During the last 17 years, Bio Ritmo has issued five full-length releases and one EP, each a milestone along a winding trajectory. Though the salsa band was just getting its sea legs for 1996's Que Siga La Musica, the hallmarks of a retro-vintage aesthetic were already there: Sonero/ lyricist Rei Alvarez possessed sardonic, sincere power as a song poet, and the band displayed a gritty, experimental edge. But Alvarez parted ways with Bio Ritmo for its next two albums, Salsa Galactica and Rumba, Baby, Rumba, which flirted with romantic salsa and indie-label, commercial visibility. His subsequent return sparked the band's revisitation of its Puerto Rican "hard salsa" roots, with the release of its self-titled 2003 "green" album. Yearning to perfect its classic '70s sound, the band even enlisted studioman Jon Fausty, of Fania Records fame, to record 2006's Salsa System EP.
Biónico at last draws the veil on the band's sunnier, more playful side and reveals the logical cusp where the clean, danceable grooves of electronica meet salsa's earthy grind. Knowing the album would be yet another departure, band members huddled around the boards in homebase Richmond, Va., capturing exactly the recording they wanted, before sending it to Fausty in Florida for mixing and mastering. The result is Bio Ritmo's most confident and original album to date. Biónico is aurally intricate—thanks to Fausty's kaleidoscopic ear, placing Esquivel-like microscopes on each solo and sound layer—and rich with historical references, from disco and funk, to bellydance and boogaloo, plena and pop culture. Aided by quirky keyboard effects, thumb pianos and a vintage drum machine, Bio Ritmo's expansive revamping of classic salsa here is a welcome mat for new listeners.
These 10 compositions conjure alternate worlds where we can imagine Tito Puente drum-battling The Six Million Dollar Man ("Bionic Boogaloo," a reworking of the television show theme) or Papo Lucca sitting in with Los Amigos Invisibles (the deep grooving bomba funk "Muchacho"). Humidity levels change as frequently as the tempos, from the pandero-driven "Dime Vida" to the camel-backed "A La Cha." For all its wandering, Bio Ritmo's stable core remains artisan salsa. Music for the dancefloor, yes, but more than ever, Biónico is also salsa for your headset.
Bio Ritmo plays Local 506 Friday, Nov. 7, at 10 p.m. Tickets are $8-$10.
Sylvia Pfeiffenberger blogs at ondacarolina.blogspot.com.