Artists From Brazil #1: An Introduction to Os Mutantes

os mutantes

Who are Os Mutantes?

Os Mutantes were a band formed in the mid 60’s hailing from São Paulo, and were arguably the most important brazilian rock band of all time. The trio, originally formed by Arnaldo Baptista, Rita Lee and Sérgio Dias, brought a blend of bossanova with psychedelic and art rock, heavily inspired by the Beatles, and broke pretty much every convention Brazilian music had been following up until that point. Among the band’s millions of fans, for example, are artists such as Björk and the late David Bowie.

While most artists pre-Mutantes were worried about a clean, moody and ear-warming sound, the Mutantes didn’t care much for that, they were just making music for the pure sake of making it. In a lot of ways, the Mutantes could be considered the Brazilian Velvet Underground.

Their discography is made of 10 full length studio albums, but for the sake of keeping it short, I’ll only talk about their first three, often considered to be their best and most influential.

1. Os Mutantes (1968)

The Mutantes’ debut album is very much a product of its time. The band was very much ingrained in the Tropicália movement, and got a lot of help from big names such as Caetano Veloso and Gilberto Gil.

With the help of producer Rogério Duprat, the Mutantes changed the way music was seen in the Brazilian landscape forever. From the heavenly opening track, ‘Panis et Circensis’, to the wild and energetic closing track, ‘Ave Genghis Khan’, the band goes through all kind of experimentation, throwing in any sound that they see fit in their songs. The songs, while not exactly chaotic or raw, are pretty messy for the time of their recording, incorporating elements such as xylophones, horns, distorted and reverb guitar sounds, weird field recordings and disorienting ad-lib, all in one track.

Most of the songs in here weren’t written by the band, but they find a new aesthetic in the hands of the trio. The track ‘Le Premier Bonheur du Jour’, for instance, is a cover of a Françoise Hardy song, but what was originally a folk tune turns into a dreamy, heavenly trip led by Rita Lee’s incredible vocal delivery, pulling a lot from Nico. The song ‘Tempo no Tempo’ is a reinterpretation of the track ‘Once Was a Time I Thought’, from the band The Mamas and the Papas, as a stripped back song based on vocal harmony, but the Mutantes fill the track with horns and a groovy bass-line, and the most impressive of all, a percussion made only of finger snapping.

Aside from these songs, there are other very impressive moments in this album. The most popular song in here is the second cut, ‘A Minha Menina’, which displays a heavy samba influence, mixed with delayed guitar sounds and a killer distorted riff from Sérgio Dias, giving the song a texture that only rises with its amazing, hypnotic groove, built from great vocal harmonies and a percussion made of a deep tambourine and claping sounds.

The song ‘Bat Macumba’ brings home the elements of african music, more specifically the songs associated with occult cults. The bass is proeminent in here, and even more interesting is the distorted synthetic effect that goes throughout the entire track, even nailing a very entertaining riff at the end of it (think that little synth riff at the end of Deerhunter’s ‘Nothing Ever Happened’). ‘Trem Fantasma’ starts by mixing a flute sound with marching drums, only to fall into a moody section led by arpeggios, and then finally developing into an epic pop song marked by a horn section, a bass-line and group vocals.

The already mentioned closing track, ‘Ave Genghis Khan’, is the most experimental, quirky switching time signatures, and building from fast paced keyboards and cymbal marked percussion to some amazingly tight guitar riffs, going through some sparser, noisy segment that features a tenor sample, and finally laying a vocal delivery going backwards.

This is the album that better defines the Mutantes’ sound and experimentation. The whole thing is one giant trip, and an essential listen. In a year where every artist seemed unsettled by the chains of normality, where the Beatles released the White Album and the Velvet Underground released White Light/White Heat, the Mutantes left what’s arguably the deepest wound the status quo would see that year.

2. Mutantes (1969)

With the gates of experimentation opened, the Mutantes went on to record their second album with an even bigger desire to shake things up. Mutantes, their sophomore effort, was the result of the band trying to go even further down the experimental lane, and to combine all the experience they had gained from the previous record. Most of the songs here are written and composed by the Mutantes themselves, with a few musical guests in a handful of tracks.

The band was called to Cannes to perform a few songs at the MIDEM festival, and this led to a rushed recording. Due to this, most songs from the Tropicália movement (which had already ended at this point, after Gilberto Gil and Caetano Veloso were arrested) that weren’t really supposed to end on the album actually did. Among them, ‘Caminhante Noturno’, the closing track, which features robotic vocals from Arnaldo Baptista, among a collage of sounds and instruments that are just too much to cite individually. The track does feature some very beautiful string section though, and the explosion of color during the chorus is nothing short of amazing.

