Las Caras de la Muerte, Nva Orleans
by Pierre Lestruhaut
One of threads that’s been commonly used to characterize the series of Chilean pop artists that have emerged in the new century is the idea that this is a generation that shows no musical prejudices (i.e. one that appreciates Daniela Romo as much as Rosario Bléfari) and thus has the liberty and the mindset to make music free from boundaries. Although the idea is mentioned by Alex Anwandter in an interview for Manuel Maira’s Canciones del fin del mundo, it seems like Milton Mahan, the musician more recognizable as half of Dënver, is starting to become the poster boy for what’s been this late 2000s/early 2010s crop of blog favorite unprejudiced Chilean musicians.
Although Dënver is, by popularity and output, Mahan’s main endeavour, his share of side projects have made him the sort of restless artist unafraid to venture into unknown territories. Aside from being part of retrofuturist and a little too overstuffed techno duo De Janeiros, his solo project Nva Orleans (previously Nueva Orleans) had shown signs of promise with a solid pair of singles. “Música y Discos” dropped in 2010 as a subliminal slice of self-conscious pop balladry (“Cientos de discos compactos nos habían influenciado”), and “Mediterráneo” followed it a couple of years later, as Nva Orleans developed into a project that contrasted the more immediate pleasures of Dënver for a much more profound mystique and esoteric lyricism.
Despite making music that initially strikes for grandeur, Mahan has claimed that the reference point that got him starting the Nva Orleans solo project was his admiration for the tonada, the Latin folk style of music that acquired great popularity in the 1960s when several prominent musicians from the Nueva Canción Chilena started exploring the form. In an interview for Super 45 he claimed that being a genre that mainly belonged to “women that had been abused by life,” it allowed him to dig into his “more obscure, more familiar, and more perverse side.” Las Caras de la Muerte is a record that certainly carries with it the imprint of the sorrowful troubadour, but its heartache and isolation is more textural than lyrical.
His resolution on citing the tonada as a main inspiration for creating Nva Orleans talks about a musician that’s fixated with the lyrical qualities and affections of Latin folk, yet, sonically, Mahan remains a devotee of electronic gadgetry. In refusing to go through the road of the tried and tested sounds typically associated with expressing sorrow (acoustic guitars, gushing strings), Las Caras de la Muerte occasionally finds the church-like grandeur of the micro-symphonic, modern avant-garde of contemporaries like Julia Holter. Despite Mahan showing off great skills as a lyricist, it remains a record whose narrative is better expressed through melodies rather than words, a cyclical journey around themes like family, sin, and departure that is also felt in Mahan’s arrangements.
A large part of the record is thematically linked to religion, more specifically the devil. Mahan’s own allusion to demonic forces in everyday life seem, for a record like this, just as puzzling as the second scene in Carlos Reygadas’ Post Tenebras Lux, in which a glowing, naked CGI devil lurks around the protagonist’s home. As Mahan has already proven to be a savvy video director, it’s safe to call his solo endeavor somewhat cinematic. A song like “Jesús, María, No Sé” has the poignant symbolism that has been linked to Reygadas’ ever-present themes (sexuality, mortality, and sin), and Las Caras de la Muerte is a record that’s both gorgeous and deep, melodically intense, yet thematically broad. Like Reygadas’ films, it’s a profound reflection on innocence and sin, love and heartbreak, life and death.