The Mars Volta
22 June 2009
by Stephen Milnes
Few artists nowadays release enough material for five albums, even fewer release enough for five albums in six years while working on multiple side-projects – Omar Rodriguez-Lopez has so many fingers in so many pies we think he’s got a couple of spare arms hidden away somewhere, would also explain his enviable propensity to be outrageously good on the guitar.
The Mars Volta’s Cedric Bixler-Zavala and Omar Rodriguez-Lopez are two such artists. The brains behind the sorely missed, hugely influential late 1990’s post-hardcore of At The Drive-In, they left to form prog outfit The Mars Volta in 2001 and have since gone on to produce some of the most awe-inspiring, enthusing and simultaneously impenetrable, self-indulgent music in existence.
That inconsistency of quality has been a problem with TMV over the years, as well as the revolving door of band members who’ve quit, died, been fired or only guested on tour and records.
Debut album, 2003’s De-loused In The Comatorium was a massively accessible prog infused extension of their work in At The Drive-In which featured catchy singles and other rock heroes, in the shape of Flea and John Frusciante of Red Hot Chili Peppers, helping out on instrumental duties.
Since then Fruciante has become a regular fixture on record with the pair. Between them and their ever evolving line-up they’ve produced another widely praised album (Bedlam In Goliath), an enjoyably adventurous but slightly iffy one (Frances The Mute) and one that was pretty much unlistenable (Amputechture), which was like running into an invisible brick wall and the force of the impact knocking you back into an ocean-sized tub of treacle. It was prog to the core, in truth it was trying to be too clever for its own good. As a result they’ve polarised fans and critics the all over the rock world.
Now they have released Octahedron, their fifth studio album and yes, Frusciante appears yet again. While the previous records were different in result but similar in style, this one tales a slightly different path.
Rather than the powerful funk and Latino inspired guitar riffs that appear in their previous work, Octahedron is predominately a chilled-out affair filled with sprawling basslines and meandering guitar noodling akin to Pink Floyd’s finest moments that weave their way across its eight tracks. The funk and Latino influences are still there in numbers like ‘Teflon’, ‘Halo of Nembutals’ and ‘Cotopaxi’ but they are much restrained and interspersed with Eno-esque hummings and twinklings through the album.
The record begins with ‘Since We’ve Been Wrong’. Tension-building synths and strings, the atmosphere they create akin to the foreboding buzzing and fuzzing of ‘Son Et Lumiere’, lead into the opening track’s plucked acoustic guitar while Omar’s soaring electric lines mimic and complement Cedric’s high, delicate vocals which speak of, amongst other things, rains washing away the earth: a typically dramatic subject and turn of phrase.
Cedric and Omar had been talking about this album since 2008 saying it is their “mellow” and “acoustic” record, and those initial impressions they gave us were pretty much on the money.
Octahedron is nothing like as urgent as prior material but that is not to say it is by any means a simpler record. Their inherent penchant for all things peculiar in the world of time signatures, adventurous in song structure circles and intriguing in the realm of sounds and effects still persists, only they’re harnessed and channelled into slightly more coherent results. There are hints of Coheed And Cambria’s Good Apollo… Volume One album in tracks like ‘Copernicus’.
Watch the video to ‘Since We’ve Been Wrong’ by The Mars Volta
‘With Twilight As My Guide’ is as close to a lullaby as TMV are ever likely to get, a song that encapsulates this album: soothing and adventurous. The electric guitars sound like seagulls calling as they fly above the gentle ocean that is the picked and plucked acoustic as the sun sets in the distance and day turns to night. It’s a truly majestic moment.
All their albums take the listener on a wild, miraculous journey (which would probably be even better were they, how shall we say this…off their tits on drugs. Not that we encourage that or anything – we’d much rather you ate a lot of cheese and gawped at the swirly shapes on Windows Media Player) but this one does it very differently.
Rather than erratically being taken from pillar to post in surges of energy, Octahedron gently floats the listener downstream while retaining the enthusiasm and enthralling, all enveloping feel of De-loused… and Bedlam…. It’s a balancing act. The more relaxed approach in tracks ‘Since We’ve Been Wrong’, ‘With Twilight As My Guide’ and ‘Copernicus’ sandwiching pairs that exhibit The Mars Volta’s tendency to be explosive.
With the label stating that the Octahedron would be “much more accessible than the previous four” albums, people may be given cause to think this album is laden with radio friendly hit singles. It’s not, don’t worry. It’s still a prog-heads record, an acquired taste to say the least. Naturally self-indulgent but an example of a band truly pushing themselves with each record, and long may that continue in an era when popular music is as turgid, stagnant and unchanging as it’s ever been.
Sounds like: Rush, Yes, classic prog, NOT background music
Top tracks: Since We’ve Been Wrong, Cotopaxi, Desperate Graves
The Mars Volta – Octahedron tracklisting
Since We’ve Been Wrong
Halo of Nembutals
With Twilight as My Guide