But I’m getting ahead. The opening track, ‘Dom Quixote’, is the perfect kind of opener. The first minutes bring an escalating horn section and marching drums that evoke a movie curtain opening. The song progresses into a very theatrical piece, with some rock and jazzy intermissions throughout. The clapping samples that pop up every once in a while really sell the feeling of a grandiose stage play being performed to us in the form of a 4 minute song.

This feeling lingers throughout the entire album, especially with the second track, ‘Não Vá se Perder Por Aí’ being as explosive and as festive as it is. The third track, ‘Dia 36’ though, takes a more melancholy and dark tone, with a very dreary chord progression played on an organ backing up a vocal performance by Baptista recorded through a voice box, giving it a distant tone to the song.

On its best moments, Mutantes brings a strong feeling of a big carnival happening somewhere in the middle of the tracks. The jingle-esque ‘Algo Mais’ and the Beatles-esque ‘Rita Lee’ are two great examples of songs mixing tight performances with amazing eccentricity coming from complete different directions. ‘Banho de Lua’, a reinterpretation of a moody ballad released a decade prior by singer/songwriter Celly Campello, is arguably the most eccentric and fun track, with vocals reeking with Rita Lee’s personality and an amazing distorted guitar solo, as well as a great knife-sharping sample.

Even more than the first one, this album feels very satirical. In a time where dictatorship and censorship were at full force in Brazil, the Mutantes just felt like making music that would feel like the extreme opposite of the situation they were into. Just hear the laughs during ‘Mágica’, they don’t lie.

3. A Divina Comédia/Ando Meio Desligado (1970)

The third full length LP the Mutantes released in 1970 also their most praised overseas, having names like David Byrne, Beck and Kurt Cobain citing the album as an influence in their works. It’s not hard to see why, though.

After the sonic mess of Mutantes, the band really didn’t have anywhere else to go in terms of experimentation. And this shows, as A Divina Comédia isn’t as bold and as experimental as its predecessor. What the band does, however, is favour mood and melody, and tone their irony and playful personalities a whole lot. Sadly, If you don’t speak Portuguese, you just won’t realize HOW hilarious the track ‘Quem tem medo de brincar de amor?’ is, with Rita Lee bringing some really tongue-in-cheek vocals at the verse that mock the way English people speak Portuguese.

Another change in pace was on the fact that the band would here embrace a much somber, sensual and darker tone than the previous records. The third track, ‘Ave, Lúcifer’, is as haunting as it is beautiful, with Baptista and Rita Lee exchanging vocals in a way that remind me of Nick Cave and PJ Harvey on the track ‘Henry Lee’. The most experimental and most disturbing track in here has got to be the 6 minute track ‘Meu Refrigerador Não Funciona’, which has some dissonant percussion backing up an organ progression, all overlayed in Rita Lee’s vocals, that emulate the greatest names of 60’s R&B. As the lyrics, previously in English, change direction into Portuguese, the track seems to start to crumble and rebuild multiple times with extra instrumentation added every time, as Lee sings about how… well, her refrigerator isn’t working.

‘Hey Boy’ comes right after, opening the B-Side of the record, and it’s much more toned down and pop sounding than the first half. Songs like ‘Preciso Urgentemente Encontrar um Amigo’ and ‘Jogo de Calçada’ bring home the classic Mutantes sound, with great percussion, catchy riffs and sudden tempo changes. The track ‘Chao de Estrelas’ is by far the most eccentric moment, with Baptista’s excessively slow vocals going against some very cartoony samples in each verse. The album closes with the amazingly dense instrumental cut ‘Oh! Mulher Infiel!’, which starts off as a mess of sounds that slowly land in a very jazzy tone by its second half, only to come back to the hellish world of the first half on its last thirty seconds.

While not as experimental or ground breaking as the previous two records, A Divian Comédia is definitely the most cohesive of the tree. What the Mutantes did here was throw away their Tropicália influence for good, and diving fully into psychedelic and rock music. No wonder it’s their most beloved, as it’s also their most accessible.

4. Final Considerations

Os Mutantes are one of my favorite bands of all time, and I grew up listening to them, so I am kinda biased towards it. Despite that, I can for sure say that their music is very interesting and worth checking out. And don’t let the fact that I’m only writing about three of their albums stop you from digging into their other material, especially since there’s some really interesting stuff hidden between their work up until the mid 80’s.

They are the most important Brazilian band of all time, and I don’t mean that just because I think their music is fantastic. Much like the Velvet Underground, 90% of every record released in here has some influence, direct or non-direct, from these three records I just wrote about. Rock music just wouldn’t be the same without them.

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