Long before "Joga Bonito" pledged the world to a love affair with Brazil's pop-art brand of futebol; way before Beck's Mutations nodded slyly in the direction of the tropicália movement from which it sprang; decades before Kurt Cobain's enthusiastic boosterism cast them among the ranks of the Indie Nation's greatest unsung heroes; and prior to David Byrne's "discovery" and subsequent anthologizing of their material for discerning Western ears, São Paulo's Os Mutantes (Portuguese for "the Mutants") invented an entirely new branch of psychedelia to graft onto rock's loose-limbed family tree.
Largely ignored outside their Brazilian homeland, the original trio of brothers Sérgio and Arnaldo Baptista and Rita Lee flaunted an epic, free-form experimental streak that would later be heard in the self-consciously baroque arrangements of the Paisley Underground bands, the woolly sonic questing of the Elephant Six collective, and more recently through the neo-hippie "freak folk" movement. Blessedly—on the cusp of a reunion tour that will witness the band's first live performances in the U.S., including a July 26 appearance at the Moore—their nearly impossible-to-find original albums are being rereleased through Seattle-based Light in the Attic records (www.lightintheattic.net), which will ensure that the group's mind-bending back catalog (Os Mutantes , Mutantes , Divina Comédia and Tecnicolor , Jardim Electrico , E Seus Cometas , "A" e o "Z" , and Todo Foi Feito Pelo Sol ) is finally available domestically at prices most fans can afford in lieu of the eBay extortion rates that have prevailed since the albums went out of print.
The trio's self-titled 1968 debut remains its most essential work. Recorded with the celebrated Brazilian producer Rogério Duprat, the album is a Day-Glo monument to Os Mutantes' fearlessly inventive approach, featuring tracks such as the cut-and-paste "Panis et Circenses," which combines orchestral pop, wildly careening psychedelia, and found-sound instrumentation in a single three-and-a-half minute blast. Other cuts, such as the gently grooving "Adeus, Maria Fulô," served as parodies of their country's native musical forms, perverting samba rhythms and environmental samples by placing them within range of the incendiary shrapnel of Sérgio's fuzz-blasted guitar lines.
Os Mutantes' next three years would be their most prolific. The group's sophomore LP, Mutantes, emerged as a stranger version of the debut, placing completely incompatible musical styles (the bouncing Beatles pop of "Não Vá Se Perder Por Ai," the dark, effects-damaged Arthur Lee blues of "Dia 36") adjacent to one another with reckless abandon. Its 1970 offerings—the underrated, cannabis-flavored Divina Comédia and English-language mass-market effort Tecnicolor, which wouldn't see official release until 2000—continued down a similarly experimental path, forming a body of work that had no identifiable precedents, no contemporary equals, and no trace of any immediate influence until nearly three decades later. By the time the uneven Jardim Electrico was released in 1971, the group had officially added bassist Liminha and drummer Dinho to its ranks, expanding its sound in the direction of the Santana-like prog-rock it would explore over the course of its next three, and ultimately last, albums.
Having already released two Mutantes-esque solo albums with the Baptistas—1970's Build Up and 1972's Hoje é O Primeiro Dia Do Resto Da Sua Vida—Lee eventually departed for a successful solo career following the recording of 1972's E Seus Cometas. Her longtime romantic interest Arnaldo wasn't far behind, taking his leave shortly afterward due to issues associated with his voluminous drug intake. The band ultimately fell apart mid-decade. Sérgio eventually moved to New York for an eight-year span to play and record with Roxy Music guitarist Phil Manzanera before returning to Brazil.
Four decades after the band's first recorded efforts, Os Mutantes stand on the pedestal of legend, having weathered the hardships and fickleness of time with their creative legacy not only intact but shining brightly as a monument to iconoclastic weirdness. Given that their earliest Brazilian television appearances were censored by their country's military junta, it's refreshing to now see them being accepted so openly stateside. May they forever get their freak on.