Naming a song after your friend is typically a tribute, but for the Puerto Rican band La Futura Prole, they simply liked the way it sounded. The content of “Ángel Benjamín” is unrelated to the dude himself, says lead singer and guitarist José Raúl Ortiz. Alright, maybe there was some harmless teasing behind the choice, too. They ultimately titled their entire debut LP after that song — and the original Ángel Benjamín wasn’t too thrilled. “He was mad for like two years,” Ortiz says. “But now he’s OK with it.”
It’s not a stretch to think that the actual music that materialized was a conciliatory factor. That title is about the only thing Ortiz and co-founding guitarist Roberto Cabrera did without careful, meticulous consideration. With the help of drummer Eden Cruz and Ruy Andres (who recorded the LP and went from session player to permanent member), they’ve magically transported the iconic gypsy-jazz of Django Reinhardt and the pioneering ragtime that came before him into the here and now, by fusing the two styles with guitar-heavy prog-rock.
The blend isn’t that far-fetched, really: All three genres have common syncopation. The choppiness can make for an abrasive and disjointed feel, like falling off one surprise cliff after another. But La Futura Prole’s delivery is more like a dip down a steep slope, albeit a lightning-fast glide. The dynamic is bouncy but smooth, and completely easygoing. “I like the rhythm and melodic progressions they make, [as] opposed to the typical rock ‘n’ roll 4:4 blues structure that comes a lot in alternative songs and other styles,” Ortiz says.
But there actually are some blues references in the mix. “Diles Que No Me Maten” culls from Son House’s iconic “Death Letter Blues,” both in his percussive use of the guitar as well as the storyline. La Futura Prole’s version, however, culls from a book Ortiz read about political persecution after the Spanish Civil War. Here, it’s the narrator’s life in question; a sense that his end is near has become certain.
“It talks a little bit about after he gets killed,” Ortiz explains. “One day, a couple years from now, there’s going to be a drought and the lake is going to dry out, and at the bottom of the lake, they’re going to find him.”
The absolute morbidity of that number is defied by its shimmying riffs; it almost sways at some points. Themes on the rest of the LP could be as shadowy — the lyrics are often ambiguous, Ortiz admits — and we wouldn’t know.
There are touches of surf noir in there too, like on “Vacasanta,” the track that guided Lillianys Medina to create the album artwork. Along with Ortiz, they scoured posters from Puerto Rican films made between the 1930s and 50s, and drew from Carlos Raquel Rivera’s muted blue-and-yellow art for El Yugo in particular.
With its scrupulous influences from bygone eras, Ángel Benjamín could sound painfully forced. It doesn’t, and that’s an impressive feat. Even its reluctant namesake could probably admit that.