April 2014

From Tijuana to Mérida (English)

Top 10 Mexican albums of 2013
By Gerardo Alejos

Since the mid 2000s the avant-garde jazz, electro-acoustic improvisation, sound art, and noise scenes in México have experienced a period of singular creative energy, and 2013 seems to have been the year in which something close to the whole breadth of these scenes was finally registered in documents that do it justice.

An undeniable trait of the Mexican experimental scene is its raucous decentralization. Half of the discs in this list were made by musicians who do not live in the nation’s capital: Yair López lives in Puerto Vallarta; Mario Quiroga/Vulgar Disease in Puebla; Miguel Pérez/Wehrmacht Lombardo in Ciudad Juárez; both members of Xtul live in Mérida, and Angélica Castelló has lived in Austria for nearly two decades. Sergio Sánchez/Los Heraldos Negros, Remi Álvarez and the other two members of his trio, as well as the members of Generación Espontánea, Carlos Marks and Muz Muz, live in México City.

From Tijuana to Mérida and with renewed brio over the past decade, musicians and promoters have woven strong human and artistic networks–in the words of the pilgrim of Góngora’s Solitudes, “…but whose wood had fibre been, / fabric exact, in an uncertain way, / that always walled, yet always open lay”. These networks lead to breakthrough live collaborations between Mexican and international musicians in concert series and festivals. In México City, those include Transitio, Volta, Articulaciones del Silencio, El Historial, Impro Sessions, Umbral, Radar, as well as Aural and its parallel festival organized by El Nicho. Outside the capital, there are other vibrant festivals including Transónica in Guanajuato, Encuentro de Jazz y Música Viva in Monterrey, Noise Fest in Puebla, and Cha’ak’ab Paaxil in Mérida (which I organize). The impact of these networks extends beyond festivals to the work of academic music ensembles like Liminar in México City, and organizations such as Centro Mexicano para la Música y las Artes Sonoras (CMMAS) in Morelia, Sociacusia in Guadalajara, Arte a 360 Grados in Tlaxcala and Suigéneris Lab in Mérida.

A mention should also be made of two 2013 compilations of very different nature but significant impact. First the three-volume online compilation The Other Mexico: Beyond the Pyramid 2005-2013[1], a selection of more than 70 experimental bands from México, provides significant historiographical value. It was made by drummer/vocalist/curator Julián Bonequi for his net label Audition Records. Secondly researcher Carlos Prieto released the first volume of his encyclopedic project on Mexican electronic music Variación de voltaje.[2] This document brought with it a compilation CD that includes a piece from electro-acoustic improviser Mario de Vega (who lives mostly in Berlin).

And finally, this text would be incomplete without a mention of the recorded work in 2013 from Blaise Siwula, and the Monterrey-born siblings Omar and Milo Tamez. Omar Tamez, a guitar player, composer and probably the most active Mexican improviser internationally, as well as director of Encuentro de Jazz y Música Viva[3], released seven CDs in 2013, the highlights of which are four duos: Días de sol, with pianist Angélica Sánchez; Two Roads, One Path with Harvey Sorgen; De grutas y paisajes with Spanish prodigy Ramón López, and Cantos with Conny Bauer. Milo –an improvising percussionist from México, who has lived in San Cristóbal de las Casas for years– took part in the CD People’s Historia from pianist Thollem McDonas’s Estamos Ensemble, here in a trio setting with Mexican vocal improviser Carmina Escobar. And at the end of 2013, Blaise –a saxophonist and clarinetist from Brooklyn who now lives part of the year in Yucatán– released the CD Mérida Swings with musicians from a local improvisation workshop led by Armando Martín, a vital free jazz guitarist.

