Grupo Fantasma – Problemas (2015)

You’d think it would be impossible for the Austin-based Grupo Fantasma to replicate the energy on record that they display on stage. Problemas, their latest release, dispels that idea.

Another masterpiece from the band, Problemas is a worthy follow-up to 2010’s Grammy-winning El Existential — as well as 2008’s Sonidos Gold, 2004’s Movimiento Popular and the self-titled 2001 debut. Though it’s been available almost everywhere else, the album is due for U.S. release in several months.

Grupo Fantasma continues to seamlessly blend Latin, funk and rock in a manner which is distinctively their own. “Nada,” the lead-off track, is a perfect example of that, with Jose Galeano and Kino Esparza effortlessly harmonizing with passion and urgency. Producer and Los Lobos member Steve Berlin only enhances Grupo Fantasma’s talents, keeping the energy level high and letting each of the nine members of the band shine.

“Porque,” a cover of the Beatles song “Because,” is recognizable yet new. Geleano and Esparza’s vocals rise just above the tight rhythms provided by Greg Gonzalez (bass), John Speice (drums), Matthew “Sweet Lou” Holmes (congas). These guys are the best in the business, bringing a new dynamic to a song everyone knows.

“Esa Negra” punches through, punctuated by the horn section of Gilbert Elorreaga (trumpet), Josh Levy (baritone saxophone) and Mark “Speedy” Gonzales (trombone). The crunchy guitar hook is provided by Beto Martinez. The ensemble’s call and response with the lead vocals sets up an urgency, and the groove makes you want to dance. What, you don’t speak Spanish? Doesn’t matter. You can feel this groove.

“Mulato” has a different feel and rhythms, but it’s no less driving. The song’s changes, guitar rhythm and dueling solos by Grupo Fantasma’s Levy, Gonzales, and Elorreaga are incendiary. “Mulato” seems both familiar and moving all at once. “Descargo Pura Y Dura” relies even more on the rythum section and percussion with it repeated chorus and blazing trombone solo.

“Otono” explores yet more Latin rhythms, with a cumbia feel and a staccato vocal delivery. The song is propelled by the horn section and “Sweet Lou” Holmes’ congas. A fantastic slow burn. “Problemas,” Grupo Fantasma’s title track, picks up the pace again with Jose Galeano’s urgent vocals propelled by the rest of the band and by Kino Esparzo harmonies. By the time the trombone solo wrap things up, you are already exhausted.

“That Night” is a joyous and carefree end the ride with Grupo Fantasma. Guitarist Beto Martinez gets to stretch out a little while the rhythmic tension is maintained. The song leaves you wanting more, but is a great ending to what may well be Grupo Fantasma’s finest album. Problemas is a must own.

Preston Frazier

Preston Frazier

Preston Frazier is a bass-playing lawyer living in Atlanta. His first Steely Dan exposure was with an eight-track cassette of 'Pretzel Logic.' He can be reached at slangofages@icloud.com; follow him on Twitter: @slangofages. Contact Something Else! at reviews@somethingelsereviews.com.
Preston Frazier