Before I begin this review, I probably need to apologise to Cola de Zorro, as I suspect I have inferred meaning from this instrumental album that was not intended. The album translates as ‘The Desert Advances’, and I can only assume that refers to an environmental crisis in Chile that is literally seeing the desert advance. So far so good. But where I suspect my inferences diverge from the band’s intention is that I can’t help but frame the album around John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath – not least because the first piece of Cola de Zorro’s album is entitled Tortuga (Turtle), and anyone who has read The Grapes of Wrath will know the importance of meaning placed on that animal.
Intriguingly, in chapter three of the book, devoted to the passage of the turtle, are mentioned clover burrs, oat beards and fox tails. Cola de Zorro translates as ‘Fox Tail’. I had always assumed the band was named after the geological formation along the border or Argentina and Chile, but perhaps it was after this desert plant. Regardless, like the turtle it’s named for, Tortuga opens the album elegantly and slowly. It might even be described as languid, were it not for the insistent underlying rhythm, which gives the piece a sense of purpose and determination. There is a wonderful passage where after a slow crescendo, rather than climax or diminuendo, the music falls away in drips and drops. I absolutely love this moment, which sounds to me beautiful and sublime. Throughout the piece, no matter any moment of tension, Tortuga always remains positive and optimistic in feel and sound.
After the optimistic opening number, Ollas y Sartenes crashes and clatters in, sounding darker and edgier. It’s an altogether heavier affair. Perhaps these pots and pans are cast iron? I love the way this track sounds likes it’s barely held together, and could at any second fall into complete disarray. Yet the playing is tight and taught, holding together as it drives onward with the same determination and sense of direction as the turtle that preceded it, albeit at an altogether greater pace. Again, as with Tortuga, I’m reminded of an intercalary chapter in The Grapes of Wrath, this time Al’s diner in chapter 15. A family pulls in to the diner, their car precariously stacked to the roof (and beyond) with as much as they can carry, and sets forth a series of events where the staff and patrons help each other out in turn.
In The Grapes of Wrath, the turtle of chapter three is a symbolism that man can overcome the drought and water crisis of the Dust Bowl of the 1930s. Is it too much to wish for that Chile can overcome their own drought and water crisis? Even though The Grapes of Wrath follows the passage of those thrown off their land, notably Steinbeck never (directly) vilifies the landowners and banks who have turned the people off their land. Steinbeck asserts that the economic system makes everyone a victim — rich and poor, privileged and disenfranchised. All are caught “in something larger than themselves.” Similarly, Al’s diner business somewhat insulates him from the crisis of the Dust Bowl, while still being dependant upon the travellers. Al knows that individual survival is impossible, and that it is only by working together that people can effect change. Thus, with the opening pair of songs, though they each have very distinct and disparate sounds, in my mind they come to the same conclusion. Is it the “right” conclusion? Is it the conclusion the band intended? Probably not. So, as I wrote in the introduction, I apologise.
Back to the album; the abrupt end of Ollas y Sartenes is incredibly effective, and we’re back to a more serene and sedate pace with El Desierto Avanza. But then, I guess I’d like to think, and hope, that the pace might slow, or even stop completely. After all, the desert advancing is not something we should be celebrating. At times there’s a real sense of melancholy to the title track, that makes this otherwise light sounding piece sound quite heavy. It’s a particularly contemplative piece after the first two, which seems appropriate. This is a piece I almost feel bad enjoying. As can be seen from the scorching summer we have been experiencing in the UK this year, climate change is very real, yet though we all (well, almost all) know and acknowledge this, little ever seems to be done about it. Are we all, like the characters of The Grapes of Wrath, caught in something larger than ourselves? Perhaps, but unless we all stand up and work together we will never effect change, so much as listen to pieces of music like this and think how sad it is.
The next track, Tanu, was the album’s lead single, possibly because it includes some of the most impressive guitar on the album. It is surely a very good piece of music (and, yeah, I freaking LOVE that guitar solo), and probably well-chosen as a single, even if it is possibly my least favourite overall. Rather, it is the following Circulo that might well be my favourite on the album. It’s the longest piece, which allows it to cover a lot of ground. The band mix a lot into their sound, including Latin, post-rock, jazz and Krautrock – and it is in this track that the Krautrock element is most overt, and beautifully presented. But Circulo is just a joy to listen to, regardless of whichever styles and sounds are crammed into it.
And, I can’t help it, I’m drawn back to comparing the music with an intercalary chapter of The Grapes of Wrath – this time, chapter 29. This is the final intercalary chapter and reflects both chapters three and 15. After drought, rain causes floods rather than relief, and one more strain on the accumulated hardship of those who have fled the desert’s advance. After the rain stops, the men go out, and are described as squatting in a circle. It seems certain that they must surely have now reached breaking point. But in the men’s faces, fear turns to anger, and anger to determination. As long as they can work together, they will be able to survive. It comes as no surprise, then, that the following Al Cubo is one of the most stridently optimistic sounding tracks on the album. It is reminiscent of Tortuga, but at a pace the turtle could only dream of. Like Tortuga, there are moments of tension, but they are easily overcome, and the piece drives on with the same sense of purpose and direction as before. If this were the final number of the album, it would be unsurprising, and perfectly bookend it.
This leaves me ambivalent, in the true sense of the word, about final number Largo Carmino al Silencio. It is an absolutely terrific closing number, full of dignity and gravitas, that lends it the heaviest of airs, despite its quiet and subdued nature. And while it translates in the band’s native tongue to “Long Road to Silence”, it is hard to ignore that largo is a musical direction to play with a slow tempo and dignified style – which is exactly as this piece presents. Now look, I hate to belabour the analogy, but in The Grapes of Wrath there’s no symbol more loaded with meaning than the road. Not the turtle. Not the Diner. Not the Circle. Steinbeck writes about the “road of flight” as a route on which the disparate characters unify into a community. The road symbolises the path that will lead them to opportunity. It’s a symbol of both comfort and hardship; of faith and hope, as well as of death and despair. What it leads to is ultimately up to us. When the desert advances, what are we going to do to stop it? Let’s hope the road does not end in silence, because Largo Carmino al Silenco almost sounds like the end of the road, and the crushed hopes of Al Cubo. It doesn’t have to be that way…
01. Tortuga (5:14)
02. Ollas y Sartenes (4:45)
03. El Desierto Avanza (5:00)
04. Tanu (3:13)
05. Circulo (8:03)
06. Al Cubo (5:51)
07. Largo Carmino al Silencio (5:10)
Total Time – 37:16
César Bernal – Electric Bass Double Bass
Felipe Medina – Guitar, Synthesisers, Samples
Pablo Rivera – Drums
Carlos Soutullo – Electric Guitar, Pad, Oscillator, Percussion
Record Label: LeRockPsicophonique
Country of Origin: Chile
Date of Release: 22nd April 2022