Before we were re-introduced to the now solo Rico Blanco, the story went like this: the then-Rivermaya frontman went MIA; his former band, reduced to a trio, released the brilliant Bagong Liwanag, then staged an overblown TV search for a frontman, a new member. Meanwhile, some speculated Rico Blanco formed a new band and he’s called it Blanco.
Then came the signal fire: the five-minute plus “Yugto”, an anthemic folk-rocker replete with strings, tribal beats and horns; chorus that echoes Joey Ayala at Ang Bagong Lumad’s “Lumiyab Ka” and bridge that alludes to the Battle of Jericho. In short, it’s big, gigantic. A song one could easily put alongside the Eraserheads’ “Ang Huling El Bimbo”, “Center Of the Sun” from Wolfgang’s Acoustica, and Rivermaya’s “Alab Ng Puso” from Live & Acoustic or their live rendition of “You’ll Be Safe Here”, at the 2006 MTV Asia Awards in Thailand. We’re talking about epic numbers here.
After the ballsy first single, comes Your Universe, Rico Blanco’s first solo album. Contrary to what some fans have expected (myself included), Your Universe isn’t Magkabilaan with electric guitars, or something along the lines of Rivermaya’s punchier, darker oeuvre. Rivermaya’s version of “Ilog” and “Padayon” could have been the perfect jumping-off point for Blanco to get on full folk-rock mode; instead, the other nine songs in the album has Blanco exploring different avenues, revisiting past excursions while also charting new territories.
Your Universe marks a new chapter for Rico Blanco, but it also signifies the end, the closing of another. It neatly sums up Blanco’s past works, as both singer and main songwriter of Rivermaya, while also introducing his first solo output.
“Your Universe”, the second single, is like a 180-degree turn from the first. It’s a comely ballad that favors acoustic guitars and string orchestration over drums and distortion, and reveals Blanco’s singer-songwriter side (think about Aqualung circa Strange and Beautiful). “Your Universe”, together with “Restless” and “Start Again”, sound like the logical progression from “Balisong” and “Sunday Driving” (off Between the Stars and Waves) and hint at what the next Rivermaya songs might be like, had Blanco stayed with the band. “Say Forever”, on the other hand, was probably written after Blanco revisited the ’80s, for his last outing with Rivermaya; only this time, it’s more “Tupperware Party” than Joey Ayala. The cheesy keyboard lines, the angular guitars, the dance-y beats, and the friggin’ saxophone(!) at the break will get you all New Wave-y all over again.
While generally considered as a collaborative effort, with Blanco enlisting a number of well-known musicians and friends (Nathan Azarcon, Buddy Zabala, Sago‘s Pards Tupaz, among others), the songs on Your Universe range from something as grand as “Yugto”, the song with the most number of guest musicians, to something as minimal as “Para Di Ka Mawala”. In between, we got “Ayuz”, another full band set-up, highlighted by a festive horn section and a music video featuring Rico Blanco doing his best Fred Astaire impressions. There’s also “Antukin”, in which Blanco played all instruments, including drums. Aside from doing a terrific job behind the skins, there’s also a splendid piano solo, which he probably threw in just for fun—a playful throwback to his earlier days with Rivermaya. (The Southeast Asia version of the album available on Spotify features a different mix of “Antukin”, in which the said piano part is replaced by a guitar solo.)
If there are any weak points here, that would Blanco’s forays into electronic rock. “Outta This” and closer “Metropolis”, aren’t in any way bad, but would probably sound better in a more coherent-sounding record than here.
While his former record label put out a number of best-of compilations from Rivermaya over the years (Rivermaya: Greatest Hits (2006), Silver Series (2008), 18 Greatest Hits (2010))—an increasingly redundant way of re-introducing the band to old and younger audiences—Rico Blanco had another thing in mind. With Your Universe, what he offers is a mix-tape, a compilation of his best and latest, not necessarily hits. It is like a “greatest hits”—only there’s not a single old song in it.
Live gig photo from roxnebres.deviantart.com.