When composing a virtuoso guitar album, it stands to reason that the individual involved had better be damn well prepared to articulate a story without the use of lyrics to move the narration. Unless one wants a fanbase entirely composed of technical guitar nuts, who certainly exist but perhaps not in substantial numbers to move a lot of product, composing living, breathing songs in favor of simple guitar theatrics is the crux of success in this particular splinter showcase. It’s a fickle reality, one that has alternatively embraced, forgotten and embraced again by such luminary talents as Eric Johnson, Yngwie Malmsteen and Buckethead, with Joe Satriani, Steve Vai and John 5 also in the mix. The internet is positively festooned with technically excellent would-be session players, men and women who regard as foreign the idea that truly otherworldly guitar composition is as much about character and tone and presentation as it is pace and ability.
Enter into this world Puerto Rican guitar sensation Ramon Ortiz who came to initial prominence as a founding member of Puya and later of Ankla, who presents us with his second solo guitar effort, “Portal.” The album finds Ortiz about halfway down the line between the extremes of excellent instrumental storytelling and just-another-wanking-guitar-album.
What separates Ortiz from his peers in the genre is his abundant use of Latin influence in his music, carried over no doubt from both his band experience and his own deeply personal music history. Indeed the most interesting part of “Portal” are when Ortiz drops his exclusive rock and metal sheen and fully gives in to his heritage. We see tastes of this during “Jamakeo,” a song of traditional Latin percussive cadences overlaid and perhaps slightly overpowered by the characteristic drive of Ortiz’ personal tone. This song though, shows the promise of what can be when Ortiz applies his composition talent to two generally separate musical devices.
A little ways down the line, this gives way to “Valse Criollo Natalia,” which is a song of straight Spanish guitar and played beautifully. It’s a fine contrast to the solid, thumping rock of the rest of the record, a gentle respite amidst a sea of turgid electric waves. Even this song doesn’t blend the two worlds that Ortiz is trying to tie together, it doesn’t really need to in order to be effective.
However, that song serves as the gateway for “Portal’s” masterwork; “Selvatica” is the single place on the album where the full implication of combining metal and salsa come to a head. Wonderfully buoyed by Latin percussion, the song’s edgy but catchy riff cadence sinks in and finds a home amidst the unlikely pairing of dance and electric rock. Ortiz uses a simple staccato riff to simulate the hip-shaking rhythm while his drums accent and color the tone of his undulating guitar in a cyclical partnership that creates the presentation of something akin to a metal Latin rain dance.
The unfortunate side of “Portal” is that outside those moments mentioned above, the album is well-executed but no so different from any number of other guitar virtuoso records. Many of the remaining tracks are artistically interesting but not especially innovative or captivating, resulting in a sort of shoulder-shrug reaction from the listener. If that sounds particularly damning it may well be, but keep in mind that the bulk of what we’ve been talking about are the highlight moments, which are good enough to warrant the praise we’ve heaped so far. As singles, those are fantastic and worthy of high regard, but as a total package “Portal” may be only average, balanced out by material that is technically fine but does not snare the ear. As discussed at the top, the remaining songs do not effectively pain an immersive picture.
So, by all means, give “Portal” a shot for the brilliance of “Selvatica” and the selected beauty and artistry of some other isolated moments, but be aware that you may be paying full price for an album that gives you reduced mileage.