Below is, in order of preference, my list:

1.- Angélica Castelló Silvertone e il sentimento oceanico [Monotype]
Angélica’s cassette, produced by Martin Siewert, allures us from the first seconds with its huge palette of emotions. The lavishly packaged tape is dedicated to her grandfather, Manuel Castelló-Tárrega y Arroyo,[4] who fought (and was badly wounded) in the Spanish Civil war and who later was a part of the Spanish Republican exile in México. The first piece is the longest, inspired by Adelita del Campo[5] (a legendary Spanish anarcho-feminist dancer/actress), and the piece title suggests an exploration of the symbolism of the adelitas[6] or female soldiers of the Mexican Revolution. In terms of instrumentation, distorted frequencies and feedback –both not always used for abrasive purposes– tend to predominate, as well as radio captures, field recordings and electronic toys that add color and decontextualization. The woodwind instruments that Angélica specializes in also feature, such as the recorder and the Paetzold bass flute, both played through analog effects pedals. Other instruments are played in a more traditional fashion such as the ukulele—used with a dazzling effect in the second track (“Tuba Piece”) and in the final composition, “Limacina (Blütenschmuck)”, which combines ukulele melodies and fluctuating tones with grandeur and melodic elegance. In words of the composer, this music is basically “about a big ship leaving”,[7] and this release is a stellar addition to Angélica’s solo work, kicked off a couple years ago with the also compelling Bestiario.

2.- Yair LópezPrimitivo branquiado comedor de hierba de los fondos abisales [Suplex]
Although technically this release came out at the end of December 2012, there was no doubt about including it here on this list. This nearly 50 minute electro-acoustic composition represents the pinnacle of Yair’s discography to date. It was released by the sub-label Suplex[8] of the Abolipop net label and mastered by Diego Martínez (co-founder of the label and brother of one of the most renowned Mexican sound artists, Israel Martínez). Created primarily with a Juno-D synthesizer, Primitivo branquiado[9] starts with long-lasting distorted tones through stereo panning, which are suddenly overlaid with other tones with increased aggressiveness that seem to arise from a bell whose echo was electronically processed. These voluptuous extended frequencies, of percussive origin, provide a continual but fluctuating structure and its changes can be interpreted as the movements of the piece. The drones surrender in two occasions to overwhelming feedback bursts, first around the 20:00 mark, where some textures reminiscent of industrial or rhythmic noise are evoked. The feedback returns right before the 40:00 mark, when the final climax of the piece develops until its conclusion minutes later with the return of the distorted bell echoes, which are now interrupted by a final white noise burst around the 46:00 mark that ends the disc as it fades out.

3.- Vulgar DiseaseSonic Compulsive Disorder/Phobia [Covenant Convulsive Club]
Now we enter the extreme and convulsively violent side of this list (along with Wehrmacht Lombardo, Los Heraldos Negros, and Xtul). Mario Quiroga is an improviser from Puebla, one of the foremost noise artists in México. His remarkable discography compensates the lack of public performances of his multiple projects, such as Vertex Germ, Dopamine Larvae, Prisionero 13 and others, among which Vulgar Disease seems to be the chief one. Sonic Compulsive Disorder, the first album of this double CD-R release, is filled with suffocating power electronics pieces that feature the typical combination of looped screams and processed voices, high distorted frequencies and abrupt cuts of the genre. Highlights include “Sonicland Pt. 1 (Seismic Brain)”, the only track of the first record over 10 minutes in length, as well as “Mosquito Syndrome” and “Electrocuted”, shorter pieces in a harsh noise wall vein. The second disc, Phobia, is even more solid, beginning with a drone-based piece and continuing to peak in intensity with some HNW cuts and other power electronic pieces that feature Mario’s explosive vocal work. In short, perhaps the most accomplished recording from Quiroga to date, highly recommended for abrasive noise fans.

