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Louder than words 

Altas speaks volumes about instrumental rock's potential

click to enlarge Denver's Altas have found the sweet spot between composition and complication. - ADAM ROJO
  • Adam Rojo
  • Denver's Altas have found the sweet spot between composition and complication.

Pop musicians like to make things easy on their audiences, relying on time-tested formulas that include verse-chorus song structures, predictable chord changes, and sing-along vocal hooks. But out there on the margins, things can get a little more challenging, as musicians experiment with the "through-composed" approach of "serious" classical music, or abandon composition entirely while venturing into more ambient, art-damaged terrain.

In that context, Denver musician Enrique Jimenez's preferences are basically schizophrenic.

"As a listener, I personally gravitate toward stuff that repeats," says the lead guitarist in the Denver instrumental band Altas. "But as a composer, I don't like to repeat things. Which is odd, I know."

Altas integrate both approaches into their wordless soundscapes, which can at times echo the shifting dynamics of Japanese "post-rock" band Mono, the Teutonic trance of Can, or the spaciest sonic excursions of early Pink Floyd. Think Steve Reich meets Mogwai. Or don't think at all and just listen.

"With what we do, there's a balance between repetition and moving the parts forward as a composition," says Jimenez, who's a huge fan of hip-hop production team Blue Sky Black Death, as well as fellow instrumental bands Pelican and Russian Circles. "We try not to dive too much into the welded-together, riff-based type of post-metal that we sometimes get identified with."

Originally from Oaxaca, Mexico, Jimenez moved to Colorado to study music, film and video production at the Art Institute in Denver. It was here that he and his brother, drummer Israel Jimenez, joined forces with a second guitarist, Juan Carlos Flores. In 2009, they released the self-produced, effects-laden EP Cortometraje, under the band name Panal S.A. de C.V., which translates to "Anonymous Society of Variable Capital."

"It's a business designation that a lot of Latin American countries use, particularly in Mexico," explains Enrique. "But, obviously, that name came with a lot of issues. 'Panal' means 'honeycomb' in Spanish, but only if there's no tilde at the end. Add that little bit of punctuation and it's the difference between 'honeycomb' and 'diaper.'"

So the band rechristened itself Altas (which is Spanish for "heights") and brought onboard keyboardist/electronicist Meaghan Lillis and part-time bassist Amanda Evans, who have dramatically expanded the group's sound in the process.

"We didn't change directions, so much as improve on what we were doing," says Enrique. "When we were playing with Panal, we had touches of keyboards in the music, but that element didn't get fully explored. Luckily, we've been able to work with Megan, who's classically trained. So there are a lot more textures in terms of the synth and ambient parts."

Altas' full-length debut album, Epoca De Bestias, was released last fall. Produced by Enrique and Nick Sullivan, who's picked up a couple of Grammys for his work with Los Lobos, it's arguably among the most engaging instrumental rock albums in recent memory.

Onstage at SXSW earlier this year, the band demonstrated live what can happen when words don't get in the way. Ignoring a microphone at the front of the stage, they crafted a series of highly melodic, ever-shifting songs. Throughout the set, they were either looking down at their instruments or staring out into space, halfway to some place no one else could see.

"Instrumental music may not be the most high-profile type of music, but there's definitely an audience for it," insists Enrique, pointing to the burgeoning success of electronic dance music.

The guitarist also draws inspiration from acts in Mexico and Latin America. "It's a diverse scene down there," he says. "A lot of those guys are making post-rock music, because it's not bound to language, which makes it a little bit easier to get a bigger audience internationally."

As for bands with vocals, Jimenez highly recommends Mexico's Descartes a Kant — "they're really progressive and they really have these crazy song structures" — and Colombia's La MiniTK del Miedo. "I love how they're combining the traditional cumbia and gothic music. It's just very spooky and it's really cool. So those are the kind of things that tend to show up in my musical palette."

That said, the guitarist remains committed to the band's instrumental approach, as well as its more concise, if no less confusing, name.

"It's shorter, it's easier to say, and it fits on posters," says Jimenez. "But now, you know, people are always confusing it with 'Atlas.' If English is your first language, your eyes and your brain automatically switch those letters. It happens all the time."

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