With the music that they make, The Mars Volta have a wider audience than they should. To have sold as many albums as they have, albums that feature 30-minute epics, orchestral arrangements, and nonsensical lyrics, simply dismantles the formula for success in this modern music industry. It makes one wonder just how and why this band, with its extremely un-radio-friendliness and progressive tendencies, have reached as many people as it has with its music.
The answer is simple: The Mars Volta make great music.
De-loused in the Comatorium
and Frances the Mute
, the previous efforts by the band, were both excellent musical endeavors. They were chock full of strange lyrical concepts, ambient passages, and the showcase of numerous musical talents. Surely the band have taken a correct approach somewhere, as there has been a great response to their work.
Fans and critics alike were skeptical upon hearing the news that The Mars Volta were to release a new album in 2006. Would it retain the energy and focus that De-loused in the Comatorium
possessed? Or, perhaps, would it feature the heavy ambience that was the target of disdain regarding Frances the Mute
? There was a great uncertainty, along with a great anticipation, of this band's next move.
was released in September, 2006. While it retains some elements of previous efforts, this album is a separate entity unto itself. Ever second seeps with emotion, through epic, unforgiving monsters and moving, dissonant ballads. The instrumentation is top-notch, as Jon Theodore (in his final recording with the band) displays the most dizzying drumming of career, and Juan Alderete truly shines on this record, taking more and more of an upfront stance with his bass riffs. There are beyond-exemplary performances from every member of the band present on Amputechture
A new addition to the band is the inclusion of Red Hot Chili Peppers' guitarist John Frusciante on every track on the album, save for one. This brings a new element into the Mars Volta's music that I have personally wanted to hear for a long time: a second guitarist. This element works spectacularly on nearly every track.
From the beginning, Vicarious Atonement
sets up the album perfectly. The ringing of chimes surrounds the listener from right to left. General ambient ramblings appear in the background as Omar Rodriguez-Lopez's guitar squelches from the great beyond. This mood is perfect. As in previous releases (and later on in this album, in fact), this aspect of the music is quite a turn-off. However, here, the guitar is the perfect compliment to the barren synth line. Vocalist Cedric Bixler-Zavala emotes for the first time, and makes it clear that this track is personal. The singing here is nothing short of beautiful, matching perfectly to the underlying guitar. The ambience takes more of a leading role as the song progresses a little farther, the guitar merely an afterthought. The song shifts a bit, into a chorus-type section, with heavy, reverberating synth. As that portion fades out, an incredibly beautiful swirl of guitar, bass and piano, courtesy of Issiah Owens, blends under a haunting vocal line. The piano is an excellent edition at this point, the foil to Omar's effect-laden guitar. The soft cry of a saxophone is heard, with Cedric yielding to it. A sign of things to come?
A sudden upheaval of sound ushers in Tetragrammaton
. This is an absolute beast of a song. An intense burst of mind-melting drumming coupled with Omar and John's relentless riffing, whilst mad ambient noodlings are set off in the background introduce the listener to the track. All of a sudden, all but one soft yet ominous guitar riff drop out. The song begins proper with soft vocals and oscillating drums, the chime of a piano and the unrepentant guitar rounding out the ensemble. The track escalates into a chorus dominated by driving chords and Cedric's inhuman vocals, layered with effects that make this fact even more concrete. The chorus fades into Omar's wah-wah loaded guitar and even madder drums, until the verse portion appears, the vocals calm among the clamor. Cedric's performance here is incredible. A return to the powerful chorus ensues, this time ending in a din, a complete reversal of the previous chorus. A blip, a split second of silence, interjects from nowhere, and its result is a riff that is the manifestation of the phrase "liquid guitar" on Omar's part, until John interrupts with guitar that is reminiscent of the intro, and suddenly the axemen are at odds, dueling as Cedric wails on. It calms down from here, as a single echoing guitar remains, sustaining into oblivion and back again. An accompanying vocal part joins, a voice of foreboding. Out of literally thin air, Omar erupts with a manic, wild solo that nobody sees coming. From here on out, nothing is held back, instrumentation wise. A more structured riff introduces Cedric once more, and this passage is almost as grooving as it is odd, yet unrelenting. The line In the end/they just scared me/to make him come out
is sung, as more of a statement that, well, the rest of the song isn’t going to let up. Intertwining guitars march on as Cedric sings tandem with himself, Jon going mildly insane in the process. An interruption of ambience injects into the mix, and we return to the structured insanity, this time with horns! Squawks of guitar battle the saxophone for sonic domination, the drums providing a soundtrack. The vocals call a stalemate, a break in the craziness. The group takes it down a notch as horns and heavily-laden guitar drown out the singing, but not for long. This grooving portion trumps everything in its way, as Cedric, in a feat that scares me to this day, manages to match, note-for-note, Omar's guitar. The previous passage returns with a vengeance, but in lieu of a chorus, a reprieve of the introduction takes place, this time with guitar effects abound. Overbearing screeching and squelching end the track in a manner that befits it. The static of a radio can be heard, with some unknown force changing the stations, looking for something to listen to.
