Despite the myriad accolades heaped upon their final album, Relationship Of Command, this massively laudatory reception couldn't prevent the underground rock outfit At The Drive-In from disbanding shortly after the CD's release. In the wake of the band's dissolution two new groups were formed, Sparta and The Mars Volta, and due to the former's inherently conservative nature it was the more ambitious latter that became the recipient of effusive praise from the critical community.
This is actually a somewhat surprising phenomenon, as The Mars Volta transparently embrace the trappings of the much maligned progressive rock genre. Whereas most musical forms follow trends, passing in and out of favor with alarming regularity, prog rock has retained the stigma it inherited through the contempt and disdain of the antithetical punk rock movement decades ago. Ergo given that most progressive rock acts are still derided as pompous, bombastic dinosaurs, it's surprising that a group that so religiously adheres to the tenets of the despised genre could win over a vast segment of the critical establishment.
By the time of The Mars Volta's first full-length release, De-Loused In The Comatorium, the band had already cultivated something of a cult following thanks to the underground success of the EP Tremulant as well as a rather impressive live reputation. Needless to say the band's pedigree was also instrumental in attracting a new audience, as At The Drive-In loyalists were quick to support Omar Rodriguez-Lopez and Cedric Bixler Zavala in their latest endeavor.
Given its status as a neo-prog album it goes without saying that De-Loused In The Comatorium features complex instrumentation, but the CD's ambitions extend well beyond the scope of this dexterous musicianship. This debut effort is actually a concept album inspired by the overdose of a childhood friend, though in all honesty the elegant, seamless transitions between songs account for far more of the CD's cohesive feel than any obscure storytelling. Much like In The Aeroplane Over The Sea the concept alternates between feeling oblique and outright nonexistent, and can ultimately be ignored without losing much of value. Nevertheless it's fitting that De-Loused In The Comatorium is a concept album, as the marriage of an opaque concept and typical prog excesses makes the album the apotheosis of everything that critics have long lambasted the progressive rock genre for, rendering it all the more mystifying that so many were quick to give the album a free pass.
Having never harbored any ill-will toward progressive rock in general (on the contrary, I'm quite fond of the genre) I'm also disinclined to hold any of these elements against the album, and can thus unreservedly say that De-Loused In The Comatorium is neo-prog of the highest order. Few groups would dare to take such a defiant stance against modern musical trends, casting the album as an anomaly on the contemporary rock scene.
The album was seemingly destined to be a point of endless controversy, but the critics' seemingly arbitrary acceptance of the CD dispelled any potential for widespread debate. In a way this is a pity, as spirited verbal altercations would doubtless have drawn more attention to the CD. As it stands the album, and group as a whole, are only known in certain limited circles, but in reality a band of this caliber deserve far more attention than a modest cult following.
There's no intrinsic merit in being a modern prog-outfit, but there most assuredly is merit in being a good one, and The Mars Volta certainly fit the bill. De-Loused In The Comatorium is filled with strong melodies and engaging atmospherics; there are the occasional passages of desultory, self-indulgent prog-jamming, but these are kept to a minimum to allow the multitude of hooks to shine through.
Despite the highly professional instrumentation and a number of impressive riffs, it's the vocal melodies that are the main attraction, from the desperate wails of 'now I'm lost' on Inertiatic ESP to the edgy intonations of 'you should have seen/the curse that flew right by you' on Televators. Irresistible, catchy and memorable vocal hooks abound on the album, with at least one per track, a highly impressive ratio that ensures that the CD remains gripping for its complete (and long, at one hour plus) duration.
Standout tracks include the brilliant, anthemic Roulette Dares (The Haunt Of), the highly compelling Drunkship Of Lanterns and the catchy This Apparatus Must Be Unearthed. While Take The Veil Cerpin Taxt is a questionable note to end the album on, as it's hardly a highlight, it's still another solid number and, given the CD's stunning consistency, The Mars Volta really couldn't go wrong in selecting a final track.
Whether or not they pertain to some illusory story, the band's lyrics range from meaningless Sinfield-esque fantastical jargon to trite, cliché-ridden banalities, but this isn't a serious liability as the group never present their 'poetry' as a major asset. The lyrics are easy enough to ignore so they never truly mar the experience.
Thus De-Loused In The Comatorium is an excellent album and a highly auspicious full-length debut. Boasting terrific melodies and immersive arrangements the album is entertaining the whole way through, and proof that there's at least a modicum of life left in the progressive rock genre.
Newly initiated into the ranks of what most had dismissed as a dead style, The Mars Volta have become the de facto post-millennial representatives of the progressive rock genre on the contemporary music scene, and thus the task of preserving the essence of the prog movement has fallen upon this solitary rock act.
