I can't remember the last time I've had a love/hate relationship as intense as the one I've been enjoying/despising with Fermin Muguruza's Brigadistak Sound System. How could I not love an album with Euskera-language lead vocals, Cuban horns, a reggae dub aesthetic, and a Toots and the Maytals cover? How could I not hate an album with shouted, tin-eared vocals, raucousness that flirts with amateurish noise and multilingual lyrics as strident as they are simplistic? "Soon the tyrant will be the peasant, and the peasant will be large and in charge and in the present," chirps guest artist Angelo Moore of L.A. ska band Fishbone fame on "Newroz" (the Kurdish New Year). But tune in to the power horn riffs, joyously cluttered arrangement, buzzing sax solo courtesy of Moore and an arena-rock guitar line with more distortion than sense, and these guys could sing a lite-beer jingle without diminishing my pleasure with this splendid mess.
Muguruza kicked off his confrontational musical career in the 1980s, fronting punk bands from his native Basque region of northern Spain. The militancy, of course, sprouted from the Basque people's often violently expressed desire for independence from Spanish rule. Safe to say, multi-culti reggae-based music has a wider reach than punk, and both are equally appropriate as artistic vehicles of the oppressed, though the spiritual dimensions of reggae are diminished here in favor of the genre's easy symbolism. And by jumping on pumping ska variations and riding dance hall's rap attack, Muguruza uncorks the perfect transgenerational outlet for his message. Too bad that the anger and intensity communicated through one of western Europe's least-spoken languages has more appeal as a party soundtrack than value as a political discourse. But that's okay, since my least favorite portions of the disc involve Muguruza's in-your-face persona.
Check out free-speech anthem "Hitza Har Dezagun," for example, which grinds in with a guitar riff reminiscent of the original MTV theme, then clears space for a singsong agitprop vocal that wears out its welcome more quickly than a telemarketer. But show courage, because Venezuelan ska band Desorden Público launches us into an exhilarating Cubanesque horn break before the entire mix drops into dizzying dub territory. Horn players, brass players and percussionists from Cuba's Los Van Van gild the rough reggae lily of "Oasiko Erregina." A terrific cover version of the Toots and the Maytals classic "54-46 (That's My Number)" is backed by Argentine band Todos Tus Muertos, named for the victims of its government's death squads in the 1980s. Roving guitarist and cut-and-paste impresario Manu Chao brings his collage effects to "Maputxe." Just when it seems like things can't get better, the Mad Professor himself chops and parses a reprise of disc-opener "Urrun" into dub psychedelia at its ultimate.
There's so much going on in any one song that Brigadistak Sound System resembles a music sampler -- whatever you're hearing at the moment will flip-flop 180 degrees the next. While not for the faint of heart, Muguruza's eccentric amalgam will reward patient and impatient listeners alike. It's superb. It's awful. And it's nothing if not unforgettable.
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