From Re-Foc, their very first release in 2002, post-nuevo flamenco guitar duo Rodrigo Sanchez and Gabriela Quintero thumbed their noses at purist notions of flamenco. Having initially come from heavy metal, they wedded their new music to metal's pyrotechnics and the various folk styles of their native Mexico, creating a new genre in acoustic music. That said, Area 52 is unlike anything they have recorded before. The album began as simply an orchestral overview of tunes from their catalog to issue while they wrote new material, but it became something wholly other. Along with producer Peter Asher and arranger Alex Wilson (whose charts here are almost too fantastic to believe), they employed C.U.B.A., a 13-piece Cuban orchestra, and the diverse talents of several guests. Recording mainly in Havana, the duo, with C.U.B.A., set about completely reinventing RyG's songs. Take opener "Santo Domingo," with Los Van Van's Samuel Formell in the drum chair. Here, those acoustic guitars are augmented by strings, a whomping funky electric bassline, a full brass section, saxophone, and flute. They travel through fiery Afro-Cuban montunos and charging descargas wed seamlessly to their brand of flamenco. "Hanuman" features metal drummer John Tempesta in a frenetic son layered over flamenco before Santana-esque lead guitars and a full-fledged timba take the lead. Sitar great Anoushka Shankar helps out on "Ixtapa" by playing an illuminating solo amid the acoustic guitars and percussion section, before they force her to up the ante and improvise Latin style, touching on guaguanco. She responds fluidly and imaginatively; eventually, flamenco gets moved all the way over into salsa and Afro-Cuban jazz à la Machito! "11:11" highlights the gorgeous upright bass playing of guest Carlos Benavent (formerly of Paco de Lucía's group) and the chanted vocals of Carlota Teresa Noriega in call and response with the band. Sanchez's acoustic steel-string and electric lap steel guitar solos are delicious, too. The oud playing of Palestinian Le Trio Joubran on "Master Maqui" stands in contrast to Wilson's big horn charts (which are a dead cross between Gerald Wilson's and Tito Puente's). The ouds and guitars exchange fours and eights, getting kissed by a flute. Before things get too sweet, the horns blast in, ushering in a duel between ouds and guitars melding Middle Eastern and Latin musics. "Tamacun" reprises Tempesta on drums. It commences as a frenetic big-band flamenco with guitars, drums, and flute up front before things get whompy, and danzon and rumba make entrances and exits. While it would seem that nothing on Area 52 should work, it all does. What started out as simply an orchestral retrospective has become an entirely new Rodrigo y Gabriela album, one that showcases an even more startling range of musicianship. In sum, this album expands the very definition of musical collaboration.
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AllMusic Review by Thom Jurek