Draco Rosa’s first studio album in five years opens in some confusion, salted with dark humor. The singer is one of the biggest and most notorious stars in modern Latin music. But when he walks into “Hotel de los Encuentros,” he gets the cold shoulder at the registration desk. The voices in charge are barely human — women with the frosty, mechanical sensuality of Alexa, the virtual assistant in your Amazon Echo speaker. They get Rosa’s name wrong and almost send him away before handing over the key to “333” — a room and song that, when the door flies open, hits you with the rush and roar of vintage Seattle, in the grunge gold-rush year of 1991.
It is an exhilarating shock. Framed by heavy riffing and grunting bass guitar, dodging serpent-curl guitar licks and sudden turns in the rhythm, Rosa’s singing is snarling, shouted and desperate, as if he is fighting for clarity on the edge of delirium. “Here I am,” he declares in “333,” “with my pockets full of words … letters and photos … laughs and laments.” The singer is also flat on his back with fever, “Watching my infancy pass by on the ceiling/And embracing my name/In case I should lose myself.”
This is rock & roll as near-death experience. And it is an eerie thrill. Rosa’s raw vocal and open fear here — and throughout Monte Sagrado — evoke the howl and urgency of the late Soundgarden singer Chris Cornell. The difference: Cornell, who died last year at 52, finally lost his grip on hope, family and prescription medication. Rosa, at 48, is a survivor of the teen-idol meat factory, Menudo; the dangerous side effects of that success in drug hell and alcoholism; and two recent, close calls with cancer. On Monte Sagrado, he is still writing and singing at the precipice, reporting from the void.
“It’s said that no one can do anything … that all of us are nothing,” Rosa sings over the marching bass and dirty-treble guitars in “Que Se Joda el Dolor.” “But I drink a little glass of love,” he adds quickly “and may the pain buzz off!” At least that’s what it says in my English translation of the song’s title and chorus. Against that Kraftwerk-via-Slayer drive, it sounds more like Rosa is telling his pain to “fuck off”.
It is a long love-hate relationship – Rosa embracing illness and trial as motivation, then kicking at it with a metallic vengeance – that has been going on longer than I realized when I met Rosa for the first time this summer over bottled water in the rooftop bar of a Manhattan hotel. I knew about his tenure in Menudo, from 1984 to 1987, although I was busier writing about Hüsker Dü and R.E.M. at the time. But I was surprised to learn he was the same Rosa at the mike in the New York alternative-rock band Maggie’s Dream, which I saw around town and opening for Fishbone at the turn of the Nineties.
Rosa’s pseudonym, Ian Blake, on the hits he co-wrote and co-produced for Menudo bandmate Ricky Martin was a poorly kept secret, even outside the Latin music industry. It was the Phil Manzanera connection, however, that pulled me to Vagabundo; the Roxy Music guitarist, who is part-Colombian, produced Rosa’s 1996 solo breakthrough. Then there is Rosa’s Jim Morrison mojo — the poet-outlaw dancing through darkness and confession — that, until Monte Sagrado, was best summed up for me (with my limited grasp of Spanish) on 2008’s Teatro Live: in the Gothic-boogie cover of the Doors’ “Roadhouse Blues” and, right after that, the rearrangement of the Martin smash “Livin’ La Vida Loca,” slowed down and battered by the composer as if Rosa had actually written it in the mid-Seventies for Black Sabbath.
That may be the Long Island in Rosa coming out. He grew up in Puerto Rico but was born in 1970 in that New York suburb — a hard-rock and glitter stronghold that also produced Blue Öyster Cult, Twisted Sister and Lou Reed — and Rosa’s classic-rock DNA is evident all over Monte Sagrado. There are flashes of both Soundgarden’s Kim Thayil and Bad Company’s Mick Ralphs in the chunky rhythm guitar and biting solo of “Dentro De Ti” while “2nite 2 nite” starts with a punchy Keith Richards-style riff and party-crowd noises that suggest the backstage antics of a 1973 Alice Cooper tour. Rosa’s English-language bridge in that song is more explicit: “She pulled her dress up, over her head/I saw her panties and I jumped in bed.” So is the precious, distant reflection in the Spanish verses: “The alcohol the laughter is adrenaline/And the music strong in the skin/I walk slowly on the promenade/Whistling your memory to the four winds towards L.A.”
Recorded mostly in Rosa’s Phantom Vox studio in the mountains of Puerto Rico, Monte Sagrado is a 40-minute surge of modern-rock tensions and power-blues dynamics. His band — bassist René Camacho, drummer Toss Panos and Los Angeles-based guitarist Doug Pettibone — is at once brawny and nimble, like the Police loaded with Pearl Jam distortion, and Rosa wrote all but two of the nine songs with longtime collaborator Luis Gómez Escolar. But Monte Sagrado is a solo album in the most profound way: As the title infers, it is a record about pilgrimage — through blessings, loss, mistakes and atonement, literally from the “infancy” and uproar in “333” to the purifying finish, the psychedelic-ritual percussion and charging chorus of “En Las Horas Mas Triestes.”
Rosa is blunt about the real life in these songs. In “Yo Mismo,” a dark-pop flashback with snorting-fuzz bass and icy new wave keyboards, he recalls his battles with cancer with chilling simplicity: “Living is hard/When death dreams of having you.” “Monte Sagrado” is both prayer and impatience, a Nirvana-like ballad with a Beach Boys glow in the chorus and Rosa singing across the chord changes as if trying to beat the clock. And there is the way Rosa turns the album’s only cover, “The Thing I Done” — written by the Australian singer and Delta-blues stylist C.W. Stoneking — to his own candid purpose.
In our conversation last summer, Rosa described his fight with the record label to get that song on the album, in the original English. The corporate argument was that it would be a bigger hit in Spanish. But translation is a slippery thing; allusion and nuance get lost in the process, as I found in the chorus of “Que Se Joda el Dolor.” Rosa actually takes his liberties in the music. Stoneking’s recording, on the 2014 album, Gon’ Boogaloo, had a Jamaican rock-steady feel, as if cut by Robert Johnson. Rosa puts more sway — and romance — in the rhythm while adding more noise and a rubbery, groaning guitar solo. It’s like Rosa is telling his life story to a partner on the dancefloor of a seedy rock & roll bar.
Lyrically, however, Rosa sticks to the original script. It’s a twisted English in places (“Desirous this song I bring/On these un-restin’ bones”). But Stoneking nails Rosa’s life as if the Australian was there at every step (“I roll like thunder, go like dynamite/Old death long by my side”), and Rosa— who sang in English with Menudo— delivers each verse with the perfect mix of relish and guilt. He could not have written it better. He’s also taken the song further. “The Thing I Done” now sounds like Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash — the grizzly menace of Dylan’s 2012 album Tempest and the stark judgement and retrospect of Cash’s final historic records with producer Rick Rubin. In other words, it now sounds like a hit.
In a sense, Rosa has been on the path to Monte Sagrado for the last decade — via the shadows and straight talk of 2008’s Vino and 2009’s Amor Vincit Omnia. But Rosa’s last studio effort, 2013’s Vida, was designed as a victory lap — Rosa covering himself on old hits in new duets, marking his victory over non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. It was a premature celebration; there was another diagnosis, more treatment, then real healing. That makes Monte Sagrado the singer’s first new music and statement in nearly a decade — and a true turning point in a life already full of them. Frantic, dense and loud, Monte Sagrado is jammed to the edges with exuberant challenge, emotional exposure and visceral twists in the writing and performance. It is, for me, the best album Rosa has ever made. It is certainly one of the honest records you will hear this year — at any volume, in any language.