When I first heard Javier Reyes was releasing an EP under the name of his solo project Mestis, I was (happily) expecting it to be an off-shoot of Animals as Leaders, the flagship of modern progressive metal that has been pushing the boundaries of what’s humanly possible in guitar-driven instrumental music since 2009, part of which Reyes rose to fame alongside virtuosic band founder and leader Tosin Abasi, to whom he has mostly been playing second fiddle. In fact, I hadn’t really even acknowledged Reyes as a musician in his own right until he followed Abasi to form the jazz fusion supergroup T.R.A.M. (Terrazas, Reyes, Abasi, Moore), debuting with the EP Lingua Franca in early 2012. And although Lingua Franca contains some of the elements of Latin American music that are so characteristic of Mestis’ Basal Ganglia, those could just as well have come from ex-Mars Volta flautist Adrián Terrazas, and so I still didn’t see Javier Reyes as more than a shadow of Abasi.
I couldn’t have been more wrong. On Mestis’ 2012 EP Basal Ganglia, Reyes demonstrates with confidence that he has a distinct voice of his own. This is not Animals as Leaders 2, and, much to my own surprise, it’s all the better for it. Reyes shuns the mind-blowing light-speed solos and complex polymetric metal chugs, opting instead for a clearer, less technical, but no less masterful approach. This collection of five short tracks is a mishmash of genres, ranging from jazz and classical guitar to metal to Latin folk music (as hinted at by the Spanish song titles). And yet all through this apparent incongruity and chaos runs a common thread that brings the album together into a perfect unity. When asked about this mix of genres in an interview, Reyes said he was trying to put together his own sound from the odd bits and pieces that have inspired him and his guitar playing throughout his life. In that he has undoubtedly succeeded – if you can’t slap a genre label on Mestis’ efforts, you can definitely label it Reyes, as this is an album you will be hard-pressed to confuse with anything else out there.
Opening track Te Mato begins with a slow, creeping, dissonant groove, which, as odd as it sounds, is nearly Beethoven-esque, leading into an energetic and unpredictable Latin-spiced section complete with trombones – almost danceable if it didn’t sound so ominous. After this dark fiesta, the song relaxes into a contemplative, nearly melancholy passage, where a clean, jazzy guitar lead with a tone slightly reminiscent of Animals as Leaders, yet clearly tinted again with Reyes’ Latin influences, gradually takes over. The song then returns to the beginning, giving a short reprise of the first half and tying it all up in a neat circle.
Semilla is a fully clean track with a strong rhythm. The jazzy but southern-tinged beginning again holds the promise of a Latin dance in the air, but the section of classical fingerpicking that follows and the jumpy, unpredictable changes of direction quickly show that we’re dealing with an altogether different animal. Contrary to what I or anyone else might have expected based on Reyes’ Animals as Leaders membership, it’s right about here that you’ll notice that there won’t be any overly flashy fretwork on this album. Instead, he keeps his melodies simple and his rhythms far from dizzying – without sacrificing originality, mind you.
The next one in line, Olvidala, is a slow, melancholy one-man show, where Reyes really shows how much beauty can be created with so very little. In this compelling case for minimalism, Reyes’ clean, solo eight-string ruminations are initially only accompanied by nearly subliminal synth crackles, eventually joined by a mellow and relaxing lead line.
Menta, my personal favourite, is again more in the vein of opening track Te Mato, with a full range of instruments and enough energy to fuel a trip to orbit. The heaviest song on the album – while it opens yet again with a clean, Latin-tinged intro, the tempo makes it clear right away that this one has much more in store. And then it bursts wide open into a trombone-fuelled tempest of frantic rhythms, instantly kicking the song into high gear and forcefully pushing you along with it. At the next junction comes a fat, heavy, jolting riff, the roots of which might lie as far afield as doom metal, again taking you along for the ride, but never revealing the destination, keeping you guessing instead – something that’s characteristic of most of this EP, really, and one of its biggest strengths.
Never once resorting to true guitar wizardry or dazzling us with virtuosity unattainable by a mere mortal, Reyes proves on this track that originality can be found in other, possibly better places as well, with the wild rhythms and compositional ingenuity surpassing most, if not even all of what you could find on an Animals as Leaders album.
Finally comes Luz y Cielo – one last clean, classical track to gently close the album. A single guitar is again backed by synths, but this time less subtle, instead mirroring the traditional school of classical guitar with otherworldly, futuristic hums, perhaps reflecting on the unique mix of old and new this whole EP has been.
While the music of Mestis, according to Reyes, is deliberately supposed to be “simple enough for the average music listener to appreciate“, it’s still far from simple. It’s hardly background music as it really does demand you to pay attention – for better or for worse is for you to decide. The unique treatment of 8-string guitars (generally still associated with the demonically dark and grinding sound of Meshuggah) on this EP is truly a breath of fresh air for guitar enthustiasts, but perhaps too much ’innovation’ in one package for that very same average listener.
Despite only totalling sixteen and a half minutes, there’s so much substance to Basal Ganglia that it’s always felt more like a full album to me than an EP. Could that mean that an actual full album by Reyes – an idea about which he himself has only expressed enthusiasm – would be too much to swallow in one gulp? Maybe. Would I then pass up the opportunity to put that to the test? Not a chance.