What this means is that The Mars Volta are expected to adhere to the standard development course prescribed for archetypal progressive rock groups, a paradigm wherein ambitions are supposed to mount with each passing album. De-Loused In The Comatorium, a collection of prog tunes that featured some lengthy cuts but no true epics, could be said to be The Mars Volta's Fragile, and thus it was natural that its follow-up would be the band's Close To The Edge.
Frances The Mute is predominantly composed of massive progressive rock suites, each encompassing at least four separate sections. Nearly every major prog group had succumbed to this level of self-indulgent excess, with varying degrees of success; Jethro Tull may have had Thick As A Brick but they also had A Passion Play, while for every track such as Gates Of Delirium Yes had an album the likes of Tales Of The Topographic Oceans. Successfully pulling off a prog epic is a difficult feat, but if The Mars Volta are to become the standard-bearers for the modern progressive rock scene then they at least have to try their hand at this difficult endeavor.
The Mars Volta have proven that they're quite adept at generating catchy prog melodies, with their specialty being conjuring irresistible vocal hooks. The band can generally be counted upon to produce memorable refrains and first-rate vocal melodies in their verses, but unfortunately crafting compact songs with compelling, focused music isn't enough to appease The Mars Volta's progressive tendencies. As a result what would be punchy, entertaining songs are elongated into protracted 'epics' that all too often stray from the band's strengths.
This leads to pockets of abrasive, grating dissonance, elongated stretches of pointless sonic meandering and flaccid, generic jams (not to mention the band's highly regrettable obsession with obnoxious encoded vocals). While most tracks on Frances The Mute boast solid melodies as their foundations, these catchy tunes are invariably drowned out by mid-track filler that neglects melodic structure in favor of desultory, mind-numbing instrumentation.
Even the tracks that lack epic pretensions are marred by this dynamic. The Widow would be a stellar song if it ended a few minutes earlier, but instead, after introducing some brilliant melodic ideas, it randomly degenerates into a tedious mass of non-music, dispelling any good will that had been cultivated by its earlier hooks.
Thus the album often comes across as a parade of isolated patches of quality separated by chronic bouts of self-indulgence and grotesque excess. Nearly every track is criminally bloated, extended far beyond any sense of taste or decorum. Were Frances The Mute pared down to a point where only its melodies were emphasized then it could have been a superb album, but as it stands it's a bombastic barrage of flawed ideas and misguided execution.
De-Loused In The Comatorium can hardly be called restrained, but at least it tended to focus on melody over noisemaking. Unfortunately such can't be said for Frances The Mute, an album that will only serve to fuel the benighted assertion that prog rock is nothing but bloated pretensions and masturbatory self-indulgence, vindicating the harsh comments of critics everywhere. The Mars Volta are supposed to be a reminder of what prog rock has to offer, but in this case it's mostly the darker side of the genre that's shown.
The album still isn't outright bad, as it does sport myriad strong melodies; it's a testament to how noxious its flaws are that the album descends to the realm of mediocrity as, under normal circumstances, a CD with this many solid hooks would be a bona fide classic.
After a tepid sophomore effort, The Mars Volta redeem themselves with Amputechture, an album that manages to be a triumphant return to form despite failing to address nearly every liability that afflicted the band's previous outing.
By all accounts little has changed since the misstep that was Frances The Mute. Once again the group has produced a work predominantly composed of multi-part behemoths, featuring stunning core melodies that are interspersed with prolonged instrumental breaks and sound collages. What separates Amputechture from its bloated predecessor, however, is the fact that, by and large, the band's third full-length release features far superior instrumental passages and prog jamming, with music that tends to be either technically impressive, structurally creative or grounded in strong melodies that prevent the group from straying too far off course.
In some respects it's almost as if The Mars Volta compartmentalized their most odious excesses, as the album's closer, El Ciervo Vulnerado, features bland music, an agonizingly enervated pace, a penchant for dissonance, a paucity of hooks and an unhealthy affinity for invidious vocal encoding, seemingly operating as a way of quarantining the group's worst facets.
This isn't to say that the remainder of the album is wholly devoid of these flaws, as tracks like Meccamputechture sport some off-putting atonality while the Spanish-language Asilos Magdalena is surprisingly generic and banal until it too degenerates into avant garde noisemaking.
Fortunately, these tracks are the exception to the rule, as the band's made great strides toward eliminating these shortcomings. Thus while the album religiously adheres to its predecessor's formula on a superficial level the final product is far removed from the debacle that was Frances The Mute, transfiguring the worst aspects of their sophomore effort into actual strengths.
Most important, of course, is the fact that Amputechture, much like both of its predecessors, boasts topnotch melodies, featuring an impressive array of catchy and creative riffs and vocal hooks that, this time around, are never diluted by distracting discordance or marred by grating, desultory jamming.
