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 Paolo 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 from the beginning as a voice in a mass cry for change. "In the '60s, I think there was a need for freedom, especially in expression," says Dias Baptista. "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."
From the start, the band was threatened by the newly instituted military government. Still, the band crafted a sonic approach as unique as that of its lyrics. The sound was influenced by a combination of American and British psychedelic rock from the likes of Hendrix and the Revolver and Sgt. Pepper's-era Beatles as well as by a then-fledgling movement in Brazilian music known as tropicália that immediately accepted them with open arms.
As indicated by the name, tropicália was Brazil's answer to psychedelia. Inspired by theater, poetry, and the avant garde, the scene was the perfect vehicle for a band whose sound can be described as equal parts symphonic beauty and controlled chaos. Os Mutantes issues forth a cacophony of images, colors, and textures conveyed through sound.
"The best way for someone to understand Mutantes' music," says Dias Batista, "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 groundbreaking achievement for the movement, quickly extending the band's reach to Europe. Subsequent releases like 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 of the two foreshadowed a distinct steering away from the band's early tropicália roots toward the more progressive waters the musicians would swim in on the subsequent 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. Further, that wasn't the only record to be placed on the back burner in this era. The 1971 album Tecnicolor was also shelved, only to at last have the dust blown off and be released in 2000.
In all, Os Mutantes released five albums before Rita Lee's departure in 1972. (Well, six if you count her "solo" release, Hoje é o Primer Dia do Resto da Sua Vida, which the complete band recorded along with her.) At this point, the band's days were numbered, and Mutantes eventually succumbed to personnel changes and drug abuse problems, 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, the band's praises were publicly sung by everyone from David Byrne to the Flaming Lips, from Beck to Kurt Cobain. The latter even fruitlessly tried to reunite the band himself while touring across South America with grunge-rock juggernaut Nirvana.
"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...Ou Amortecedor... marked the band's first true 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," Dias Baptista says. "You have to do new stuff; otherwise it's pointless. It's important for us to create new music."