It seems that this force wanted to listen to some more Mars Volta, as he selects the station playing the next track, Vermicide
. Soft piano and echoing guitars give the intro an Old West feel. Cedric’s voice is slightly subdued effect-wise, but he doesn't hold back, giving one of his best performances. The chorus has every player in perfect harmony, a driving force. John plays a weaving lead lick as the verse enters the picture once again, the piano truly making it great. A return to the chorus, but it veers off course into a fantastic interlude. The group pick up a bit, Cedric keeping a steady pace of vocals until ushered by guitar lead to declare Embalming all the fluids/I must, I must/I prefer to burn them/I must, I must
in a despairing yet stunning fashion, horns blaring in triumph. A tandem solo, featuring Omar's signature meddling, gives way into a locking lick and, thus, the chorus. However, it seems to have gained power through some unforeseen process. Once it, along with the song, ends, it leaves the listener stunned, to stew to a soundtrack of discordant guitar.
That is, until Omar and John strike a raucous chord, signaling that Meccamputechture
has begun. Cedric’s growls let the listener know that something big is coming, and it is the introductory musical portion of the song, the best Mars Volta introduction yet. Everything here is just amplified tenfold and let loose to just go insane. It softens a bit, auguring a steady drum beat, piano chords, and Cedric in complete, bada
ss swagger mode. Overdriven guitar leads up to what's to come, as Cedric pleads to the listener to Please dismantle/all these phantom limbs/it's the evidence/of humans as ornaments
. The drums take center stage as all else drops out, with the exception of breathy sighs from the singer. Then, it explodes, and the best Mars Volta introduction becomes the best Mars Volta chorus, complete with powerful vocal wails that put all else to shame. It cools down as John lets loose on some lead guitar. Cedric enters the picture once more, with alternating ambience and some more of the heavy piano, whilst the drums get a bit static-y, and then take the forefront once more for a lead-up to that incredible chorus. A passage of dueling lead ensues, and here's where the album enters its major flaw: Omar's guitar gets annoying quickly at places, but it is perfect elsewhere. At times, it's headache-inducing, and at other times it's incredible. Low ambience and frantic drums are all that remain as Cedric goes a bit lower and softer in this interlude. Omar's guitar can be heard as the vocals are just mutilated, leading to the pre-chorus yet again, the chorus proving to be the craziest yet. A portion of reverse cymbals, saxophone solos, and ambient ramblings sets itself in motion. Depending upon the listener's mood at the time, it can be quite enjoyable or extremely annoying. All of a sudden, the entire group return, in a slightly less crazy rendition of the chorus, to allow Cedric to lament my favorite line of the album, It lacks a human pulse
. Organs makes this portion powerful, as the entire track winds down to the sound of saxophone, guitar, and maracas.
Suddenly, high ambience coupled with seemingly random acoustic guitar notes introduce Asilos Magdalena
. An electronic, rambling drumbeat brings the ambience to an end. A spastic, yet focused acoustic passage allows Cedric to croon passionately in Spanish, a trait of the Mars Volta that I enjoy completely. A chorus of breathy vocals over acoustic guitar appears, adding to a spectacular atmosphere. Omar (this is the lone track in which John is not present) is left to noodle on the guitar, and he does so with spectacular restraint and poise. The verse returns with Cedric even more emotional than we left him, feeling pours from him, but for a short time as the chorus returns, as with the post-chorus noodling. The guitar passage from the verse returns, but rather than regress also, Cedric gives one of the best vocal contributions of his career with the soft weep of Estrella de la mañana/Samael te persigo a ti/y si me quemo sin alas/ademas me meuro por ti
. Not all is to be enjoyed in this beautiful portion, as Omar's guitar interjects and muddles the sound, making it quite irritating and just ruins the song for me, and probably for anyone who enjoyed Cedric's wailing. Omar's guitar fades out and gives way to a groovy, yet muffled drum beat.
