Nothing about the Meridean Brothers is as you would expect unless you are prepared for the unexpected. The name might suggest a collective but in the studio the ‘Brothers’ focal point is the mercurial talents of Colombian composer and multi- instrumentalist Eblis Alvarez. As an established player in Bogata’s energetic experimental scene Alvarez has always injected an inspired ‘what if’ edge to the Meridean Brothers’ restless take on the traditional music of their homeland. Previous records have seen woozy psychedelic colourings woven into intricate folk songs on ‘Donde Estas Maria’ and last year’s ‘Cumbia Ciglo XXI’ crackled with an 80’s referenced, low-fi electric charm.
So the surprise this time with the release of the new album, ‘Paz en la Terra’ (via Bongo Joe), is the apparent shift towards the conventional and straight-forward. The roots of this de-cluttering is Alvarez choosing to collaborate with the new go-to accordionist Ivan Medellin leader of Conjunto Media Luna, the Bogata combo who themselves push those Cumbia boundaries. So ‘Paz en la Terra’ thrives on a sound that is respectfully accordion led but also relishes the challenge of refreshing the Vallenato/Cumbia interface.
Opener ‘En Teusaquillo te Peuden Partir la cara’, after an off-tradition single note intro, appears to fit the mould of the ‘back to roots’ direction that has inspired Alvarez on this latest expedition. Driven by the incoming accordion trills and deft block chords plus skipping to those infectious two step beats there are hints of a comfortable ride ahead. Then comes the muffled grumbling vocals that pitch up to an earthy slur, matched by off kilter chanted harmonies later in the song and you begin to get ruffled….and curious.
From then on Medellin’s accordion may still provide the central sound for the record but it’s the warps and waves it generates in the arrangements that elevate the album beyond simple pleasantries. ‘Mi Primo El Boxeador’ ups the rhythmic gears to an energetic cross beat salsa then stretches out the bassline, brings in an insistent ringmaster voice and injects some wacky Zappaesque harmonies before the fade. Further out there ‘La Tocata De Ivan El Terrible’ crackles with eccentricity and invention. Medellin’s playing introduces Balkan flourishes and hammer horror melodrama around variations on a galloping beat with Alvarez on high end bass gymnastics sustaining the momentum. There’s even hints of 60’s bubblegum (remember the ‘Monster Mash’) in the cape swirling laughter echoing out from all the right places – a reminder of Meridean Brothers commitment to novelty and invention.
That’s not to say that Eblis Alvarez is in the business of pursuing the frivolous. He is a songwriter and sharp lyricist who wants to delve deeper in today’s muddles albeit through a slightly surreal lens. On ‘Pensando En Mi Moreno’ (Thinking about my brunette) he explores the tension of maintaining close relationships in these social media infected, pandemic battered times amidst sultry tropical rhythms and intricately assembled musical sections. Necessarily it ends with a desperate groan. Then there’s ‘La Secta’, a rampant cumbia tune that speeds along with techno velocity and pauses for a psychedelic breakdown, all in pursuit of the story of starting a sect devoted to the notorious vallenato singer of days gone by, Diomedes Diaz.
For all this innovation ‘Paz En La Terra’ never loses sight of its more traditional foundations. The title track, a forthright plea for ‘peace on earth’, calms the pace and highlights Medellin’s accordionista brilliance while ‘La Pesadilla’ makes the tantalising cumbia/ska connection. Maybe the lengthy ‘El Profesionalismo Es Importante’ best captures the album’s intentions, holding onto the discipline of Cumbia convention then peppering it with surprising stops, starts and riffs that go on slightly longer than you anticipate. In the song Alvarez wryly comments that ‘professionalism is important’ and as the tune stretches out you recognise the tease- there is more to music than standing still. On this latest record Meridean Brothers and Conjunto Media Luna prove that touching the traditional doesn’t have to weigh down your creativity. It can provide the energy and fuel for producing an album that is really quite unique.