Just as they were beginning to garner a big buzz, At The Drive-In broke up in 2001 following their excellent Relationship Of Command album. Three fifths of the band formed Sparta, who released a solid but relatively safe debut album, Wiretap Scars, in 2002. Cedric Bixler-Zavala and Omar Rodríguez-López, the two band members with the biggest hairdos and (arguably) the most talent, went on to form the more adventurous The Mars Volta, whose highly anticipated De-Loused In The Comatorium has received rave reviews.
It’s easy to see why. The band takes the intensity of At The Drive-In but has developed a far more expansive sound, one that at times recalls progressive minded outfits such as Jane’s Addiction, Rush, Tool, King Crimson, and Yes. Other more improbable influences also appear, such as Santana and salsa music, and the music is alternately moody and explosive, oftentimes within the same song. Really, it’s difficult to describe the band’s music, which can feature complex dynamics that start and stop in fits and spurts, and otherworldly atmospherics that inevitably erupt with an unremitting intensity.
The 12+ minutes of “Cicatriz ESP” alone features more tempo shifts, changes of mood, and creativity than most bands can muster in an entire album, if not an entire career. The song also showcases the strong vocal hooks that appear throughout the album with a surprising frequency, though Bixler-Zavala’s high-pitched voice will almost certainly be an acquired taste to some. The lyrics (which comprise a loose concept album about a former friend who attempted to commit suicide, went into a dream-heavy coma, and then killed himself upon reawakening) will also leave many scratching their heads (few hard rock bands use more big words than these guys), but fortunately, it’s the music that matters most.
Helped along by the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Flea (bass) and John Frusciante (guitar), a powerhouse drum performance by Jon Theodore, and Rodríguez-López’s legend-in-the-making guitar heroics, the music is extremely exciting. Of course, with eight songs (not including two short segues) clocking in at 61 minutes long, there’s plenty of room for extensive solos and improvisation, which doubtlessly will lead to critiques that they’re “pretentious” and “self-indulgent”. There’s some truth to those charges, as there are a few meandering musical passages too many, but such charges are inevitable with any album this ambitious, and if the band can really be legitimately faulted it's for trying to do too many things at one time (I know, I basically said the same thing about At The Drive-In). Yet this is also what makes this album so relentlessly fascinating; there’s always something going on that’s uniquely intriguing, whether its a spiky guitar part, an explosive polyrhythmic groove, or a catchy chanted chorus. It may seem “difficult” at first, but this album rewards patient listeners with a sprawling epic that can still thrill and surprise even after the hundredth listen.
Frances The Mute (Universal '05) Rating: B+
I wasn’t in any real hurry to buy this album, but the $6.99 price at Best Buy was too good to pass up (note to record companies: if you make cds readily available and affordable, people will buy them). My initial hesitation stemmed from the ridiculously mixed reviews this album has received. Though the majority of them are generally positive, enough went completely in the opposite direction to cause me to pause. Truth is, both viewpoints are valid, as this album has the same exciting strengths and pretentiously overblown weaknesses as its predecessor, unfortunately far more of the latter than De-Loused, as this 77-minute album is even more challenging and “difficult,” though if anything its best moments are even more spectacular. This (convoluted concept) album is meant to be listened to in a single sitting (hope you have some spare time), as the momentous peaks and meandering valleys are part of an overall tapestry of sound that on the whole works surprisingly well. The same influences as on the last album are again obvious, with the salsa influence really stepping to the fore on "L'Via L'Viaquez," whose sexy, low-key salsa groove comes as a complete surprise. Then again, The Mars Volta are nothing if not unpredictable, and in truth that song and the cold, distant, effects-laden "Miranda That Ghost Just Isn't Holy Anymore" sometimes fail to hold my interest. Still, both songs have their moments (especially "L'Via L'Viaquez"), and "Cygnus...Vismund Cygnus" and "The Widow" exceed all expectations, though of course both overstay their welcome. The mind-blowing "Cygnus...Vismund Cygnus" starts by showcasing their loose limbed freak of a drummer; the frantic pace eventually slows down before building to another explosive epiphany before fading out. "The Widow," a moody power ballad that’s the album’s first single (I prefer the edited single version, actually), is more straightforward but almost as great, which leaves us with the 33-minute, multi-sectioned monstrosity ("Cassandra Geminni") that closes out the album. Closes out the album brilliantly, I might add, with more explosive jam-based sections, shrill “acquired taste” singing, plenty of guitar pyrotechnics and percussive acrobatics, and of course a few meandering lulls and (easily ignorable) lyrics that are meant to sound important but make no sense. So, what we ultimately have here is an overly long (by at least 20 minutes), damn near dizzying prog rock opus by a band who frustrate and astound in equal measure. To say that The Mars Volta stand out in today’s increasingly homogenous market is an understatement, but given that at least 3/5 of this album is flat-out fantastic, I’d say that these guys’ ambitious undertakings are well worth indulging, despite the fact that about 2/5 of the album is pretty forgettable if not downright annoying. But those peaks! Fact is, I’ve been listening to Frances The Mute religiously for several days now, and as new mysteries are unraveled with each successive listen, its obvious flaws seem less and less important with each thrilling new layer fully comprehended. Kindred spirits in Yes, King Crimson and the like would be proud, and even the abstract cover art baffles and dazzles.
