Abe Vigoda’s tropical punk is winningly messed up

They have no one but themselves to blame, but the members of Abe Vigoda must be getting tired of reading that their guitars sound like steel drums.

The six-string work of Michael Vidal and Juan Velazquez is indeed every bit as exotic as a week in Jamaica’s Savanna-la-Mar, but you somehow know the Los Angeles quartet will eventually regret billing themselves as purveyors of tropical punk. In fact, for a more accurate artistic reference point, head to the middle of Africa.

“A couple of years ago, I got really into world music,” Vidal says, on his cellphone in the Abe Vigoda tour van just outside of Toronto. When asked if he perhaps discovered Congotronics, an ongoing series of records built around superfuzzed acts from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the singer-guitarist gets excited.

“I love that stuff,” he says reverentially. “That was a huge musical discovery for me. A friend put a song on a mixed tape, and it ended up totally changing my approach to music. I liked that it didn’t really fit under the blanket of world music because it was so dirty and crazy.”

Basically, the bands in the Congotronics series seem on a major mission to fuck world music up, throwing into the mix everything from didjeridus made of PVC pipe to percussion instruments fashioned out of sardine cans and bedsprings.

At the heart of the songs are hyper-distorted likembes (thumb pianos), which are fed through car-battery–powered amps. The result is trance-inducing, a term that also describes Abe Vigoda’s recently released sophomore album, Skeleton.

On first listen, the disc comes across as entirely too messed up for mass consumption, the snaking hot-coil guitars bringing to mind the Meat Puppets at their most deliriously sun-baked, the vocals sounding like they were recorded at the bottom of a storm sewer.

Give Skeletons time, though, and its considerable charms start to reveal themselves. “Cranes” updates classic American indie-rock for postpunk mopers, “Animal Ghosts” rides a death-surf wave that would impress Nick Zinner, and “Dead City/Waste Wilderness” transplants math rock to shores where the sun never stops shining. The shimmering, smashingly spacy instrumental “Visi Rings”, meanwhile, shows the band is anything but a one-trick pony.

If it takes a while to get where Abe Vigoda is coming from, that’s somehow fitting. Vidal, Velazquez, bassist David Reichart, and drummer Reggie Guerrero have been happily toiling underground at their home base, the Smell, a performance space and art gallery that’s allowed them, and like-minded acts like No Age and Mika Miko, to incubate out of the public eye.

“Because the space is volunteer-run, it’s like a big family,” Vidal says. “We did this breakfast show right before we left with No Age where it started at 11 a.m. and there were pancakes. It sold out, with tons of kids.”

With Abe Vigoda’s brand of tropical punk earning the band big buzz points in the underground, the guitarist is well aware that the spotlight is suddenly swinging on that underground family. Vidal seems okay with that, even if newfound fans are only there to find out if the band’s guitars sound like steel drums on-stage.

“What more can I ask for but a new audience to play for every day?” he asks. “We’ve been given a great opportunity.”

Abe Vigoda opens for No Age at Richard’s on Richards tonight (July 24).