By Jacob Katel
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The civil, social, and political unrest of the '60s was not exclusive to American shores. While U.S. soil was damp with tears over Vietnam and the sweat of protesters fighting for basically everything, Brazilian soil was churning beneath a coup d'état. The turning gears of military machinations looked poised to overthrow 34 years of Brazilian populism. And amid this turmoil almost 40 years ago, two brothers and a friend in São Paulo started a band.
Os Mutantes began with bassist, keyboardist, and vocalist Arnaldo Baptista; guitarist and vocalist Sérgio Dias Baptista; and lead singer Rita Lee. The band was planned as a voice in a mass cry for change. "In the '60s, I think there was a need for freedom, especially in expression," Dias Baptista says. "The depressing things that were happening in society for so long — repression of sexuality for girls and the oppression of kids who wanted only to express themselves the way they wanted — all those things triggered activism."
The newly instituted military government threatened the band from the beginning. Still, the group crafted a sonic approach as unique as its lyrics. The sound was influenced by a combination of American and British psychedelic rock from the likes of Jimi Hendrix and Revolver- and Sgt. Pepper's-era Beatles, as well as by a then-fledgling cultural movement in Brazil known as Tropicália, which immediately accepted the band.
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Tropicália was Brazil's answer to psych. Inspired by theater, poetry, and the avant garde, the scene was the perfect vehicle for a band whose sound could be described as equal parts symphonic beauty and controlled chaos. Os Mutantes issued forth a cacophony of images, colors, and textures conveyed through sound.
"The best way for someone to understand Mutantes' music," Dias Baptista says, "is to take a stroll down the strip in Las Vegas. I think that's the most tropicalist thing I've ever seen in my life. It is perfection in tropicalism."
The band's 1968 self-titled debut proved a ground-breaking achievement for the movement, quickly extending the band's reach to Europe. Subsequent releases, such as 1969's Mutantes and 1970's A Divina Comédia ou Ando Meio Desligado (The Divine Comedy or I Walk a Bit Disconnected), continued to further the band's art, with the finished product growing ever more polished.
But the latter foreshadowed a distinct departure from the band's early Tropicália roots, toward the more progressive waters the musicians would swim in the subsequent O A e o Z. And though the album was recorded in 1973, it would be shelved until its eventual release some 19 years later, in 1992. That wasn't the only record to be placed on the back burner. The 1971 album, Tecnicolor, was also shelved, only to have the dust blown off in 2000 and released that year.
In all, Os Mutantes released five albums prior to Rita Lee's exit in 1972 (six if you count her so-called solo release, Hoje é o Primeiro Dia do Resto da Sua Vida, which the band recorded with her). At that point, the band's days were numbered, and Mutantes eventually succumbed to personnel changes and drug abuse, disbanding after the release of only one more record, 1974's Tudo Foi Feito Pelo Sol.
But these mutants weren't finished yet; the giant was merely sleeping. In 2006, the unexpected happened: Os Mutantes reunited, with a few new players joining the ranks. And if the band's re-formation was unexpected, so was the influence it had imparted on musicians across continents in the ensuing decades. While the band was broken up, its praises were publicly sung by everyone from David Byrne to the Flaming Lips, Beck, and Kurt Cobain. The last even fruitlessly tried to reunite the band during a Nirvana tour across South America.
"All of this happened without our knowledge," Dias Baptista recalls. "Someone would come and say, 'Hey, there's this artist, Beck, who likes your music,' or 'Oh, John Lennon liked your music,' which was just amazing."
Time spun out like thread between their last recorded album and their latest. This year's Haih... or Amortecedor marked the band's first official release in 35 years. And in true Mutantes fashion, it's an exercise in the progressive. "You don't live off what you did before. You have to do new stuff; otherwise it's pointless," Dias Baptista says. "It's important for us to create new music."