The Mars Volta
Strummer / Universal
would start this review by observing that Mars Volta are a polarizing band, inspiring either frothing animus or fanatical devotion—except I haven’t met anyone who doesn’t hate them. Infamous for rising from the ashes of the genuinely righteous post-punk/metal outfit At The Drive-In, the group has dedicated themselves to the most wigged-out, overtly theatrical vein of 1970s progressive rock—which in indie circles is roughly akin to becoming a Scientologist. ATDI always thrived off histrionics, but the Mars Volta took it to a whole new level—we’re talking 15/8 time signatures; dystopian, sci-fi influenced album concepts a la Styx or Queensryche; endless, multi-part song suites, and a healthy abrasive streak taken from confrontational (deliberately unlikeable?) acts such as Frank Zappa and Primus.
In other words, they rest firmly in take-it-or-leave it territory, and they have traveled even further along this spectrum since their last album, 2003’s Frances the Mute. Their new one, the preposterously named Amputechture, may be a concept album but only the devoted (whoever they are) will spend enough time wading through the layers of guitar pedals, studio effects, and harmonized wailing to make any sense of lyrics like “Fondling with pitchforks / In a cattle prodded sea / Signaling the sedatives / To emaciate their queen.”
Opener “Vicarious Atonement” wastes no time preaching to the converted. It begins with a clanking, industrial noise that ping-pongs between your headphones before segueing into a goopy minor key haze of guitars, complemented by plenty of pointless blues-scale lead-guitar wankery on top. Lead singer Cedric Bixler-Zavala and Omar Rodriguez-Lopez trade keening, overheated prog-rock blandishments. “Don’t let these hands sharpen your eyes,” they sing repeatedly over the squeak and blat of a (seriously) free-jazz saxophone, as if the phrase were somehow gaining profundity with each invocation.
The rest of the album marches the same forbidding path. “Tetragrammatron,” Amputechture’s first full-fledged epic, is a flailing piece of math-metal that flings itself into two or three different time signatures, evoking Iron Maiden, Rush, and the tinny metallic symphonies of Nintendo’s Mega Man along the way. The grim mess goes on for seventeen minutes, stopping only to breathe for a few welcome moments of harmonized cooing. Bixler’s quavery, howling singing voice—part Geddy Lee, part Bruce Dickinson, part yowling hell-creature—is actually a pretty astonishing instrument, comfortable in the stratospheric upper reaches of its falsetto as it is in open-throated caterwaul. As a singer and guitarist, he has a remarkable synergy with fellow former ATDI-er Rodriguez Lopez. Of course none of this counts for much when he’s yelling something about “Listerine and turbulence.”
The record stops dead in the middle for a gorgeous little tune (“Asilos Magdalena”) sung in Spanish over ersatz flamenco acoustic guitar. “En la lluvia me promiste tu sangre,” Bixler coos, a welcome change of tone, and a lot better than hearing the same words caterwauled in English (“In the rain you promised me your blood.”) This pretty little moment, however, quickly turns hallucinatory and nightmarish, as a horrible insectoid noise effect creeps over the vocals, transforming Bixler into some sort of compound-eyed beetle-creature and taking something intriguing—openly plaintive and genuinely surprising—into the same tiresome sci-fi dystopian nightmare territory. Similarly, the intro “Day of the Baphomets” works up a nice, chugging samba groove, fleshed out by circling hand percussion, but the moment is ruined less than a minute in when the saxophone starts honking again and an organ works away at your frayed nerves with insistent, repeated notes off the groove. This is the story of Mars Volta; wild ambitions twist them into stylistic knots they then can’t work free of.
But there’s no real point in documenting this record’s overreaches point-by-point. This purposefully abrasive avant-metal resides in its own universe, satisfies its own constituents, and remains largely closed off from other currents floating in the rock music sphere. Again, the take-it-or-leave-it corollary. This seems an odd fate, though, for a group devoted (at least in theory) to poly-stylistic adventurousness, and it seems to prove a cardinal rule about art and ambition; if you paint in too many colors, you end up with mud brown. The Mars Volta could fill up whole galleries with canvases this color, and with Amputechture, have constructed another monochromatic monument to wild, uninhibited excess.