Max Bell atoned for not celebrating Yom Kippur even though he’s not Jewish.
Most instrumental albums suffer from a lack of cohesiveness. It’s the reason why I’m reluctant to check out most Bandcamp pages with the tag “beats” or “instrumental.” More often than not, you’re apt to find a bunch of half-completed sketches; dusty, dull, and often recycled loops clunking along to the pulse of derivative boom-bap drums thrown together under the guise of an EP or album.
However, there are those with some guiding principle or a narrative framework of sorts: these are the instrumental albums that work. A prime example of the former is Joker’s Sega Joker Drive EP, which Son Raw wrote about earlier this month. An EP “inspired by Sega samples,” it sounds exactly like the soundtrack to the greatest Sonic the Hedgehog game never released. For the latter, I suggest Diego Bernal and Ernest Gonzalez’s collaborative album, Atonement.
We’ve written about Gonzalez a number of times on the site (and Jeff has covered him elsewhere), both for his work under his given name and the work he’s released under his alter ego, the luchador mask wearing Mexicans With Guns. For Atonement Gonzalez linked up with Diego Bernal, a civil rights attorney from the land where Duncan and Manu play, who moonlights as a beatmaker.
Released this week on Gonzalez’s Exponential Records, Atonement is billed as “the soundtrack to an unmade Mexican Western film,” and fittingly so. It sounds like nearly every one of the nine tracks sounds was made while Bernal and Gonzalez holed up in a sweltering San Antonio basement with Sergio Leone’s Dollars Trilogy on loop, the pages from Cormac McCarthy’s finest dog-eared, and the sounds of RZA, Adrian Younge, and the latest Team Supreme tape a needle drop or computer click away.
The length of the album notwithstanding — the nine tracks clock in just under a half hour — there are noticeable, yet gradual shifts in tone and texture as the album progresses. In other words, you can tell these beat-brethren really did have a cinematic narrative in mind.
“Una Vez/ For It Was Told” is the audible equivalent of the opening wide shot, the tame credit sequence as the serape wearing, pistol-toting wanderer drifts past tumbleweeds and worn edifices of adobe on horseback. It’s mellow, yet moving. And the guitar strumming is as soothing and warm as the familiar yet always welcome crackle of the record.
“Daguerreotype” marks the first shift on the record. The grand, horn blaring intro signifies the first encounter with a foe. Immediately after, the track delves into Younge-in-RZA-mode territory. With the chopped vocal loop and the hard, brown-red dirt boom-bap, this is what Ghostface’s Twelve Reasons to Die would’ve sounded like had the album’s supposed backstory been set in Mexico instead of Italy.
The third track, “Thirteen Gold Coins,” is the only place where I’m lost, the few minutes where the album loses its cohesion. Here Bernal and Gonzalez must’ve just come from a Bonobo listening session, as this sounds more suited to lush, dense jungles than it does arid desert heat. Maybe it’s what I believe to be the birds chirping that’s throwing me. In any case, it’s not a bad track on its own, just seemingly out of place.
After this small hiccup, the album picks right back up with the motif, as “Veladoras” feels right at home inside of a brothel posing as a saloon. Whether it’s the choral loops in the background or the grinding baseline, there’s something inherently seductive at play here.
“The Wicked One aka El Malvado” is where we get to see (I’m guessing) Gonzalez take control and don the luchador mask, beating the MPC pads like he’s going for the title. This is the Mexican Western set in the digital world, Billy the Kid inside the Tron universe face to face with a pixelated menace, a malevolent villain wielding a glowing-neon red machete. The bass is never more sub rattling, and the kicks and snares never more frenetically skittering. And the organ loop combined with the 8-bit sounds will assuredly make bodies bounce if Low End ever makes the trip to San Antonio (or vice versa)
I could continue with the track-by-track break down, but I’ll cut it short (too late) and let the rest of speak for themselves. That said, I’ll finish by saying that on Atonement Bernal and Gonzalez have found something that works remarkably well. I’m not sure who did what, but I hope they decide to do a project like this again. If they do, maybe Robert Rodriguez will let them score the next Machete installment.