4.- Remi Álvarez TríoLafahmisi [Intolerancia]
Along with multi-instrumentist Germán Bringas,[10] Remi Álvarez is the active dean of free jazz and improvisation in México,[11] with a career that dates back to the early 80s. After founding the seminal collective trio Cráneo de Jade in the early 90s, his major current ensembles remain trios but with three very different rhythm sections. In Antimateria, Remi plays ecstatic free jazz with double-bass player Itzam Cano and Swiss-born drummer Gabriel Lauber (the rhythm section of the equally mighty power trio Zero Point, led by Germán Bringas on saxophone). FAS Trío is an ensemble where Remi combines free jazz with academic-style improvisation, together with double-bass player David Sánchez and drummer Jorge Fernández. Finally the Remi Álvarez Trío –where he’s surrounded by two young prodigies of Mexican jazz, double-bass player Arturo Báez, born in Michoacán, and Chiapas-born drummer Gustavo Nandayapa– is the most melodic, jazzy sounding outfit of the three bands. Even though Remi is adept in most of the saxophone family (from baritone to soprano), in this record –mixed by Daniel Goldaracena and mastered by Ted Orr in Woodstock, NY– he exclusively focuses on tenor. He has a muscular sound reminiscent of Sonny Rollins or even Jim Pepper, with the gesticulatory expressiveness of Sam Rivers or Dewey Redman. All of the cuts are compositions from Remi, and some of the highlights are the three pieces included in his soon-to-be-released first solo record (the opening cut, “A la resistencia”, as well as “Lafahmisi”, dedicated to his daughter Fernanda, and the heart-wrenching “Intensidad contenida”) and the new composition “Terminal 4”, which emphasizes Báez’s melodic sense and Nandayapa’s wide palette of percussive colors.

5.- Carlos MarksDislalia [Intolerancia]
Carlos Marks originally started as a duo between violinist Carlos Alegre and New Zealand-born guitar/baritone horn/accordion player Misha Marks. They specialized in busking in streets, buses, subway cars and other public spaces with a repertory that combined Mexican folk music with the up-tempo melodic lines and frenzied accents of Balkan music. Eventually, Carlos Marks became a quartet and added additional influences, extended techniques from contemporary music as well as harmolodic-sounding improvisation. To think of a mixture between James Blood Ulmer’s Odyssey trio (with violinist Charles Burnham) with the most up-tempo pieces from Goran Bregović or Duško Gojković would be tempting. But, it would barely scratch the surface of the carlosmarksist sound, which combines other crucial influences like the danceable melancholy of son huasteco from Veracruz and the string chutzpah of North African/Hispanic Peninsula virtuosos like Manitas de Plata or Khalifa Ould Eide. The ensemble is rounded out by double-bass player Axel Tamayo (recently replaced with Arturo Báez, who will surely add folk influences from his native state of Michoacán) and percussionist Jacobo Guerrero. The CD includes guests like the formidable New Zealand-born bass clarinetist Blair Latham (who, along with Marks and drummer Darío Bernal, form the free jazz trio Rolling Eye), as well as Alexander Bruck in stroh violin and Alex Daniels in accordion. Some of the highlights are Alegre’s composition “Melos Tirana” and Marks’s “Borrachioca” (with great bass clarinet work from Latham). There is also a glorious arrangement of “La petenera”, where Marks’s guitar meets Alegre’s violin in a gut-wrenching virtuosic duel, sounding close at first to pointillist European improvisation and finally reaching a string climax worthy of the Mexican guitar tradition or even flamenco. An essential document of México’s 2013 sound world.

6.- Wehrmacht LombardoEl piso prohibido [Grindcore Karaoke]
Based in Ciudad Juárez, Miguel Pérez is a guitar player, sound artist, noise reviewer, head of the Agorafobia Tapes label, and one of the most consistently strong creators of the Mexican extreme music scene. He is also a man of many musical projects. For example, La Mancha del Pecado is noise-oriented work with occasional extended drones. The Will of Nin Girina is a mind-blowing ritualistic drone duo self-described as “incense-filled incantations from the Mexican desert”. ZN (formerly, Colectivo N) is a duo that combines a noise rock sensibility with brutish free jazz influences. Enoc Dissonance is another noise duo with some industrial rhythm aspects. Finally and most relevant here Wehrmacht Lombardo features mostly HNW work with certain elements from power electronics. This release, consisting of two pieces slightly over 10 minutes each, is described as the soundtrack to an underground BDSM party and it reflects the sensations of squalor, violence and physical humiliation one can imagine abound in the least socially cohesive areas in Ciudad Juárez. However, there’s also a hallucinatory, slightly detached view of the world that reminds me of certain moments of perplexity described by the character Oscar Fate in the third book of Roberto Bolaño’s 2666. To say it in one sentence, what we have here is –along with Vulgar Disease– perhaps the most accomplished project of the highly aggressive and nihilist end of the sonic spectrum in México.

