Wayne Bledsoe: Cross-cultural musical adventures from Cuba to Russia to demon city

Rodrigo y Gabriela

Rodrigo y Gabriela

"Area 52," Rodrigo y Gabriela and C.U.B.A. (ATO)

"Area 52" was simply meant to be a placeholder in the career of Mexican-born guitar duo Rodigo y Gabriela. The duo, who met while performing in a Mexico City-based metal band, won fame for playing flamenco-flavored acoustic guitar from a rock attitude.

The duo's most recent studio album, "11:11," was released in 1999, and it was high time for another studio disc. Lead guitarist Rodrigo Sanchez had the idea to rerecord some of the group's already released favorites with an orchestra to give the duo some time to work on new material. The idea morphed into recording with a Cuban orchestra and special guests.

The result is an example of everything going right. There's no denying the power of the music of Sanchez and partner Gabriela Quintero on just two guitars, but this set isn't just about prettying up what the duo already created. Instead, this is about creating something new. The duo collaborated with keyboardist Alex Wilson on new arrangements and adapted the works to Cuban rhythms.

Once in Cuba, the orchestra C.U.B.A. (which stands for Collective Universal Band Association) took to the songs with enthusiasm. Guests, including rock drummer John Tempesta (best known for his work with Rob Zombie), sitar player Anoushka Shankar (daughter of Ravi Shankar), Palestinian group Le Trio Joubran, Samuel Formell Alfonso from the Cuban group Los Van Van and flamenco bassist Carles Benavent were also brought on board.

What results is collaboration of cultures that never seems to clash. The brass, the percussion, even Shankar's sitar sound like they were meant to be in these songs. Put the original recordings side-by-side with these new versions and you can tell that they're the same songs, but the "Area 52" versions are more exciting and adventurous. And, there are moments, such as on the 8-minute-plus "Ixtapa," when the effect is purely magical.

There's no telling what Rodrigo y Gabriela's next effort will be like, but "Area 52" is a good argument for the duo continuing to take left turns any time they're in need of inspiration.

"Top," Auktyon (www.auktyon.com)

There is nothing standard about Russian rock band Auktyon. While they have elements of classic prog-rock, including the tortured violins and adventurous melodic jams, they sound like nothing west of, well, maybe Poland.

Formed in 1983, the group's first American release was 2008's wonderful "Girls Talk" — a frenzied and crazed ride filled with American guest stars who stood back and let the band keep the reins.

"Top" (available for download only) is a slightly more subdued affair with more lyrics (in Russian) and a folkier sound.

On this outing, the nine-piece act may not be as frenetic, but they span a variety of moods and styles.

"Meteli (Snowstorms)" has a hint of 1960s pop, but is underscored with a creepy organ and peppy saxophone that would've sounded out-of-place anywhere but here.

"Shishki" is off-kilter folk with a Frank Zappa attitude. Elsewhere are elements of klezmer (or music that must share its origins) and other styles.

Does it matter that you can't understand Russian?

Obviously not. Considering the inventiveness and difference of the music it might be fun to find out what they're singing about.

However, musical joy translates into any language, and this case of musical immigration is a blessing.

"Wampus Cat," Wampus Cat (www.reverbnation.com/wampuscat)

We could argue for days on exactly what a "wampus cat" is, which legend to believe or not believe, and the legend of the beast originated.

While growing up we had a family friend who swore the beast was akin to a black panther and could be heard squalling in the night deep in the woods behind his house on Welch Road.

Knoxville band Wampus Cat knows how to squall, too. They're loud and obnoxious and over-the-top in the best rock 'n' roll tradition.

Guitarist Jordan Sangid, bassist Courtney Bryant and drummer Andrew Bryant deliver the goods with a deafening and likeable metal thud.

And, there's something almost charming about a band that embraces the whole Black Sabbath Halloween style of rock horror.

When the band sings about the "Ancient Ones" these are H.P. Lovecraft-style demon gods ("With eyes of red and souls of black ... ") out to eat your soul after filleting your body.

"Ancestor Worship" incorporates audio clips of commentary about snake handlers, followed by Sangid's spooky wails.

It's dark headbanging fun.

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