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The rock en español galaxy sputtered a collective gasp of disbelief in 1997 when Gustavo Cerati dissolved Soda Stereo. First an Argentine phenomenon, then the South American nation's finest non-soccer export, then–by the early '90s–one of the first Latin American rock bands to fascinate Anglo ears, the Cerati-led trio had, over the course of a decade, expertly guided Latin-alternative music in epic directions. Album after album introduced more and different instruments, chord progressions and philosophy-stretching lyrics to the genre; their 1995 release, Sueño Stereo, soared over U2-esque rancor with humanistic electronic touches and brazen hooks that every Latin-alternative group quickly copped. And Soda Stereo didn't limit their innovations to sound, either–other groups mercilessly ripped off the baroque aesthetic of the video for Sueño Stereo's first single, the Revolver-inspired (and awesomely named) "Ellá Usó Mi Cabeza Como un Revolver" ("She Used My Head Like a Revolver"), obsessed with the mini-matinee's tableaux of protagonists dressed as vortexes.
Soda Stereo maintained its status at the forefront of the Latin-alternative scene for several more years when American critics began embracing the genre (and the group) as music's most promising. Soda Stereo owned Latin America. Because of Soda Stereo, Latin American pop/rock groups no longer gazed longingly after the colossuses of the north (the United States) and across the pond (Great Britain) for musical inspiration; they now searched within and across their own continent. Guitars, synthesizers and drums no longer sufficed for Latinos, who followed the charge of Soda Stereo en masse to embrace electronic music as an ally rather than adversary.
And then, the deluge: Cerati ended Soda Stereo.
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Rumors persist as to why Cerati destroyed the group–no one accepts that Cerati would throw away the world for the dangers of a solo career. But like Enrique Bunbury–head of seminal prog.-rock Spaniards Héroes de Silencio–Cerati was too restless and frustrated to continue the pioneering band. Who cares if he had forever changed Latin alternative? His intent was to change the planet.
That still-inexplicable breakup remains a mystery, however. Once free of the expectations that came with the group, Cerati went into a self-imposed sabbatical, constructed a studio in his Buenos Aires apartment, and recorded 1999's Bocanada. Rightfully, Bocanadawas an instant classic, an alternately optimistic and melancholic move toward bolder pop planes with each track. Even better was 2002's Once Episodios Sinfónicos (Eleven Symphonic Episodes), a sort of hybrid greatest hits/live album with the Buenos Aires Symphony, recorded on the cusp of the myriad problems that still plague Argentina.
Rock through an orchestral prism is a particularly pretentious musical approach, but Cerati not only made it work, but he also made it inspire–and rock. Bassoons and clarinets replaced organs, and restless violins were a great substitute for Cerati's guitar shards. Once Episodios was balm for the wounded Argentine soul, and Cerati even included favorite Soda Stereo songs–a past he rarely addresses during solo shows–such as "Persiana Americana" and the haunting "Millón de Años Luz" in a performance frequently drowned out by voracious audience applause.
And maybe that's the explanation for the breakup there. With such talent spilling out of every note, it's surprising he didn't break up Soda Stereo sooner. Cerati had revealed his individualistic spirit even while a member of the group, recording two excellent efforts, 1993's Colores Santos and the following year's Amor Amarillo. And these early attempts still manifest themselves in his concerts–mini-orchestral suites in which able backup bands follow Cerati's guitar cues through breathless treks in the electronic universe. Samples seep in, even a dose of harsh Smashing Pumpkins-at-their-height meanderings. Even better is Cerati's magnificent timbre, a resonating basso profundo capable of hitting comfortable high notes, the voice of some higher being shaking through speakers and into the minds of all.
So Cerati is once again at the front of the Latin alternative universe, even if many critics and fans lukewarmly received this year's Siempre es Hoy, complaining he reverted too much back to his more rocking Soda Stereo days rather than the unclassifiable beauties of his solo work. But maybe Cerati's on to something. Other artists are only starting to achieve the levels Soda Stereo once hit, let alone attempt to scale the heights Cerati hit. But when they finally do, Cerati will have moved on to other things–there are too many sonic challenges to conquer.
GUSTAVO CERATI PERFORMS AT JC FANDANGO, 1086 N. STATE COLLEGE BLVD., ANAHEIM, (714) 758-9998. TUES., 8 P.M. $35. 16+.