Radio Futura were a key rock force in '80s Spain -- very popular, critically acclaimed, and highly respected for their integrity. They broke up at their peak in 1992 and have since resisted the temptation of going the lucrative reunion CD-and-tour route. It's an admirable stance but a shame in a way, because Paisajes Electronicos reveals a very smart but visceral band with well-thought-out arrangements, savvy use of dynamics, and a surprisingly healthy dose of black music influence and right-hand rhythm feel. All of which wouldn't matter a bit if they couldn't rock whatever feel or groove they adopt quite convincingly. This two-CD/one-DVD package features video material drawn from live performances broadcast on Spanish national TV and produced clips (the DVD is probably European format only, so check that your player can handle it). The CDs are chronologically arranged, but duplicate DVD selections are generally live versions of video clips, say, so the group has taken care to offer something distinct in each format. The studio version of "El Canto del Gallo" digs deep enough at the hips via a low-key insinuating groove, nice horn punctuations, and a haunting melody, but the live DVD version takes it to groove central and absolutely kills, with great organ splashes for color. Too bad no audience was allowed in the disco where they recorded it, because Radio Futura nailed it big-time. The group is centered around brothers Luis Auserón on bass and Santiago Auserón, the chief songwriter, lead singer, and rhythm guitarist. Guitarist Enrique Sierra adds smart, savage melodic leads that recall Roxy Music's Phil Manzanera with a more punk-oid edge. If the songs don't get you with melodic hooks, the constantly shifting arrangements will sustain interest and Santiago is a convincing singer who grows on you. The CD version of "Anabel Lee" and "Luna de Agosto" show good live energy and Auserón rises to the occasion with throaty growls as his roaming vocals take liberties with the melody. (Check the DVD extra with the lyrics -- even non-Spanish speakers can follow the printed words and see the elastic way he elongates and phrases them to fit the melody as the CD tracks play. He's a very literate and observant slice-of-Spanish-life storyteller, too.)
Right-hand rhythm rules on the early "Escuela de Calor" and a sorta reggae feel underpins "El Viento de África." "La Negra Flor" is a chugging funky reggae groove with great bass that gets maximum mileage from a few elements -- the live sequel "Paseo con la Negra Flor" is even better with its Jamaican singjay rap story. The alien-cum-alienation anthem "Jardín Botánico" works off a Spector beat and "A Cara or Cruz" is organ-fueled rock & roll with a touch of clave piano in the chorus. The Latin tinge is stronger on the spiky rhythm of "Veneno en la Piel" and the baritone sax-anchored big horns and percussion attack of "Semilla Negra." "El Tonto Simon" goes back to skank with a "Canto del Gallo"-style groove and nagging horn line -- some clavinet funk burbles fit in smoothly, and that is typical of almost all Radio Futura's arrangement details. Some video clips raise questions, like whether the animation to "Veneno" and theme of "Semilla" slide into stereotypes of the dark-skinned, exotic Cubana Other. The live clips show a young band dwarfed on a huge stage ("Interferencias") and indulging an AOR side with a note-confetti guitar solo not played by Sierra. Some are prerecorded play-alongs, fine on the rehearsal studio glimpse of "Escuela de Calor" and funny as hell on "Jardín Botánico," where the drummer lags half a beat behind and the TV techs hadn't yet figured out that having a mike in front of Santiago Auserón is a better way to maintain the illusion that he's really singing. Sierra does a great job precisely miming his guitar solo, though. Paisajes Electronicos duplicates next to none of the selections on a previous best-of disc, and there is no good reason to suspect that this compilation isn't the most representative introduction to the band available. It's near-mandatory for anyone interested in the development of Spanish rock and '80s pop culture, and the visual material offers fascinating glimpses into the baby steps (and baby faces) of one major group central in fashioning it.