by Jonathan MacDonald
★★★★ (OUT OF 5)
Released: May 25, 2016
Genres: Brazilian Rock, Punk, Jazz
It’s not easy to write about a band with next to no English language press, but in the case of Metá Metá the challenge is well worth it. I first discovered Metá Metá two years ago when I stumbled across the album Encarnado, a solo effort by their singer Juçara Marçal, in a best-of-2014 list. At the time I had been a casual listener of the 70s tropicalists like Tom Ze and Caetano Veloso, but I lacked any real touchstone for contemporary Brazilian music. What I found in Encarnado was a collection of emotional and intense singer-songwriter music not at all stymied by the barrier of language. Marçal’s solo career, her various collaborations, and her work with Metá Metá have been in my regular rotation ever since.
At the heart of the band is the interplay between Marçal’s expressive sung-chanted vocals which range from whispers to shouts, Thiago França’s smooth to choppy jazz saxophone, and the delicately tuneful guitar noodling of Kiko Dinucci. Metá Metá’s newest album MM3 comes five years after the groups’ 2011 self-titled debut Metá Metá and four years after their excellent 2012 follow-up MetaL MetaL. While each of their releases have adopted a different emotional character, in general Metá Metá’s music seamlessly blends the rhythmic folk music traditions of Brazil (in particular candomblé) with elements of free jazz, punk and noise rock.
While Marçal and company have been making small splashes abroad in the past half-decade, Brazil’s international presence has been as subtle as a tidal wave. Fresh off of the (now irrelevant?) roster of BRIC nations, Brazil’s ship of state weathered the storm of global recession with not insignificant damage. This has of course been amplified by a history of economic turmoil, widespread intense wealth disparity, and general political shadiness. Combine with the international scrutiny brought on by the 2014 World Cup, the now-upon-us 2016 Olympics, a public health crisis with no sign of abating, and cyclical bouts of political and civil unrest. To call things strained is an understatement.
Brazil’s struggles are well known and will certainly be intensely documented in the weeks to come. There will be a lot of labeling from foreign press, international organizations, and Brazil’s own government. But what about are the voices of Brazilian people?
All eyes are on Brazil. But all ears ought to be as well.
From its first few notes, MM3 conjures the apocalyptic mood lately ascribed to their home country. “Três Amigos” opens with receded and subdued drumming, a deep and lumbering guitar, and a haunting saxophone refrain. It’s a highly effective mood setter, even before Marçal’s almost murmured vocals kick in, and well before they kick up to her trademarked impassioned shouts. “Três Amigos” might be a reference to the trio that makes up the band itself, but a quick-and-dirty Google translation of the lyrics indicates a theme as gloomy as the music:
Three friends to kill
Twelve more saints to stone
A great love to sodomize
It is not given, does not give
A dead hope for there
An open wound over here
A dream carnival, there
It is not given, does not give
As the album continues, Metá Metá’s unique blend of styles does not disappoint. For ears trained to American musical sensibilities, the sound is both familiar and foreign. This is a rock album, sort of, but it is also a jazz album (but it’s not anything as distasteful as jazz fusion). Metá Metá draws from African and Indigenous culture, particularly syncretic religious music. It’s not dissimilar in spirit to the work of the cult 1970s Bahamian musician, Exuma and his various imitators.
In the face of international scrutiny and internal disruption, what does the music of Metá Metá tell us about Brazil? Building on the legacy of the tropicalists and decades of independent music, Metá Metá’s powerful voice reaffirms the nation’s unique cultural heritage. It’s a consumption, digestion, and transformation which challenges an imposed narrative of national declension with powerful self-confidence and slickly written songs. That being said, there is no doubt that this is a troubled album for troubled times.
“Angouleme” (above) sees the band most fully embrace the uptempo frantic jazz-punk styling which they have been playing with for some time. The middle part of the album returns to the plodding, somber tone of the opening track, but each song adds its own unique instrumental flourish. The complex and catchy rhythm section and processed saxophone on “Angolana” make it a definite highlight in a stellar collection of songs. The track titled “Corpo Vão” features what is probably the album’s best saxophone hook in forty minutes of excellent saxophone playing. Sprinkled throughout this album are moments of serious tension, surprising effects, and interesting polyrhythms. Marçal’s voice ranges from confident, to defiant, to anxious, to mournful. The final two tracks, in which Marçal trades vocal duties with a male voice, bring this journey to a satisfying conclusion.
For a band that plays musical styles so reliant on talented drumming, it is strange that Metá Metá has yet to add a drummer to their official lineup. Thankfully this latest release has the most consistent drumming of the band’s releases yet. While their earlier releases certainly have not pulled any punches, MM3 sees Metá Metá step up their game in nearly every way. Production is cleaner and tighter than on previous records. MM3 definitely favors the vocals and sax, leaving Dinucci’s guitar to mostly accent Marçal and França’s alternatingly anguished and life-affirming bursts. Despite its noisy and cacophonous instrumentation, each element of this album is layered perfectly. There is definite method to the madness.
MM3 bursts with passion, creativity, and sadness—and is well worth your time.
Metá Metá’s website, where most of their discography is freely available.