and Fito Paez (which, hey, no disrespect to those guys, but you don’t want to be the millionth new-in-town expat who can’t stop raving about Persiana Americana).

And what better band to kick off our series than one that’s effectively navigated the intersection of underground obscurity, experimental abstractness, and mainstream pop success? A band that’s been through as many artistic iterations as one band could reasonably be without being legally required to change their name? A band that’s been around for nearly 30 years and is still pumping out material that sounds fresh, vital, and relevant? That’s right, we’re talking about the purveyors of dreamy debauchery, the paupers of psychedelia: Babasónicos.

It’s pretty hard to properly convey the level of influence and importance that Babasónicos has had on the music scene in Argentina, not only in their sound but also in their freewheeling spirit of experimentation and innovation. Having not grown up with them, my relatively recent journey of discovery has taken me through the many different incarnations that populate the band’s back catalog; with the help of one longtime megafan (hi, Magu!), I put together this little starter guide.

And hey, for no additional charge, we’re throwing in this curated Spotify playlist of choice picks so you can listen along at home. Let’s dive in.

Early Years

Babasónicos formed in 1991 as part of a wave of bands that was collectively referred to at the time as Nuevo Rock Argentino. This movement included bands such as Juana La Loca, El Otro Yo, and Peligrosos Gorriones; bands that eschewed the traditional approaches to songwriting and performance in favor of a quirkier, more unconventional blend of tones and influences. If you’re looking for some sort of analogy to this movement, think of the early-80s alternative rock wave that brought us Hüsker Dü, REM, The Replacements, and Sonic Youth; bands that rode the crest of the New Wave movement, brought it back to the rougher edges of early punk rock, and ran it all through an experimental approach to songcraft and pop melodicism.

The frontman and lead creative force behind Babasónicos is singer Adrián “Dárgelos” Rodriguez, whose distinctive voice and songwriting constitute the most discernible line across the band’s shifting sonic palette.

So what did early Babasónicos sound like? Well, if you only knew them from their later work, you’d probably find it hard to believe that they were the same band at all. Their debut album, Pasto, is loaded with a sense of unhinged aggression and defiance, mixing elements of sludge metal, punk rock, and funk, with only hints of the kind of melodic, poppy psychedelia they would pursue many years down the line. The album’s first single, “D-Generación,” loudly asserts: “My generation doesn’t care about your opinion.” You’d be hard-pressed to find a more Gen-X line than that.

That said, Pasto does offer brief glimpses into what the band would end up becoming; the now-trademark sound toward which they took monumental strides with each subsequent album. The debut was followed by 1994’s Trance Zomba, which also saw the addition of DJ Peggyn to the band (hey, it was the 90s; having a DJ in your hard rock band was pretty much a requirement if you were ever going to build up an audience). Songs like “Malon” showcased a band that was growing into its own, while still feeling creatively restless enough to pursue new avenues in their approach.

And it is precisely that creative restlessness that would lead them to release their third album Dopádromo in 1996. If Trance Zomba represented a refinement of the band’s sound, Dopádromo symbolized the doors blowing completely open; it is the first true indication of the band’s ambitions and scope. Featuring lush orchestration, more developed songwriting, and arrangements that draw influences from genres such as bossa nova and desert rock, the album is a veritable tour-de-force and (in my humble opinion) the first truly great Babasónicos album.

The following year’s Babasónica scaled back on the sprawling ambition and focused its sound on a blend of hard rock (“Demonomanía”) and psychedelic folk (“Sharon Tate”). It also featured a darker, more sardonic lyrical approach, with several songs that humorously explore Satanism and the occult in a nod to the heavy metal bands that influenced their musical upbringing.

After releasing an outtakes collection Vórtice Marxista in 1998 (which, unlike most outtake collections, is actually worth listening to!), the band took a monumental leap forward in their musical development and released an album that became an enduring fan favorite: 1999’s Miami. If their first album Pasto was an inherently pot-fueled affair, Miami was their cocaine record. A loosely woven concept album about the excesses of late-90s Menemista Argentina, this is the album where the band truly defined the sound they would settle into for the next few years of their career; a blend of sugary pop, trippy, high-octane americana, and darkly humorous undertones. Anchored by lead single “Desfachatados,” the whole album is a joy; be sure to check it out in its entirety.

Commercial Breakthrough & Middle Years

It’d be a bit far fetched to say that Babasónicos were ever truly underground – at least from the moment they signed a contract with Sony Music to release their first album. But they did seem to operate with an underground band’s sense of artistic freedom, chasing every creative whimsy and pursuing every approach that tickled their fancy at any particular point. Although they were successful, they were also always bubbling right beneath the mainstream. That changed with the new decade, and the release of their Grammy-nominated sixth album, Jessico.

