Since his departure from The Mars Volta, guitarist and compositional virtuoso Omar Rodriguez-Lopez has consistently been on the cutting edge of experimental rock with a relentless series of impressive side-projects and solo releases, but Bosnian Rainbows feels like an unfortunate stumbling point. On their self-titled debut, the semi-psychedelic, post-punk tunes are passably engaging if somewhat haphazard in attack, but what ultimately sinks the ship is vocalist Teri Gender Bender’s wretchedly over-dramatic vocal posturings.
I’ve watched Omar Rodriguez-Lopez’s career careen off into the most fantastic directions over the years, from the unbelievably raw At the Drive-In recordings to the darkly lush Mars Volta albums, to the subsequent period of solo projects and fruitful collaborations ( including spoken word poet Lydia Lunch, John Frusciante, and especially his work with Ximena Sariñana) that position him as a beacon of contemporary guitar-rock. That being said, here’s hoping Bosnian Rainbows becomes a footnote rather than a chapter in his career.
The album is dominated by mid-tempo post-punk numbers that oscillate from straightforward aggression to psychedelic meanderings, but includes more subtle, sonic-landscape pieces like the single “Turtle Neck” as well. I’d say the big draw is in the textural qualities; there’s a surreal sense of hidden apprehension that haunts the tracks, and occasionally breaks into sibilant, airy sojourns before alighting back to the chorus. A lot of reviewers have been impressed by the profusion of hooks on the record, which absolutely confounds me, because I find nothing hook-y about Teri’s desperate repetition of juvenile one-liners. Listening to the album, I was struggling to look past these “hooks” to enjoy the unique ambience, in an effort to salvage some pleasure in the listen.
Gender Bender simply takes her unfortunately central melodic role to a dramatic overlength, and makes every line uncomfortably turgid with little baritone intonations and enunciations that leave a blank in the listener; you simply don’t know what to do with her little trills and unyielding acrobatics. Her voice refuses to stay still, but not in a way that communicates freneticness, anger, or confusion. They’re just messy deliveries that never coalesce into a distinct sense of anything at all.
I’m not bothered by formless qualities in music (I wouldn’t be able to sit through a chunk of Omar’s oeuvre if I was), but even the formless has a point, and makes a statement. If you’ve ever seen a Bosnian Rainbows show or any concert footage of them, you could say Gender Bender’s voice is a direct mirroring of her dancing: lots of flailing and lurching, and none of it having anything to do with the music.
I understand that, given her riot-grrrl pedigree, her stylings should be understood as attempts to destroy the graceful, and so to redefine the traditional role of the female vocalist, but that doesn’t mean every melody calls for that kind of ethos. Listening to her, I imagine her face staring at me as she tries desperately to provoke a reaction. It’s pretty bothersome.
To make matters worse, her lyrics have an unvarying high-school drama aesthetic. For example, this gem from “Worthless”:
“Sister, I feel the rain grow old
Sister, I feel the rain grow old and blue
Blue like your dead insides, insides!”
And this one, from “The Eye Fell in Love”:
“The eye, the eye, the eye fell in love
With the man, the man, the man dressed in black
The leg, the leg, the leg wanted to
Kiss the man, the man, the man dressed in, blood!
where is all the pain left in this world?”
It’s pretty difficult to form an emotional attachment to these “Dear Diary” cuts, and even more so because of her vocal style.
The instrumentals on the other hand are rather solid, but seem to suffer from having to play off of Gender Bender’s un-impactful tunes. Omar clearly still has the chops and the imagination, and drapes every track in a characteristically diverse array of guitar timbres. As he’s stated repeatedly in interviews, he plays an understated role this time around, as he’s conscientiously relinquishing his usual role of composition-fuhrer to be more a textural engineer, but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t leave his mark.
The first track “Eli” opens the album with a foggily mounting uncertainty, laced with the unsettling satellite-sputter of his riffs, and even incorporates a signature distorted sound from the TMV days: a satisfying metallic scrape, like the revving of a vintage yet still-formidable muscle car. Songs like “Dig Right in Me” also showcase his technical breadth; he’s as comfortable weaving moods from gushing, Frusciantian strums as well as sustained notes, from jagged melodies as well as broad-stroke deliveries. I was disappointed to find only one extended solo in the midst of “Turtle Neck,” though it’s a pretty solid one, and reaffirms his presence as an unearthly deva trapped in a guitarist’s body.
Percussionist Deantoni Parks and keyboardist Nicci Kasper also show some ingenuity, never flashy but consistently thoughtful.The melodic shifts in “The Eye Fell in Love” are facilitated by a downward cascade of basstones that feels like a slide off into a fearful daydream, and “Morning Sickness” rides along a bed of graceful synth thumps. However, at times the rhythms and synth accompaniments just don’t seem to play well with the other sonic elements; the drums can be too bouncy for the doom-tones, the synths occasionally get a little too 80s-poppy and clash with Omar’s prog-fuzzy strings (I’m looking at “Torn Maps”), and so the attack blunts itself at times by trying to edge in too many dissonant directions.
It can still be an enjoyable listen if you’re willing to stomach Gender Bender’s indulgences, and there’s still plenty of nuance to digest in the instrumental backings, but it’s a bad sign when you’re left wanting an instrumental version of the album.
Track / Rating, with the top three bolded:
1. Eli - 6.5 / 10 (link)
2. Worthless - 4 / 10
3. Dig Right in Me - 6 / 10
4. The Eye Fell in Love - 4.5 / 10
5. I Cry For You - 6.5 / 10 (link)
6. Morning Sickness - 5 / 10
7. Torn Maps - 3.5 / 10
8. Turtle Neck 7 / 10 (link)
9. Always On the Run - 5 / 10
10. Red - 4.5 / 10
11. Mother, Father, Set Us Free - 4 / 10
Overall Album Rating: 6.2