The Mars Volta Gives Us True Progress
On March 26, The Mars Volta released their fifth album, “Noctourniquet.” For any who aren’t familiar, the album title should provide a clear indicator that their music isn’t exactly main-stream. The Texas-formed outfit definitely isn’t for everyone; calling them esoteric would be charitable. But they’re also one of the most accomplished rock acts of the past 10 years, and they’re almost single-handedly keeping progressive rock alive for whoever wants to listen. And when I say progressive, I do mean progressive. Some of their longer songs change time signatures multiple times before they end (and long can mean almost 15 minutes, although they keep things mostly short on this album), and their music frequently sounds more like a series of jam sessions than songs, often incorporating Latin, jazz, metal and punk influences to create a sound all their own. While this often gets the better of them, their strengths are numerous and nonetheless immediately apparent, even if it takes time to truly appreciate their albums. First and foremost is their stellar musicianship, something hard to deny for anyone even if they find their songwriting ungraspable. And while they are really about an overall sound than individual songs, doing so distracts from the fact that they can write compelling hooks when they want to. But when their sound is as evocative, powerful and downright mysterious as it can frequently be, it’s hard to care when individual songs don’t necessarily stand out on their albums as much as for other artists. Their music is ambitious and often frustrating, but endearingly weird and generally rewarding for those who take the time to unravel it, something which has always been true of them and certainly hasn’t changed on “Noctourniquet.”
But first, a little history for the uninitiated. Formed around the talents of lead singer Cedric Bixler-Zavala and guitar virtuoso Omar Rodriguez-Lopéz of the gone-too-soon hardcore punk band At the Drive In, The Mars Volta saw the duo going off in an entirely different but equally compelling direction. At the Drive-In remains one of the best bands working at the turn of the century, and their stellar 2000 album “Relationship of Command” should be heard by anyone who doesn’t mind their music getting a little furious and angry — not the least because they announced a reformation last year to hopefully continue where they abruptly left off. That being said, along with a rotating cast of other musicians, the band became instant critical darlings with the release of their 2003 album “De-Loused in the Comatorium,” a flat-out fantastic, moody, intense should-be-classic that ranks about as highly as any rock album of the past decade. Trading the short, sweet bursts of intensity championed by “At the Drive-In” for an equally intense but far more expansive sound, Bixler-Zavala and Rodriguez-Lopéz proved they weren’t willing to merely repeat their previous success and that they hadn’t lost anything in the transition.
That being said, times have been tough for The Mars Volta, as they (unsurprisingly) never really hit it big with the mainstream crowd, and unlike similar outfits like Tool, their cult fan group has never really rallied around them and provided the same level of support. Adding to this, their music, by most accounts, has only gotten more expansive and more proggy, and not in a good way. 2006’s “Amputechture” saw reduced critical acclaim, and each successive album met with slightly better reviews, but some began to accuse them of embracing the dark, self-indulgent side of prog music. That is until “Noctourniquet”, which is their most-praised piece of work since 2005’s “Frances the Mute.” And, although it doesn’t scale the dizzying heights of “De-Loused in the Comatorium”, nor is at as consistent, it’s still a strong album in its own right. As per usual, it’s a bit too long, but it’s consistently intriguing and often exciting, most notably so on album opener “The Whip Hand.” Embracing their inherently proggy nature while reigning it in a bit, this is a refreshingly direct and intense song, one which still isn’t afraid to throw dozens of random sounds out all over the place. It probably shouldn’t work, something that could be said of the band’s career as a whole, but it does, and it’s one of the best songs on the album.
As I mentioned previously, the album is more about an overall sound than individual songs, but there are highlights. Most notably so are the terrific “Dyslexicon” and “Molochwalker,” two hard-hitting numbers that lay down the riffs with aplomb. More reminiscent of At the Drive-In, these two numbers reign in the progressive tendencies and make a compelling case for progressive bands that know how to opt for a more direct approach. Other highlights includes the single “Malkin Jewel,” which sees the band getting dark and dreary on a track that sounds like an amped up take on Tom Waits, “Lapochka,” a creepy, more electronic number that overcomes its repetitive groove, “Vedamalady,” the emotional high of the album on which Rodriguez-Lopéz is surprisingly restrained and Bixler-Zavala shines brightest and “Trinkets Pale of Moon” which is the band at their most mysterious and arguably has the best melody on the album.
However, elsewhere the band trips on its own ambitions, mostly on quieter numbers that take the band away from what they do best. “Empty Vessels Make the Loudest Sound” floats by rather uninterestingly, “Imago” leaves little impression, “In Absentia” never quite takes off like you’d expect it to and “Noctourniquet” is most notable only for the fact that Bixler-Zavala sounds shockingly like Geddy Lee of Rush. These songs show that, while the band can tune down the amps for greater effect, this is often at the sacrifice of their overall intensity, arguably the greatest aspect to their sound. In these songs, the band too often sounds like they are holding back when they would have benefited from letting loose on the heaviness if not the length. Album closer “Zed and Two Naughts” is hit-and-miss as well, but earlier track “Aegis” more effectively matches loud and soft sections and is another highlight.
So does “Noctourniquet” see the band refreshed and ready to take on the world? Well, yes and no. They’ve tightened up their sound which is generally welcome, but this is also a decidedly light effort, something which doesn’t always work to the band’s benefit. They’re at their best when they’re loud, explosive and dynamic, and when they try to go for a quieter approach their tentative grasp of melodies leaves them a little flustered. That being said, the album works more often than not, and about 2/3 of the results see the band’s hard work paying off in spades. The other third is boring fat that should have been trimmed and a shame, but, all things considered, this is a good album. It’s unique and frequently exhilarating, two things that are hard to come by these days, and all things considered, I’d take a flawed but interesting album over a competent but stale one, something The Mars Volta will probably never be content at producing. In that respect at least, they’re true progressive rockers to the core.