The length of the songs seldom presents a problem, as nearly every track features several strong melodies over the course of their duration, ensuring that anytime a tune outstays its welcome it's swiftly replaced by another set of hooks.
As always, the band are eminently capable of rocking quite convincingly, delivering a marriage of hard rock and progressive rock that adopts the best components of both genres, providing the fascinating complexity and satisfying crunchy riffs that one would expect from these forms.
Thankfully the disastrous Frances The Mute has proven to be an anomaly, as The Mars Volta have returned with all of their strengths in full force. Contrary to expectations the band didn't achieve this comeback by trimming the lengths of their songs or cutting back on their instrumental passages, but rather by repeating their mistakes and somehow making them work this time around. While some would label this behavior as sheer obstinacy, apparently The Mars Volta knew exactly what they wanted to accomplish and, failing once, they simply persevered and tried again, resulting in an album that's likely exactly what the group had wanted Frances The Mute to be.
It's nothing new or unexpected for The Mars Volta to deliver potent, aggressive bursts of densely concentrated power, nor does it come as a surprise when one feels drained or depleted after experiencing the sheer, unbridled force of this sonic juggernaut, but the group's latest opus, The Bedlam In Goliath, marks the first occasion on which the band are able to sustain this raw, focused energy for the entirety of an album.
This unrelenting onslaught of uncompromised adrenaline makes for a truly exhausting listen, as few respites are afforded the listener amidst this chaotic yet controlled cacophony. In the past the group tended to ease the listener into the more forceful passages; The Mars Volta didn't always gradually escalate a song's tension until an explosive crescendo ala King Crimson's Starless or slowly build instrumental power leading into an outbreak of climactic riffage and ecstatic solos like in Yes's legendary Wurm coda, but they still exercised caution when constructing their work, seldom exposing their audience to the aural extremities that constitute the bulk of The Bedlam In Goliath for any great stretch of consecutive time.
There's still a modicum of downtime on the album, like one of the more restrained passages on Askepios, but by and large The Bedlam In Goliath rarely offers much in the way of breathing room for the listener, opting instead to endlessly bombard him with viscerally charged aural pyrotechnics and sonic explosions.
Fortunately, this unrelenting character doesn't come at the expense of the album's melodies; on the contrary, the songwriting on The Bedlam In Goliath is nearly uniformly topnotch, albeit with one notable exception. Already at odds with much of what preceded it on a stylistic level, Soothsayer's flaws are greatly exacerbated when the song elects to eschew 'music' in flavor of drab exotic recordings; it's an intriguing track, but it's needlessly protracted and mostly unremarkable on a melodic level as well, and it's difficult to derive solace from the fact that the track's coda feels like a natural extension of the song when it's boring one with its ethnic tedium.
Nearly every other track is stellar, so this brief qualitative lapse can easily be overlooked. It's a welcome surprise that the band has once again returned to their old habit of producing many shorter tracks as opposed to populating the album with several multipart behemoths. A number of the tracks are still quite long, but compartmentalizing the material into more separate numbers makes them far easier to digest and less taxing on one's patience.
Ultimately one of the key factors in determining a prospective listener's reaction to the album lies in whether one views its sonic stampede as a merit or a liability. While it's certainly an exhausting listen, I greatly enjoy the album's unrelenting nature, as it's something akin to a prolonged adrenaline rush that can't help but feel exhilarating for its entire duration. While at times I long for a sanctuary from this tempestuous aural maelstrom these moments are few and far between, and in the long run I wouldn't have it any other way.
There's absolutely nothing wrong with songs that build gradually, nor am I averse to the soft/hard dynamic that dominated much of the band's previous work, but the perpetual barrage of The Bedlam In Goliath adds immeasurably to the overall experience and helps differentiate the album from the remainder of the group's discography.
Thus The Bedlam In Goliath is a terrific outing for the band, quite possibly their finest offering since their debut. The Mars Volta are apt and deserving representatives of the progressive rock movement in the modern era, and their latest creation proves that they're capable of taking their sound in new directions. While the core melodies on the album are quite reminiscent of the group's usual style, the differences lie in the implementation of these tunes, as the band have taken their usual formula and tweaked it in such a way that all of their material feels fresh and vibrant. With their customary strong songwriting acting as a foundation The Mars Volta have discovered new ways to animate their music, and the result is an excellent product that one can enjoy even as it pulverizes one's senses with wave after wave of unmitigated sonic force.
As the de facto torchbearers for the progressive rock movement in the new millennium, The Mars Volta have proven themselves to be not only unafraid of inheriting the stigma attached to their genre of choice but also almost defiantly prolific in the face of a critical establishment that, a mere few decades ago, would have responded with reflexive vitriol to the slightest murmur of prog rock dynamics.
