Review Summary: Along the fallen scowled a fence of beaks. . .
The Mars Volta - Frances the Mute
Frances the Mute is a bewildering experience, confusing and exhilarating. Its 77-minute runtime (only three minutes short of maximum running time for a disc) fills your head and ears with so much crashing bedlam and sheer noise that managing a coherent thought, much less an opinion of the disc after the first listen, is nearly impossible.
It's a frustrating, wonderful album and one that may shift the boundaries of popular music. While we acknowledge that many, many artists are recording music far, far stranger than this, Frances the Mute's commercial success (Billboard #4) was perhaps nothing short of a miracle.
While The Mars Volta saw commercial and critical success with 2003 breakthrough De-Loused in the Comatorium, they really came into their own while developing the style for 2005's Frances the Mute. Sometimes I'm not quite sure if the album is a genre-bending masterpiece or a highly-polished mess (certainly it flirts with both at times), and frankly I'm not very interested in finding out. This album has been so influential in sculpting my musical tastes and patience that I owe it an honest review. Only three other albums have had such an effect on me, all at important times during my musical development. But this is neither the time nor place for that.
While Frances the Mute has a cohesive feel of its own, describing the sound and motif is difficult. Much of the album feels like speed salsa prog-rock, some of the most intense, loud and overfilled music that I have ever heard. Imagine Blood Brothers playing progressive rock after taking singing lessons and you'd be on the right track. The first track, for example, cryptically-titled "Cygnus. . . Vismund Cygnus" begins with a quiet, spooky acoustic intro before exploding into some thoroughly awesome riffage. The Mars Volta assault your eardrums and your stereo for some time before settling into a neat bass groove. The track kicks back in with the chorus, satisfying after the long interlude, and the album settles into its first interminable period of ambient noise.
The ambient noise on this album is something that took me some getting used to. It took me some weeks of fast-forwarding through these periods before I finally settled down and listened to them. I saw the effect they had on the progression of the album and was converted. After awhile it just feels right
. To be fair, it's not really ambient noise at all, but a different type of music. Even if you're not smashed on something (none for me, thanks) you'll be able to force yourself to settle into the strange groove of the track-spacing ambient pieces. The album couldn't survive without it. The slower Spanish-flavored piece "L'Via L'Viaquez", for example, or deeply mournful "Miranda That Ghost Just Isn't Holy Anymore" just wouldn't have the same effect without some period of anticipation and buildup.
Second track "The Widow" is a single I never fully appreciated the first time around. Without the context of the album it feels a little shallow if only heard on the radio. This power ballad is a remarkably concise song, ending with an extended piece of ambience which builds into the most distinctly latin song on the album, the aforementioned "L'Via L'Viaquez", which I have never tried to pronounce. Flea and John Frusciante from The Red Hot Chili Peppers guest-star on this neat mariachi stomper (Frusciante actually plays on much of the album).
Without spoiling anything, fourth track "Miranda That Ghost Just Isn't Holy Anymore" is one of the most atmospheric, mournful songs that I have ever heard. The chorus is awesome, moving and symbolic: "And when Miranda sang / everyone turned away / used to the noose they obey." The ambience eases you out of the song as the album comes to its head and into closer "Cassandra Gemini". This final track is longer than a half-hour and a true beast. I can't even begin to explain how epic this final track is, and how impatient it makes me as it collapses into sheer noise and silence several times.
As this album annoys you it entertains you. And it certainly entertains, in an art-flick sort of way. I must include a disclaimer that this album will affect different people in different ways. Many outright hate it, though most reviews were positive (some glowing). If this album sounds like your cup of horchata, by all means pick it up. I suggest listening to individual tracks at first, and building up to the whole album after a few days. If you don't like it or "get" it at first, keep listening and you should understand it after a week or so. I regretted my purchase at first but the album has since become one of my favorites. See for yourself.
In closing, I must give a nod to my favorite element of the album: the lyrics. None of the lyrics on this album make a lick of sense, and all are almost unintelligible through the falsetto vocals. But they are some of the best lyrics I have ever read, in a pretentious sort of way. Some sheer joy from the first track:
"My nails peel back / when the taxidermist ruined / goosestepped the freckling impatience / All the brittle tombs / five hundred little q’s / I’m splitting hairs to match the faces."
You can't make this stuff up. The lyrics and song titles on this album are the most thoughtful, emotive bull I have ever read, far from the stream-of-consciousness nonsense put out by the likes of Beck or Anthony Kiedis. They have the illusion
of significance, and are used so effectively that they flesh out the listening experience. Real lyrics wouldn't fit on this album.
So - decide for yourself. I'm shooting for five hours of sleep tonight and not anxious to reduce that further.
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