by Pierre Lestruhaut
It’s 2012, and what has there been to be genuinely excited about in Latin American indie rock these past couple of years, outside of Bam Bam’s ambitious venture into interstellar psychedelia, and–at the diametrically opposed corner of indie–Piyama Party’s absorption of pop culture consumerism into sluggish indieist desolation? My experience writing and listening to Latin indie rock records for over a year can be summarized in the unvarying initial reaction I have about most records. It goes something like: “not bad, maybe something around 72, could drop a small Pavement reference somewhere.” Which is why this new Protistas record, for someone who grew up on indie rock, is part of those that strike the kind of pleasure that can only be found deep in someone’s own formative experiences: a band shaping the instant familiarity of their sound from understated guitar complexity, arpeggiated grandeur, and into the mere extent of their own performers’ aura.
It should take about 15 seconds into first track “Rosetta” for most folks with a deep love of '90s indie rock to get seriously hooked into Las Cruces, as the accessibility of their own nostalgia starts to be revealed as the framework of their interweaving guitars and romantic lyricism. Yet it’s the inner-war mayhem treatment Protistas give to most of their songs (and that has distinguished them from most indie rock acts in South America) that reveals itself as the connecting force and recurring theme between songs. As if the band, following in the steps that made Nortinas War such a solid debut, was made solely for militant anthems such as “Granada," moving for how visceral they are and admirable for how unpredictable their series of peaks can turn out to be.
“Comiendo hostias” and “Tatuaje conmemorativo” bring down the intensity from the loud verse, louder chorus motion of the first tracks, as the latter finally hints at the origin of the album’s title. Setting the scene at Chilean seaside locale Las Cruces, the song is a captivating number of slow-paced melodies and charming guitar licks. Where Real Estate would use such cycling and gentle guitar work as a background for suburban mundanity and slackerism, Protistas aim to paint half-erased memories of a distant place/lover (“Nos tatuamos en el antebrazo medio corazón, pero la sal lo borró”). For the rest of the album, topics hang in between storytelling about uncommon characters (“Supertroll,” “Huesos de cristal,” “Mysterious Skin”) and themes of mind/body liberation and imprisonment (“Enfermo y atrapado,” “Granada”).
The low end here might be a little too vapid, and the vocals are neither ear-catching nor delivery-striking, but that’s because they are only aware of those two guitars, keenly submitting themselves to their dictions and always setting them as the song’s foreground. Even in the least sumptuous tracks like “Napas subterráneas,” the guitars’ aforementioned understated complexity is diffused by the lush production and balanced into an effortless fluctuation that sways around Álvaro Solar's previously militant now heart-wrenching vocals, Solar occasionally peaking at the right moment and duly retreating.
Protistas have often been described, either by themselves or fellow critics, as a brave, wild-sounding, and militant rock band. I’ve obviously never had the chance to see them playing live, but I can imagine, given their songs’ proclivity towards showmanship and thoroughly arranged catharsis (via an inclination for Cobain riffs, a self-declared intention to aim for Arcade Fire-esque grandeur, and a Juan Son-like passionate delivery) that it’s the ideal stage for experiencing the great series of songs that these guys have piling up since their 2010 debut. Word is that their recording sessions with Astro’s own Andrés Nusser were intended to capture the boisterousness of their rollicking live shows.
It sure as hell looks nice on a press release, though I was never one to think that an album’s background story or recording details should, in any way, influence (too much) a listener’s opinion on the finished product. Yet in an era where music software allows more than ever for a myriad of possibilities of sonic exploration, to think that this beautiful collection of songs, this delightfully touching music–religious in its grandiosity, uncompromising in its restraint–can be performed by humans with nothing but actual rock instruments is simply at the crux of its own poignancy. That it isn’t particularly innovative, thought-provoking, or cool (qualities which can be found elsewhere among our high-rated albums) shouldn’t undermine just how much simple indie rock can be so overwhelming.