Amputechture (Universal '06) Rating: C+
After the flawed but mostly excellent De-Loused In The Comatorium, the often superlative but too often frustrating Fances the Mute, and a disappointing live album, Scab Dates, comes Amputechture, released a mere year after the latter two. Then again, given how few actual songs there are on this album I suppose that’s not such an accomplishment, and in all honesty I don’t really like the direction that the band is headed in, as they get more proggy and less interesting with each release. Basically, the “songs” here, many of which approach and exceed 10 minutes in length (“Tetragrammation” reaching a ridiculously bloated 16:41), rotate back and forth between atmospheric noodling that doesn’t really do anything, and freaky prog metal and/or jazz fusion jams that too often descend into aimless wanking, replete with ill-fitting, off-key horns that squawk all over the place. “Vicarious Atonement” and “El Ciervo Vulnerado” would be fine as mood enhancing segues, but they drag on for 7 and 9 minutes, respectively, and “Asilos Magdalena” is a boring Spanish flavored ballad that also drags on for over 6 minutes. Much better is “Vermicide,” a moody, intense, mercifully brief (4:17) power ballad, and “Viscera Eyes,” a rare track that maintains it's high-energy throughout, while parts of “Tetragrammation,” “Meccamputechture”(11:02), and “Day Of The Baphomets” (11:56) are excellent as well, though all significantly overstay their welcome. Also, whether singing in Spanish (too often) or in English (too often incomprehensibly), Bixler-Zavala’s vocals too often achieve a cartoonish, seemingly helium-enhanced high-pitch that’s quite irritating, and though the rest of the gang (including Frusciante again playing extensively on guest guitar) often demonstrates superior musicianship, their regrettable lack of focus overrides their considerable chops, which is a shame since the band still has awesome instrumental talent (I like the reviewer who said that “The Mars Volta are too musically talented to make an entirely worthless album, even when they try their best”). I’m not quite ready to give up on these guys yet, as parts - but only parts - of several songs are genuinely innovative and exciting, but this is one band who could really benefit from the presence of a strong-willed outside producer, preferably one who appreciates that “less is often more” and who will hopefully have the guts to impose a 50-minute time limit on their next album. For if De-Loused was about 10 minutes too long, and Frances about 20, I’d reckon that the concept-less Amputechture would benefit by chopping off about 30 minutes, maybe more. I mean, I’ve been living with the album non-stop for several days now, and it is growing on me little by little, but it shouldn’t be so much damn work to get into an album, and even after many listens I’m hard pressed to remember a single vocal hook or melody line. By and large the album ranges from mellow to raging, with little in between, and the band often clumsily goes back and forth between both extremes, with the impenetrable end result being one of frustration mixed in with a little bit (but not enough) of exhilaration. In short, The Mars Volta have always been a love 'em or hate 'em proposition, but they're getting less loveable with each release.
The Bedlam In Goliath (Universal '08) Rating: B-
Well, at least the band corrected the primary problem of the last album; there's very little dead time during this album's hour-plus (too long, in other words) duration. Unfortunately, there are still plenty of other problems, as hooks are again sorely lacking, there are too many pointless sound effects and studio tricks, the song titles and lyrics are often ridiculous (this is some sort of concept album centered around a possessed Israeli Ouija board that allegedly brought the band bad luck; I kid you not), and there are more jumbled jams than what I'd consider to be actual songs. Unremittingly aggressive, the band's fast paced, rapid fire approach ultimately becomes headache inducing, and though they have a dizzying array of ideas, very few of these songs actually cohere into a memorable whole. As for Bixler-Zavala, he opts to multi-track his voice throughout, but one of the voices too often sounds like Alvin and the Chipmunks; he really needs to stop inhaling helium before entering the vocal booth. On the plus side, like Jon Theodore before him, new drummer Thomas Pridgen has awesome chops, and the band again is capable of dazzling displays of instrumental virtuosity. What they've lacked for two albums now is a true sense of purpose, and my ultimate opinion about The Bedlam In Goliath is one of exhausted puzzlement, though the album does have its high points and is a definite improvement upon Amputechture. The albums best songs are probably "Ilyena" and "Goliath," the former more melodic and hook-inclusive, the latter delivering more straightforward hard rock reminiscent of Rage Against The Machine, with an actual good chorus to go along with kickass guitar solos, drum blitzkriegs, and Bixler-Zavala's high-pitched screaming. I also appreciate the explosive opener, "Aberinkula," "Wax Simulacra" is short enough that it doesn't get tedious, ditto "Tourniquet Man," a seque-like vocal showcase that oddly enough sounds like Styx, and "Ouroborous" (what did I tell you about their song titles?) also stands out from the crowd. The rest of the songs sort of blend together for me after awhile; maybe some are better than others, but most are deeply flawed, as these extremely talented musicians, after a highly promising start, have largely lost the plot.
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