Victor Villarreal - Invisible Cinema
Release Date: January 24, 2011
Record Label: Joyful Noise
Despite their prevalence, solo albums haven’t gone the over-saturated way of the remix quite yet. The news of a solo album from a cultishly loved band is still almost always welcome news, regardless of whether the solo work is a carbon copy of the musician’s other work or not. Few fans will complain about more music, no matter how similar (it’s the safest route to go, really). Enter Victor Villarreal’s first official solo release, Invisible Cinema - an endeavor surrounded by much different circumstances. Villarreal is a lauded, legendary guitarist, but he’s not the frontman-of-a-single-seminal band that we usually associate with solo albums (like recent examples John K. Samson or Craig). This, in addition to his obvious, copious talent, is what makes the album even more intriguing.
Villarreal has a famously singular, innovative guitar style, constantly shifting and evolving, hopping form one time signature to another as the most innovative in the indie/Midwest emo realm. His work is always impressive and a key component, leaving an indelible, lasting mark wherever it is used. Cap’n Jazz, Owls, Ghosts and Vodka, the most recent Joan of Arc album - the identities of all of these are very much tied to his guitar. So the idea of Villarreal taking full control and creating music that is all his is massively intriguing; what direction would he take, and how would he accentuate the guitar-work that would surely dominate?
The most immediately apparent observation is the low-key nature of the album. Villarreal’s instrumental ability is unsurprisingly impressive and on display throughout the half hour length of Invisible Cinema, but it is never so outspoken that it undoes the intimacy throughout. Hinted at by song titles like “Enters” and “Leaves,” there is often very much the feel of Villarreal descending into a basement and playing a short, coolly enthralling solo set, and leaving just as softly as he entered. The video for “Enters,” simply an outdoor recording of Villarreal playing, perfectly encapsulates the tone of that song and much of the rest of the album.
Each song is like an intricate little puzzle. Each seems seamless when put together, but there are many little pieces and flourishes that are tightly knit together to create each one, leaving not even the hint of empty or wasted space. Villarreal’s delicate picking throughout serves as the drive and backbone for each track; the constant, subtle changes keep the songs rich and lively. That’s one of the most profound realizations upon listening - even without the additional instrumentals, Villarreal could have woven riveting narratives even if he only had his guitar.
He did bring in a few people to layer on some other instruments, though. Only few - but each of those few has a profound effect. The bluesy horn and bass on “Darts in the Dark” replace vocals as the significant voices on the track as they call to each other (the bass makes a similarly deep-voiced, sporadic appearance on the following “Strings Attached”). The percussion on “The Guess” contributes to its being the most traditional sounding track (also the shortest and quickest) with its upbeat jauntiness. It is almost too disruptive in tone, but it is well placed for optimal effect. The most dynamic addition is the echoing background of “Sway,” a effect that gives the track a heft (or sway) that approaches the level of a great post-rock opus. Most of these additions, of which there are a number more (including organ, cello, viola, congas, casaba), are each included with notable and meaningful purposes while always remaining tasteful.
The parts that do fall flat are those where the vocals play a more prominent role - not a suprising fact, given his instrumental virtuosity and as compared with his history of mostly backing vocals. He does well by limiting their focus and using effects like layering and echo to hide some of the weaknesses in that area. There are also moments that can feel a bit like missed opportunities; sometimes there is the feeling that a bit could be expanded into a rather big, climactic affair, but there seems to be a conscious effort to eschew the grandiose and keep things enthralling on the smaller, more personal scale that the rest of the album sticks to. The choice isn’t bad - ultimately, it might have been the right one.
Invisible Cinema difficult to quantify. The music takes multiple forms and intriguing directions, experimenting without ever feeling like it's over-extending. There is the occasional blip in the flow (the afore-mentioned upbeat, full-band nature of “The Guess,” the exotic instrumentation of “Strings Attached,” though they fit together with each other well enough) and sometimes, there is the feeling that maybe a little more reach would have played well. These are mainly quibbles, though - the instrumental work throughout is as exquisite as one would expect from Villarreal. Invisible Cinema is a solo album that doesn't feel at all like carbon copy of his other work - it's Villarreal doing what he wants, and doing it in a way that just make you shake your head in disbelief at his innovation and ability. Put simply, it's interesting and really good, and I hope we receive more solo work from the master beyond this and Alive.