7.- Generación EspontáneaThe Marvellous Transatlantic [Ápice]
Self-described as an improvisation anti-band, Generación Espontánea is an ensemble with rotating members formed years ago by flutist Wilfrido Terrazas (originally from Ensenada) and other musicians who share his academic credentials and the musical vision in which contemporary music and free improvisation come together, which include violist Alexander Bruck, guitarist Fernando Vigueras and cellist Natalia Pérez, as well as other musicians who provide a pronounced eclecticism like drummer Darío Bernal Villegas, multi-instrumentist Misha Marks, violinist Carlos Alegre and bass clarinetist Ramón del Buey. The Marvellous Transatlantic[12] consists of a long-distance collaboration with European musicians (among them Thanos Chrysakis, Wade Matthews, Sebastian Lexer, Dafne Vicente-Sandoval, Artur Vidal and Lawrence Williams) that took place by means of an online platform that gave all participating musicians the liberty to edit and transform (or even delete) the posted contributions of the other musicians. This democratic, open process of construction of the album provided a whole gamut of electro-acoustic sonorities and a truckload of ideas explored with equal amounts of patience and restlessness in seven pieces, in which no sonic element predominates, except on “Un Riverbero Di Grillaia”, which could be considered a composition from guitarist Riccardo Wanke made for improvisers. The most solid record so far from an essential music ensemble in today’s México.

8.- Los Heraldos NegrosYa de aquí tú te vas [Ruido Horrible]
Los Heraldos Negros (the title of one of Peruvian poet César Vallejo’s greatest books) is the main solo project from Sergio Sánchez, sound artist, noise reviewer and founder of the CD-R and cassette label Ruido Horrible. Like in his previous release Vivir mejor –the name of a failed social program implemented during Felipe Calderón’s presidency–, Sergio explores patiently but unmercifully certain atmospheres of social unrest taken from the daily life of central México in recent years.[13] Ya de aquí tú te vas (And now you will be gone) is an ominous phrase that could have been taken from a José Alfredo Jiménez song. The recording dexterously combines field recordings, excerpts from Mexican political speeches, feedback and distortion effects, as well as the vocal work of guests Isidro Reyes and Rodrigo Ambriz (better known from noise projects Bloodyminded and Cacophonic Joy, respectively), with the metallic bangs and industrial influences one associates with the band Amniosis, that Sergio founded. The highlights are the oppressive atmospheres of “Sangre” and “A la tumba”, where the field recordings are framed in a post-industrial context, as well as the sixth and most aggressive piece of the disc (untitled), that features computer-generated cut-up noise.

9.- XtulHands of the End [Tonal Crimes]
This CD-R from Yucatán duo Xtul,[14] formed by Enrique R. Palma (laptop and effects) and Javier Beci (guitar and effects), is their strongest release to date. In the first two pieces, titled “Hands of the End (parts I and II)”, we hear the sardonic confession of some obscure American serial killer (slowed down at times and other times split in a multi-track edit, which emphasizes the inherent narcissism and schizophrenia of the speech) over which a somewhat tranquil sound collage –formed by delay loops, small improvisational electric guitar phrases and short feedback bursts– is overlaid. Unlike most of the duo’s recordings, the first half of Hands of the End accentuates its formal construction through the post-production process over the explosiveness of their live improvisation sessions. The last two pieces (“Xenophrenia” and especially “The Foetus God”) bring back the improvisational noise sound –close in moments to HNW tones– that we associate Xtul with, along with melodic drones that show a certain ambient or even kosmische influence.