This beat gets progressively louder, and Viscera Eyes
, the album's first single, is here. Less than a minute into the track, a burst of power chords and pure adrenaline are pumped into the song, and it becomes a romp. A duel of guitar lead and saxophone takes place, and it is sweet. Cedric's Spanish is slightly different than the previous track, in that it is more aggressive to fit the piece. The verse continues, as the vocals turn to English and becomes more evocative. The chorus' clarion-call of In your viscera eyes/cataracts close the blinds/let me/let comfort/come drown by your side
resonates among maddening instrumentation. The verse returns, the vocals in the previous pattern of Spanish/English, with a new interjection of distorted lyrics. The pre-chorus retains its intensity, and the chorus actually gains some. Omar pops in for some sweet lead at this point, leaving the horns to their own devices. This tirade soldiers on for a bit, and then leads into the chorus yet again. Omar and John launch into a scalar riff, and it’s Juan's time to shine, and shine he does. Our favorite afro-sporting guitarist grinds out another lead portion, helped out by Juan’s groove of a bass line all the way. Cedric spouts out of nowhere with a fantastic vocal procession, and he seems to harmonize with himself. Upon his last word, all hell breaks loose as Omar just kills his wah-wah pedal and Jon starts murdering his drums, Cedric likewise with his vocals. Everything gets a bit quieter, leaving the horns to mimic the bass line until all ends abruptly.
A superbly cool bass solo is the first taste of the monster that is Day of the Baphomets
, and it plays under a bed of funky percussion. The music escalates and escalates until a tipping point is reached, and thank goodness it does. Horns blare and percussion beats on madly. Random piano is heard at places where the horns are destroying the listener's eardrums. A proper verse ensues, with Cedric's unstoppable vocals over a driving riff and drum beat. The sax declares a chorus, and you know that this is one of the best Mars Volta songs in their catalog. A return to the introduction/pre-chorus happens, and we're right back in the thick of it. Those familiar with the Mars Volta find that the lyrics Cedric are singing, and the vocal melody are taken from a De-loused in the Comatorium
outtake, A Plague Upon Your Hissing
, and it fits perfectly, a little too so. The true star of this track is Omar's younger brother, Marcel, the percussionist, who creates an atmosphere with his many instruments that bring the verse into the chorus supremely. A change-up happens after the chorus, with Cedric matches his lyrics with Omar's wah-wah. An overdriven riff augurs an oscillating passage that is truly spectacular, showcasing the entire ensemble. Also, Cedric's use of the word 'sluts' is awesome, as is his literal wail of Poachers in your home!
. A short drum fill allow an impromptu jam among the instruments, and it's back to the oscillation with the cry of a sax. If you're not grooving to this track by now, you have no soul. Shifting now, high-and-low lead combines with a splashy drum beat, and low horns get ever so domineering. Guitar (or is it horns?) take the lead now. Cedric gives way to cooing, as if to settle down the increasingly disjointed musical ensemble. With a cry of My hands secrete a monument
, this track could end here and be perfect, but it proceeds to get even better. It builds and builds, but to what? I'll tell you what: a short Omar solo with some growling ambience. A horn section appears with a rabid drumbeat, and then a wild percussion solo from Marcel. Although it sounds very tinny and odd, it still owns hard. After this solo, Cedric gives the best performance on the album with another tandem section, and then a howl of Gimme one page/gimme one page/make it blank/mace that I leak will rain/Gimme one page/gimme one page/make it blank/race I inflict your way
. It is pure euphoria. The oscillating section returns with more snarl and attitude than ever. Once again, poachers enter someone’s home as the pluck of the bass ends the song, giving it to a frightening echo.
This echo lets the listener in on the final track, El Ciervo Vulnerado
. Omar's soloing makes a return, only adding to the vague sense of danger and mystery surrounding that echo. The bass lays down a line that will be the basis for the whole song as horns mellow things out even more. Cedric enters with strained, trailing vocals, and nothing else would be appropriate. Ambience flies in at inane times, grounding the track that is made oh-so-uneasy by that unceasing echoing. The guitar echoes itself, seeming to make the entire song a bit louder as Cedric sorrowfully proclaims Blessed be, blessed be, the wrong I’ve done
. Omar and Cedric return to the verse, and they are vying for attention under this anthem of destruction and despair. The vocals get more and more drowned out as ambience takes over, becoming raspy and quiet among random horns and guitar. Reversed cymbals fade in, as the buzzing of ambient bees emotes a sad tune. The guitar solos as if tomorrow will never come. Cedric returns, this time constricted and a bit held up. Suddenly, anticlimactically, and unfittingly, the album ends.
This album is fantastic, there's no doubt. The repertoire that The Mars Volta have created with their previous two albums is strengthened here exponentially. The musicianship is nothing short of jaw-dropping, and the vocals are unbelievable. Very little that was irritating about the band (other than its song length, but that’s subjective) remains. However, you can’t deny when an album is magnificent. This, my friends, is beyond magnificent. Its something more, something that cannot be described.
Omar's soloing can get in the way sometimes, becoming very annoying.