El Loco” was the first Babasónicos song I remember hearing. An international hit that made it to all corners of Latin America, the song is a startlingly powerful baroque pop ballad featuring Eastern-tinged sounds, swirling synth lines, dreamy harmonies, and lush instrumentation that sounds influenced by – of all people –  Burt Bacharach. It’s a gorgeous piece of work, and might still be my favorite Babasónicos song.

Most of Jessico features a more outwardly pop-leaning, new wave-influenced sound, with electronic samples and drum machines popping up throughout. It is still very characteristically Babasónicos, but it’s understandable that some of the band’s old-time fans fell into the trap of calling the band’s newfound success, and the fact that they were settling into a more radio-friendly sound, a “sell out.” Jessico still features plenty of rock music, however, such as the Western-punk sound of “Pendejo,” and the hard-rock crackle of “Soy Rock.

I will point out that in between Miami and Jessico, the band released Vedette and Groncho, two albums compiling outtakes from their albums Babasónica and Miami, respectively; freed from their record deal with Sony, the band took it upon themselves to release the material that Sony refused to promote. Though not officially considered as part of their discography, both compilations are indeed album-length and feel like like fully realized LPs. They both offer interesting views into what an alternate version of their respective albums might’ve sounded like.

Two years after Jessico’s massive success, the band released Infame, an album that further cemented their pop sound in the public consciousness. Featuring hit singles such as the strangely tender, criminally catchy “Putita” and the lysergic jangle-pop of “Risa,Infame was another massive success, and established Babasónicos as a true force to be reckoned with in the Argentine music scene, achieving both commercial and critical success. The album was awarded the prestigious Gardel de Oro in 2004.

Continuing their string of pop hits, 2005 saw the release of Anoche, a collection of songs that continued the previous two albums’ pop leanings while also further refining the band’s skills as songwriters and arrangers, with motifs that reappear throughout the tracklist and songs that bleed into each other seamlessly. Witness, for example, the one-two-three punch of tracks 2, 3 and 4 – “Carismático,” “La Yegua” and “Un Flash,” which together make what sounds like one extended song. The album’s lyrical themes blend the personal with the hallucinatory, looking at issues such as social anxiety and malaise through the prism of psychedelic Lewis Carroll imagery.

Anoche was another massive hit for the band, and their influence on the music scene was becoming palpable, with a new crop of young bands starting to name-drop Babasónicos as a major influence. This is the part of the band’s history where a group of young up-and-comers start to become the elder statesmen of a sound that they helped pioneer.

In 2008, they released Mucho, their final album with bassist Gabriel Mannelli, who passed away shortly after its release due to Hodgkin’s disease. This album featured songs that managed to maintain the pop melodicism of their last few releases while also presenting a somewhat grittier, more guitar-based sound. Some songs (such as “Estoy Rabioso”) harken back to the band’s earlier incarnation, and even the poppiest songs in the album feel a little more grounded.

Later Years & Recent Work

And so it happened that a scrappy group of pot-smoking whippersnappers went from ranting about their generation to creating a rich, nuanced, layered body of work that transformed them into international superstars. It would have been easy for them to quit at this point; however, they instead moved forward and released their tenth album A Propósito, a sharp turn away from the overtly pop sound of their last few releases and towards a darker, more complex, markedly less danceable sound. Songs like “Fiesta Popular” return the sludgy guitar sound that permeated their earlier work, and “El Pupilo” is a new take on their spacey desert-rock mode.

In 2013, the band released the album Romantisísmico, which took the cold, mechanical sounds of krautrock and recontextualized them within the trademark Babasónicos feel, with a good amount of twisty, bendy country-western guitar for old time’s sake. A more mature sound for the band.

Most recently, Babasónicos have been gearing up for a new album, releasing their new single “La Pregunta,” a sparse, hypnotic, insanely catchy song that features a generous use of drum samples, twinkly guitar arpeggios, and some truly odd sounds. It is haunting, atmospheric and even somewhat unsettling, creating an environment of dread and intrigue even as it settles into its bouncy rhythm.

Cretino” is the second single from the new Babasónicos album, which is titled Discutible and is slated to come out on October 12th. It is a crunchy, snappy rock song, featuring a good amount of palm-muted guitars, rumbling bass, and Dargelo’s haunting voice, which is noticeably deeper, somewhat more gravelly and world-weary. It is a fantastic song, and these two singles bode very well for the upcoming album.

It’s puzzling to me that this band isn’t really talked about very often among my acquaintances. The cold, hard truth of the matter is this: Babasónicos is one of the most important bands in Argentine rock history, remaining creatively restless and daringly innovative for almost 30 years now. Through a number of genres and only a few lineup changes, the group has managed to remain intensely idiosyncratic and true to their own sound. In an era of increasing radio homogeneity, this is extremely valuable.

We are less than two weeks away from the release of Discutible, and I’m sure it will be as wonderfully, relentlessly strange as everything else they’ve done. I also expect to be surprised by what they come up with. Standing still is just not in their nature.