Mexican guitar duo Rodrigo y Gabriela return to Asheville

JUST PLAY GUITAR: What’s often revelatory about Mexican duo Rodrigo y Gabriela’s music, whether it’s an interpretation or an original, is how internalized and personal it all feels, as if they’re sharing a lingua franca made for two. Musicians Gabriela Quintero, left, and Rodrigo Sánchez return to Asheville on Tuesday, Dec. 3. Photo by Tina Korhonen

One day, someone may be able to sing along to the six new songs of Mettavolution, the first album in five years by heralded Mexican guitar duo Rodrigo y Gabriela. But it may take a while.

From the sashaying rhythms of “Cumbé” and the arcing elegance of “Terracentric” to the album’s immersive, 18-minute closing take on Pink Floyd’s “Echoes,” every piece on Mettavolution is an entirely instrumental sojourn, two guitars interlocked in dazzling displays of mutual dexterity and emotional rapport. The group — Rodrigo Sánchez and Gabriela Quintero — returns to Asheville on Tuesday, Dec. 3, for a show at the Thomas Wolfe Auditorium.

“It was important to not repeat ourselves with the same structure of two guitars. We tried drums and voice because we really wanted to come up with a new statement of how we’d evolved as a band,” says Quintero, at home in Mexico during a brief break between international tours. “Everything we were coming up with sounded too much like our first albums or way too experimental. It all felt a little forced.”

Rodrigo y Gabriela’s Area 52 (2012) included a Cuban orchestra. And 2014’s 9 Dead Alive entangled flamenco elegance with heavy metal acrobatics for nine bracing tracks, all dedicated to rebellious heroes like Harriet Tubman and Fyodor Dostoyevsky. But for Mettavolution, Sánchez and Quintero wanted to reach back to the candor and charisma of their beginnings, to tap into their decades-old synergy.

So they tried a new trick — writing lyrics for the melodies that began to take shape on the guitar, words that expressed the sense of compassion that they hoped to embody with their songs. Putting words to the budding instrumentals allowed Rodrigo y Gabriela to find new layers of harmony and new shades of texture, to pull their experiences, inspirations and emotions deeper into these pieces. Suddenly, a song could explicitly express a feeling about a piece of art, a favorite book or the modern political climate, reinforcing the meaning of the melodies. And then, before cutting the record, they took the words away.

“It was good for our creativity because adding lyrics brought so much musical momentum,” says Quintero. “And, one day, we will maybe get a couple of singers to sing those lyrics to that same music in a different format.”

It may seem like an uncommon approach — writing words just to delete them — but Rodrigo y Gabriela have always been anomalous. The two met in the late ’80s, young art enthusiasts and metal heads in Mexico City, looking for fresh outlets to call their own. They played together in a heavy metal band and then as a new duo that paired the traditional forms of their homeland with rock ’n’ roll élan.

They eventually emigrated to Ireland, busking in the streets and steadily rising to prominence within Dublin’s scene. Nodding to their true roots in their earliest days, they wrote odes to Megadeth’s Dave Mustaine and covered Metallica and Led Zeppelin on their self-titled 2006 breakthrough. For Record Store Day Black Friday this year, Rodrigo y Gabriela revisited Metallica and Megadeth on an EP where they also cover Slayer’s lurching “Seasons in the Abyss.”

Perhaps this all sounds like a novelty: the acoustic guitar duo from Mexico City covering psychedelic rock or thrash metal. But what’s often revelatory about Rodrigo y Gabriela’s music, whether it’s an interpretation or an original, is how internalized and personal it all feels, as if they’re sharing a lingua franca made for two. Their take on “Echoes” — which gazes into the middle distance, then pulls the picture in tight and bright, again and again — is every bit as revealing as “Witness Tree,” the preceding track on Mettavolution.

With slapped strings that evoke Leo Kottke and a melody that flickers like a serpent’s tongue, that track scores a mission statement of sorts. While on tour between albums in Japan, the pair went for a run around Tokyo’s Imperial Palace. They discussed the direction of their music after 9 Dead Alive. People had encouraged them to write short songs, perhaps with more vocals, bite-sized numbers more fitting for our attention-deficient cultural economy. They could take the next career step, perhaps chart a little higher.

But standing in front of a beautiful tree labeled “No. 10” near the palace, Sánchez and Quintero vowed to stay true to their musical roots, to dig into the energy and enthusiasm that had propelled them since the start. Their uncanny intuition — not an algorithm that might have overlooked them in the first place — had made them unlikely stars, anyway,

“Everything is so rapid and flashy now, not just in music but even in magazines. Everything is 2 centimeters deep,” Quintero says. “We wanted to stop all the other BS about being catchy and looking for approval. We said we needed to be authentic and go back to what we’d always done: play guitar.”

WHO: Rodrigo y Gabriela with Ida Mae
WHERE: Thomas Wolfe Auditorium, 87 Haywood St., ticketmaster.com
WHEN: Tuesday, Dec. 3, 7:30 p.m., $30–$55

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About Grayson Haver Currin
Grayson Haver Currin has written for NPR, Pitchfork, The New York Times, Rolling Stone, and more. He was the music and managing editor of the Independent Weekly in Raleigh for more than a decade. He now lives in Hot Springs with his wife, Tina, and so many pets. Follow me @currincy

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