el malo - Origins

el malo. el malo! Finally! Get on up here boys, it’s your turn to take a sweet sashay across the stage! Like a good natured pack of huskies mere seconds away from starting their first leg of the Iditarod, el malo are the earnestly enthusiastic, frothing and tenacious crew behind the pulsating clown car of sweat and gyrating butt cheeks that local jazz lounge Blue transforms into every second Friday. Oh, have you not been to Bad Friday at Blue? Ok, here are some insider tips: you will absolutely wait forever for a drink. You will absolutely run into about 17 people you know before the night is through. And you will absolutely be taken under by the weird, slow burning riptide of el malo’s self-described “salsacore.” 

Though they’ve been known to welcome a guest or two, particularly on vocals (el malo has no vocalist), the core members of el malo are Ryan Havey on guitar, Rion Hergenhan on drums, Ray Saperstein on cornet, Eric Ambrose on trombone, Alton Hall on bass trombone and Dan Morrow on saxophone. Brassy! But what is salsacore, though?   

el malo (which they stylize in all lowercase, that’s not a failure of the copy desk, ya big nerd) began a few years ago as a salsa dance band project who decided at a certain point to apply a few of their own rules to the traditional sounds of salsa; and because they’re from Maine, that means a dark, dirty, mean edge, the veneer of black that coats the piles of old snow by the curb in February, the heft and burden of all that cold water hanging in the air on the first foggy October morning. 

Take the track “Shoestring” from the band’s first full-length release, Origins. Recorded live as a group at the Shoestring Theater on Brackett Street over the course of three years, the record is a living will of the songs that el malo die-hards call out for on those heady Friday Nights. “Shoestring” features what could be classified as heavy metal or prog-rock drumming from Rion Hergenhan (an absolute monster of a drummer with an unexpectedly gentle disposition) and strays far enough from the central idea of salsa to fall more firmly into the hardcore side of salsacore. It’s a rock song, but it’s so heavy with brass and wind and those wild, unctuous rhythms of salsa and jazz that it becomes a hard thing to define. It becomes its own thing, I suppose … you know what, I have a great idea: let’s call it “salsacore.” (That’s right, el malo, I mansplain you! I mansplain you for real! Feminism!) 

And I suppose that’s what salsacore is — hardcore rock music with a strong beating heart of salsa, jazz, and Latin beats. Some of it is downright bawdy, like the track “Coupe deVille” with its mid-eighties-inspired sax and big neon swagger. My favorite track, however, is the film noir escapade “Dbl Homicide”: imagine the Pink Panther theme song stripped of slapstick humor and dialed up a few notches. Clearly someone in this band is a fan of Taxi Driver, and took a few musical cues from Bernard Herrmann, or maybe found inspiration in Angelo Badalamenti’s … well, anything, really. Anything he wrote. Twin Peaks, Blue Velvet, whatever. Someone in this band loves him some Angelo.     

Origins also boasts the requisite crowd pleasers, the upbeat but still sinister “Red Flag Collector,” or the slower, more stealthy “Maracaibo.” This collection of 11 tracks was recorded live, and it closely resembles the band’s live set, but it’s not without its own set of problems that don’t typically come up when el malo plays live. The recordings are clipped in certain frustrating places, particularly around the drums and Havey’s shreddy guitar tracks. We all want to hear this terribly accomplished group of musicians’ beastly playing, but the tracks will dip out on you and fall away from the mix at crucial moments of crescendo and loudness. The unfortunate effect is that the songs lose momentum and chutzpah because the glitches are noticeable enough to take you out of the moment. 

One of the issues with a band with as many people as el malo have in it is that it can be hard to make a buck, get everyone paid, and still have money left over for a producer or studio time. I’m down with honoring the financial constraints that might have left this record wanting. Overall, though, the confusingly warm-but-dark heart of el malo shines through, so if you’re not some kind of a snob like me, it’s a fun possession to fill the gaps and keep you sane in the chasm of despair between Bad Fridays. 

Origins | by el malo |  

Origins is available on Spotify, Bandcamp and via CD at shows. 






Victoria Karol is a contributing writer for the Portland Phoenix, covering local music and the Dance Card listings. She produces Music Video Portland, Maine's video music awards and writes about feminism and culture on her blog hottrashportland.com.

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