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Album Review

by The Mars Volta

Warner Music

Review Date
3rd May 2012
Reviewed by
Ricardo Kerr

It might have only been three years since we last heard from The Mars Volta on Octahedron but it certainly feels like a lot longer than that. It could have something to do with the fact that they released five albums over six years that this hiatus feels particularly long. This track record is even more impressive given the legend that the band writes, records, and discards an entire album’s worth of material between releases to keep their creative process vital. Stories of artistic struggles between guitarist / composer / workaholic Omar Rodriguez-Lopez and singer Cedric Bixler-Zavala might explain the wait. The end result is Noctourniquet and it is equal parts excess and restraint which is a hard balance to maintain. The primary complaints against their previous two albums were that there was too much going on (The Bedlam In Goliath) or not enough (Octahedron). Here no song lingers for more than eight minutes but then again there are thirteen of them to contend with. Lyrically Cedric is back in his free-association mode that yielded such head scratchers as “exoskeleton junction at the railroad delay” on “Roulette Dares (The Haunt Of)”. Anybody searching for a grand deeper meaning underneath the surrealist poetry is in for a nasty surprise. I hope they have a thesaurus, an Ouija board, and painkillers at hand.

Looking back to their auspicious debut, De-Loused in the Comatorium, only the two main members remain consistent – being Omar and Cedric. Line-up changes are nothing new to The Mars Volta but this is their first record without longtime keyboardist Ikey Owens and also the first in which former Red Hot Chili Peppers guitarist John Frusciante has not participated. Also new on board is the drummer from Omar’s solo work Deantoni Parks. As with every new drummer brought into the Mars Volta fold Parks brings a whole new style to the table. He doesn’t smother the record like Tom Pridgen did on his debut outing but his poly-syllabic beats are wonderfully engaging. It is clear that re-invention is of great concern on this album, and they waste no time in demonstrating this.

The album starts with “The Whip Hand” that rides a buzzing synth riff that is more trance than prog. When Cedric wails “I am a landmine so dontcha step on me” it cuts through the song like a knife. You feel transported to an alien land like only Mars Volta knows how to do. There is definitely a smaller focus on incendiary guitar freakouts. It is not that Omar and company have lost faith in their strengths but rather that they are doing more by using less, giving other instruments a chance to shine. “Aegis” and “Dyslexicon” (the sort of clever song titles that bands like this favour) are more in line with the classic Volta sound without completely eschewing their current ethos. Things cool off a little on “Empty Vessels Make The Loudest Sound” which is a dead-ringer for “Televators”. More and more this is starting to feel like an artful recreation of the vibe on De-Loused In The Comatorium – which is in itself not a bad thing. But then there is “The Malkin Jewel”, a nightmarish lullaby reminiscent of a Led Zeppelin song unraveling on a rusty nail. The repeated refrain breathes menacingly down the back of your neck “All the traps in the cellar go clickety-clack / cause you know I always set them for you / And all the rats in the cellar form a vermin of steps / yeah you know they’re gonna take me to you ”. The albums first half concludes with potential single “Lapochka”. Subtle electronic flourishes frame what is one of the album’s most straightforward numbers and a pleasant end to the A-side.

If the first half was a rollercoaster ride the second is a long glide over turbulent waters. “In Absentia” is smothered in heavily treated instrumental effects. Any remnants of traditional song that are in there get swept up in the melodrama of sonic schizophrenia. From there it is a long, hallucinatory journey to the end. From the bruising “Molochwalker” to the celestial “Vedamalady” the journey is seamless between songs. Just when it might be losing some steam along comes the funky title-track and “Zed and Two Naughts”. What an amazing ending to a hard to digest album! Even though the lyrics of the latter can be hard to pick up on (something about Saint Christopher, dashboard mascot and patron of travelers) the chorus will be tugging at your brain for days - even weeks or months - to come. And just like that The Mars Volta retreat into the void.

So what we are left with is a satisfying – if sometimes frustrating – album that fits well into the band’s existing canon which, like their best work, hints at a number of possible future directions for their music. The Mars Volta are nothing if not forward-thinking. To the outsider, non-fan this is pretty good album to try and get into them with and retrace your steps backward to their excellent debut. There are no excessively long jams, no impenetrable back story to circumnavigate; just masterfully played psych rock in all of its glory.



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