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'Latin Ska Force' is the fourth album from the latin-ska Mexican four-piece Los de Abajo (The Underdogs) and offers exactly what you'd expect from the title. Offering pumping ska vibes, unique tunes and a wide range of songs, this album is an absolute pleasure to listen to. The album itself is rather long, comprised of 24 songs in total, and this review is therefore pretty long (sorry!). Among these are a number of interludes, which sandwich the main tunes and will not be covered in this review.
As the album effectively begins with 'Skapate', the ska vibe is instantly recognisable, and the upbeat tone and fast tempo set the mood for the entire album. A female singer softly sings the vocals to the pumping beat and as a drum beat kicks in a third of the way through the tune becomes wonderfully layered. An electronic sound forms the spine of the track and reverberates throughout it for the entire song. Well timed drum entrances sandwich a brilliant chorus and even a trumpeted solo near the end which is timed brilliantly and excellently executed. With smart lyrics, a sharp mixture of sounds and a fine chorus, this song is a great opener.
When the album rolls onto 'War 4 Peace', the tempo has somewhat slowed - but not for long. A tempo shift kicks in soon after and a trumpeted tune accompanied by a piano offers the song a unique vibe. Maintaining the ska influences, but now shifting to a rap style, the song feels fresh and the vocals perform every time.
As the band is very politically motivated, even supporting the contentious Zapatista Liberation Army of Mexico, the fourth song is dedicated to the final speech of the Chilean leader Salvador Allende. It makes for chilling listening, and the words he speaks echo and imprint into your mind. A smart move by the band, it not only politicises the album but perfectly sets up the following tune. As 'Esto no es una elegía' kicks in, a wonderfully pensive riff accompanies the same soft and confident vocals of 'Skapate' and the great lyrics blend with simple but effective audio to make for another great song, with some rap thrown into the mix around halfway through.
The ska vibe is firmly back is 'El Insecto' where a brilliant drum beat keeps the tempo high and accompanies the trumpeted tune wonderfully. The vocals are melodic and deliver on every note, making for a very complete song overall. 'Voy buscando' has a very latin feel about it, with trumpets, pianos and other instruments aiding the melodic vocals and reaching a crescendo in the best chorus of the album, where multiple singers sing the song's title alternately to great effect. The tempo shifts and harmonies found here are matched by smart rap which interjects near the end of the song to keep the album feeling ever-fresh.
In the first song on the album sung fully in English, the ska vibe has been given a back-seat role in favour of a still upbeat but more vocally-based tune. 'Summertime' is a variation from the album formula and is at once uplifting and refreshing. The vocals are impeccable and work brilliantly with the simpler tune, which moves along at an ideal tempo throughout. With trumpeted solos put into the mix too, this song is really brilliant and a lovely change from the rest of the album.
'Labios Rojos' sees the ska mood re-invigorated to great effect, with the best vocals of the album found here. Gravelly, deep and melodic, the singer delivers on every single note while the lyrics are almost hypnotic and oppose the harsh drumbeat and trumpeted sections. Scratching gives this song a unique feel, while the chorus brings the song full circle. 'Un Lejano Lugar' is a completely different beast, and appears to change the rules of the album once again. The lyrics and vocals are great for the most part, maintaining a high tempo and reaching a crescendo in a music-only chorus of sorts. Not reaching the heights of the previous songs, but still enjoyable nonetheless, this song's highlight is the wealth of layered audio, which smacks of ska influences.
'Al Final' is one of the slowest songs on the album and sees Los de Abajo reach great heights once again. With a slow, accordion-aided introduction and much slower tempo, the song wonderfully bursts into life with insightful lyrics and tight vocals, while trumpets and an accordion slowly pump a previously unheard vibe into the mix which makes for a completely unique song. This is ultimately where the band truly excels: when great vocals are sandwiched by passionate instrumentals.
'Jerico' is the second all-English song on the album, and wonderfully substitutes ska for jazz. The vocals are again spot-on and the tempo and mix of stringed instruments, trumpets and drums deliver a jazzy vibe totally different to the other songs. In the best part of the song, the layered nature of the song is plainly heard: first the pianos, then the drums, then the strings and finally the delicate but vibrant vocals, with brilliant lyrics rounding off the song nicely.
'La Fuga' is a distinctly Mexican song which wouldn't sound out of place in a Zorro film. The fast tempo and loud, ferocious instrumental intro is slowed for a rap of sorts, then roars back into a speedier gear after the vocals are done. In a song largely defined by its instrumentals and tempo shifts, the vocals do well to remain pronounced among the sound offensive. For the first time, electronic sounds are a sustained feature, and the song pulls off both the change in vibe and audio wonderfully.
The vocals are once again sprung to the forefront with great effect on 'La Polka Pelazón', where the trademark sound of the band returns but is strictly an accompaniment to sharp, clean vocals which are delivered brilliantly. Likewise, the upbeat vocals and loud trumpeted tune on 'Comezon' fuse together to make for an intensely uplifting song best enjoyed on a hot summer's day. The song is finely balanced between pronounced audio and vocals, and, accompanied by nice melodies, it makes for a distinctly optimistic song.
In a break with tradition, 'Damianska' features no vocals at all, and should be commended for doing so. The song's drawn out introduction builds suspense, until a frantic trumpet tune sets up the main body of the song which has a vibe which offers everything it needs to without the need for lyrics. Wonderfully layered, with trumpets, scratches and a middle-eastern sound in the background, the song progresses well and is a welcome change to the album's mood. 'Free Ská' rounds the album off in an experimental fashion merging discordant notes and tempo changes with sound samples. This feels like a total jam, and the band simply enjoying themselves and working in a free-style fashion. Though nowhere near as good as the songs which precede it, it makes for interesting listening.
In summary, this is a sound explosion for anyone who likes a ska vibe. Fast, furious and cleanly executed, it's difficult to find a place where this album falls down. The singers frequently change as the album progresses but the vocals remain ever-impressive. Moreover, the layered audio makes for great listening, and shows off the complexity of the band's music to full effect. Los de Abajo have made a mega album here, and it comes highly recommended.
Most of the album can be streamed free at this link: http://listen.grooveshark.com/#/album/Latin+Sk+Force/3874623