Ironically, it's this arduous work ethic that's beginning to expose many of the shortcomings inherent to the At The Drive-In alumni. Whereas the top progressive rock acts were able to bend and adapt in order to remain fresh, The Mars Volta have been, stylistically at least, essentially remaking the same album since their debut, with shifts in intensity, length and speed accounting for the primary differences between their works.
This may sound like an insurmountable obstacle toward enjoying the band's canon, but the group's strength in the songwriting department has, for the most part, compensated for this otherwise egregious flaw, resulting in music that may prove stylistically static but nonetheless provides a satisfying listening experience.
A problem of this magnitude, however, can only remain unchecked for so long without causing catastrophic repercussions, and it's beginning to reach a point where The Mars Volta will have to address these issues if they're to remain an artistically and commercially viable ensemble for the foreseeable future.
The main problem that's presented on Octahedron is that, traditionally, The Mars Volta only know two forms, hard and soft. To further exacerbate matters, the 'soft' mode is generally employed as a counterpoint to the 'hard' side with little in the way of independent, intrinsic merit of its own.
Thus when the group attempts to branch out into other areas this unfortunate reality tends to impede, or even outright sabotage, these endeavors. This is a recurring problem on Octahedron, hence tracks like the opener, Since We've Been Wrong, an attempt at a ballad that falters due to the band's inexperience with songs in this style. The track's too heavy to accommodate a ballad of this nature, while the overall sound is simply far too reminiscent of the band's usual style to facilitate a unique or different brand of listening experience.
Copernicus is another promising track hindered by the group's limited sound. At first the song sounds rather compelling, cultivating a palpable sense of fear and menace, but at this stage The Mars Volta are simply incapable of anything approaching subtlety, and thus the more nuanced approach demanded by a track of this nature is well beyond the band's reach. The track ends up becoming overlong and over-arranged, diluting the potency demonstrated during the first portion of the song.
This leads to yet another problem, namely the abundance of wasted space on Octahedron. The Mars Volta have always erred on the side of making their tracks overlong, a flaw I alluded to with Copernicus, but that particular needless elongation is benign and inoffensive compared to some of the transgressions that occur elsewhere on the album.
Many songs on Octahedron simply take far too long to begin and far too long to end. I'm not even referring to intros and codas, which would be more acceptable and understandable, but myriad tracks feature fade-ins and fade-outs that are over-elongated to the point of absurdity.
Since We've Been Wrong doesn't begin in earnest until over ninety seconds into the track, with virtually nothing of note transpiring during the first one and a half minutes. This is forgivable on an opener, as I've seen that technique utilized at the start of albums before; I still take umbrage with that as a dramatic device, but it can certainly be understood and condoned with only a modicum of fuss.
Unfortunately Since We've Been Wrong isn't the only culprit in the matter. From the preposterously protracted fade-out on With Twilight As My Guide to the comparably irksome opening of Halo Of Nembutals, a plethora of tracks on Octahedron perpetrate this offense, leading to a bloated album in dire need of some judicious editing, if not an all-out purging of sonic excesses of this character.
While a more compact album would be vastly preferable, some problems would persist, as the band is hardly in top form as a songwriting team this time around. Tracks like With Twilight As My Guide are bland and more tangled than complex, and overall there simply seems to be a paucity of hooks when compared to the group's norm.
Tracks like Cotopaxi, a hard rocker in the vein of much of The Bedlam In Goliath, are entertaining, but feel colossally generic; while it wouldn't seem so in the context of any other band's oeuvre, for The Mars Volta it feels standard and run of the mill, providing a pleasing adrenaline rush but boasting little in the way of creativity or memorability.
There are still a number of strong tracks, but many of them are marred by the band's two-speed style, which results in songs that are either at one extreme or the other. As I'd alluded to, when the band does attempt something different they seem to lack the skills necessary for reaching beyond their comfort zone, imposing the same old style on something that's attempting to be, and needs to be, something new and different.
If one accepts the album for what it is, however, they'll doubtless still find much to praise. Teflon is a catchy, energetic rocker, Luciforms boasts a strong melody and Desperate Graves features some of the best vocal hooks on the album.
Even Cotopaxi is thoroughly entertaining if one makes allowances for tracks that could be seen as retreads, and truth be told there isn't a single song on the album that I would call bad.
Thus Octahedron is a flawed yet still decent enough album, one that gives me more worries for the band's future than the band's present. If The Mars Volta don't find a way to expand their sound then they're in danger of utter stagnation, a fate that I would hate to see visited on one of the era's foremost progressive rock acts. The band is to be commended for trying something different on tracks like Since We've Been Wrong and Copernicus, but until they learn how to produce material that fully eschews their customary style for something truly different then these attempts will amount to little more than wasted effort.