In industry circles, quite a bit has been made of the disappearance of the instrumental hit. After decades of Billboard toppers and songs that captured the cultural zeitgeist like “Tequila” (the Champs), “Green Onions” (Booker T. & the MGs), “YYZ” (Rush), “Sabrosa” (Beastie Boys) — even the brief sensation that was “Harlem Shake” (Bauuer, and, yes, I had to look that up) — we haven’t seen much of an instrumental hit in a decade. Why?
Theories abound. The rise of singing-focused reality shows? The text-based nature of social media? The increasing disappearance of actual instruments being played in hit recordings? There’s even the argument that many current top-40 hits might as well be instrumentals. Given the nonsensical and unimportant lyrics, the vocals are just another instrumental layer.
My personal explanation is wrapped up in music becoming less and less of a “thing people do.” Where people would once gather for the sole purpose of listening to records, it’s much more often combined with other things now — video games, movies with the sound off, sports, whatever. To really appreciate an instrumental record is to immerse oneself in it, to key in on specific elements, to have it move you (or not, as the case may be).
Mainstream culture has moved elsewhere for entertainment.
There are still some, though, who thrill to a release like Manuel’s brand-new “Underneath,” five songs of Latin-inflected metal led by his guitar playing, often layered three, four and five parts deep. There is so much to listen for, from the individual notes of melody lines to the rhythmic churn of crunching chords to the thrumming rhythm of the drums and bass that form each song’s foundation.
Is that a double bass kick drum? One guitar part in each channel playing the same melody line, but with different tone? An organ?
“Vocally, I never felt 100 percent,” guitarist and songwriter Manny Urgiles says over the phone. He’s worked on a few projects locally since moving here to the Portland area with his wife about a decade ago from their home in Los Angeles, where Urgiles grew up. Most likely, you’ve seen him playing guitar with Xander Nelson’s band, a fellow grad of the Berklee College of Music down in Boston. “I feel like whenever I try to sing or come up with lyrics, I’m just way too into my head. Whereas with guitar, it’s just easier. I feel more connected and it comes out easily; there’s no need to force myself to feel a certain connection.”
He does have a song, “Luz,” from 2020, where he layers in doubled vocals (one distorted, the other whispered), but it’s an outlier. “That was kind of fun,” he says, “but I have more fun writing interesting riffs, songs that have sections like a roller coaster.”
That’s just what you get here with a song like the opening “Rooted (Beneath the Rabbit Hole),” where we’re greeted with a long message from Urgiles’ father, who came to LA from Peru, spoken in Spanish. Even if you don’t know it’s his father, you might suspect it. Manny says it’s a message of encouragement for him to take his guitar wherever it wants to go.
Then comes the guitar, in staccato footsteps first, then in an elongated melody line that’s classic prog metal, amped up by a shaker that slips through the channels to make you turn your head. Maybe try to listen in the car or with speakers on the floor or good headphones, because your standard earbuds aren’t going to do the Thomas Hiscock-provided bass floor justice and it’s vital for propping up the high frequency of the guitar parts and the rattling snare drum provided by old L.A. friend Joaquin Sandoval (they were in a high school metal band called Obsta).
The parts play out like a cinema piece, sneaking around in back alleys, racing like a car chase, spiraling like a Top Gun dogfight, finishing in a blistering hail of notes before collapsing in exhaustion.
And that’s just the first track. For fans of Dream Theater, Opeth, Megadeth (guitarist Marty Friedman, particularly), and the like, this will be familiar ground, but there are flourishes of Latin beats and musical theater that dress things up a bit. “No Retreat” has a beautiful little boom-chick-chick rhythm after the first minute that calls to mind that “Wednesday” show on Netflix. “Al Borde De Todo” apes an alto sax part in the first pull back, like an ’80s pop ballad. “Left Behind” has a noirish feel, sultry, with slippery and rounded tones before it finishes in a skate-punk clash. And is it technically a waltz?
“My mind is pretty wild, man,” Urgiles says, “so when I write music it’s really all over the place.”
Sometimes, though, it’s pretty straight ahead. There’s no missing the emotion and energy of the rim-shot blast beats that smash through “Embraced.” Just keep listening, though. There’s so much more to hear.
Sam Pfeifle can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Manuel plays Blue, in Portland, with Will Auringer, May 26, at 6 p.m.
2 Weeks, 5 Songs
Dan Sonenberg – “You Are Not My Wombat” | Our USM composition professor blurs the lines here, taking a classical piece he created for the Osher School of Music Composers Ensemble and changing out a couple of instruments to create a spacey, wonky, instrumental lark.
Coyote Island – “Raise It” | Maine’s most summery musician joins here with Mihali on a dreamy, reggae-inflected slow jam that’s spot-on for sunset season. Can’t wait for the new full album June 16.
Space Fog – “Peaches & Cream” | A spacey and outsider piece from a foursome that’s pushing the envelope, this number runs seven minutes and more and takes you on a serious ride.
Alaska Sargent – “Are You Forgetting Something?” | In the emo-pop tradition, acoustic guitar battles with heavily auto-tuned vocals for your attention.
The Gubs – “Passed Out at the Punk Show” | Part of a new three-song EP, this is a lot of fun, a pop-punk piece that’s instantly familiar and full of amiable derision.