When “Gato Mojao” opens Protistas’ fourth studio album Microonda, the strum of an acoustic guitar triggers an instant sense of nostalgia. The track brings us back to some of the Chilean band’s earlier works, rather than the precious atmospheres of their previous full-length, 2014’s Nefertiti. But this isn’t quite a return-to-form, either; the Chilean band’s latest release on Quemasucabeza is actually their most eclectic album to date.
Nefertiti was an album largely marked by loss, as two of singer and guitarist Álvaro Solar’s family members passed away during the recording process. The group poured those emotions into 12 gorgeous indie rock songs that overflow with a longing for times past, a skill they’ve come to master. Instead, Microonda illuminates life; it’s a lit-up blue sky after the storm.
Protistas did experience loss while making Microonda, but in a different vein: longtime guitar player Julián Salas left the band right after starting studio sessions, only managing to track for two of the songs (“Historia natural” and “Reina de la ciudad.”) But his departure was actually the spark they needed to pursue a new creative direction. “In terms of creative dynamics, his departure was necessary to achieve this record,” says drummer Andrés Acevedo over email. “His artistic and emotional stances were restraining change [from happening]. It’s been an important departure, as all the previous ones Protistas has suffered, but what’s important is how we re-articulate the band after those changes.”
With new perspectives, the now-trio (which includes bassist Alejandro Palacios) self-produced Microonda with help from longtime collaborator and Fármacos member Carlos Doerr, who, as a mixing engineer, unlocked a world of unexplored possibilities. He and his Isla del Sol bandmate Nicolás Alvarado produced “Madre Joven,” giving the band their first experience with an outside collaborator taking the reins on production. Tiare Galaz (aka Niña Tormenta) and Felicia Morales also embellished some of the tracks with their vocals and instruments, respectively.
On “Reina de la ciudad,” an unexpected Casio rhythm drives the song’s narrative arc. Similarly, an 80s pop beat and glossy synths frame the linear “Madre joven” and its story about a young woman who defies her parents and society by seeking motherhood at an early age. “Autopista del sur” takes a darker turn, falling somewhere between post-punk and surf rock, while the title track drips with psychedelic goo.
Despite all the eclecticism, this is definitely a Protistas album. The detailed guitar work, plus Solar’s boyish vocals, which he describes as “rustic,” are still here. Upbeat single “Entre los dos no sumamos uno” is the poppiest moment in their jangle-pop repertoire, even if its sunny mood is deceptive; the song is actually about a relationship that has quietly drifted away. But Solar says the dissonance can actually be uplifting. “I think the themes about falling in love, or subsequently falling out of love, are manifestations of a force which compels you to feel alive.” Acevedo agrees. “In all these scenarios, the need to leave [things] behind and search for new horizons, not sinking in the shit and not feeling self-pity is evident. To me, that’s searching for the light in the world and within you.”
Protistas have cited the city of Santiago de Chile throughout their entire discography, most prominently on Nefertiti track “Me atrapo x todo.” These references to the Chilean metropolis return on Microonda, and the city even transforms into its own character in these stories: Santiago is a weight on the narrator’s shoulders on “Entre los dos no sumamos uno,” a facilitator of love on “Reina de la ciudad,” and a starting point on the hopeful but heartbreaking “Autopista del sol.” But for Solar, it isn’t about singing to the city – it’s about living the city. “If you want prevent your need to communicate from becoming a hobby, the metropolis becomes a heroic space of survival. Santiago is where we got to live, and we have to learn to deal with its peculiarities,” he explains. Acevedo digs a little deeper. “Our pace of work is urban, and it’s marked by this city; by its ugliness, which we have to learn to love; by its creative spaces, of which there aren’t many, but they are usually tender and honest; by the loving people you have to look for among the fear spread by the media. The tension found in this space defines us in our anger and pursuit of tenderness.”
Right when they were were approaching predictability, Protistas has successfully switched things up enough to both refresh their sound and remain the band we’ve come to love. Their optimism might still sound melancholy, but the sun has never shined brighter in Protistas’ corner of the universe.
Protistas’ Microonda is out now on Quemasucabeza.