10.- Muz MuzMelaza [Suplex]
Melaza is a 30-minute track from electro-acoustic improvisation duo Muz Muz, based out of México City. Gudinni Cortina (pocket trumpet, laptop and effects) and Íñigo Barandiaran (laptop, turntable and effects) form the duo, and this recording was finely mastered by Tana Barbier and released on Suplex, the aforementioned online sub-label of Abolipop Records. The piece is organized in continuous segments that resemble album tracks, separated by brief silences, that feature a vast range of electronic frequencies –taken from several improvisation sessions– that move forward at a rhythm that some times can be vertiginous but never becomes out of control. At other moments the duo cautiously explores drones and lowercase electronic textures. Even if the electronic tones –frequently with metallic timbres and an apparent percussive origin– are often engulfed in feedback and white noise masses, there are always contrasting elements like melodic drones with ambient or even post-rock influences. In short, the most accomplished recording so far from this promissory duo reflects the healthy moment the México City electro-acoustic improvisation scene is living.■

About the Author

Gerardo Alejos is a lawyer and translator who founded and curates the improvisation festival Cha’ak’ab Paaxil (free song or free music, in Yucatec Mayan) in Mérida, México, which in its six consecutive annual editions has featured Burkhard Stangl, Sean Meehan, Jason Lescalleet, Bhob Rainey, Paal Nilssen-Love, Robert Piotrowicz, Alan Courtis, Bonnie Jones, Greg Kelley, Dennis González, Elliott Levin, John Blum, Chris Cogburn, and Reed Evan Rosenberg, among many other international artists, as well as the majority of the most remarkable Mexican improvisers. Along with Enrique Rejón, he’s the joint founder and curator of the recently created label Lengua de Lava.

Translated by Gerardo Alejos


  1., and
  3. The eleven annual editions of Monterrey’s Encuentro equal those of festival Radar and make them possibly the oldest active festivals of experimental music in México.
  7. The also formidable CD Untitled: for William Turner, Painter, from Burkhard Stangl, another one of best 2013 records, shares with Silvertone… the sea as its conceptual and sonic influence.
  9. The title is a description of a mythological beast with certain traits of animals once-considered extinct, such as the coelacanth, once described as a “primitive branchiate with fatty body from the ocean depths”.
  10. Bringas is also the founder of Café Jazzorca, the longest-running venue for free jazz and improvisation in México City, for about two decades, as well as Discos Jazzorca, where he’s released multiple recordings of his projects, including two 7-CD box sets.
  11. We can also include in this list of the active deans of Mexican free jazz people like multi-instrumentist Marcos Miranda, who founded in the 90s the also seminal band Sociedad Acústica de Capital Variable, as well as guitar player Omar Tamez and drummer Milo Tamez from Monterrey, not to mention the first Mexican musicians who played free jazz in the late 60s and early 70s: saxophonist Henry West (mostly retired from music since the 80s or 90s) and other active musicians like pianist Ana Ruiz, saxophonist Alejandro Folgarolas, and saxophonist but now sound artist Ariel Guzik, among others.
  12. Its cover, a hand-drawn paper ship, shares the symbol of the maritime ship with Angélica Castelló’s Silvertone…
  13. The album pieces must be read (listened) taking in mind the context of institutional violence and drug propaganda campaigns in certain areas of México created by the corrupt governmental sclerosis and the actions of new-generation drug cartels like Zetas and Caballeros Templarios, which resulted in the creation of self-defense citizen militias that currently operate in states like Guerrero, Oaxaca, and Michoacán.
  14. Xtul is the Mayan name of a small town in the Yucatec coast, near Progreso, where one of the weirdest cults of the 20th century settled in the 60s, the Church of the Final Judgment, also known as The Process; see: