Review Summary: If you've yet to experience this album, get it now. It's one of the most breath-taking pieces of music ever produced and certainly one of the best albums in the past decade.
The Mars Volta are a difficult band to describe. Several words initially come to mind; originality, dexterity, distinctiveness, but it seems nearly impossible to sum up their musical brilliance with any combination of mere words. Even words like “unique” and “innovative” that were coined specifically to describe abnormalities seem too generic to portray their peculiar approach to music.
The Mars Volta were formed from counterparts of post-hardcore outfit At The Drive-In, Cedric Bixler-Zavala and Omar Rodriguez-Lopez. In 2001, Cedric and Omar left At The Drive-In to move onto bigger and better things. Taking with them the flamboyant spunk and vibrancy that had made ATD-I famous and fusing it with more mature song writing as well as broader musical horizons, Cedric and Omar eloquently fashioned one the most different and promising bands of the past decade. Their music can best be described as a culmination of progressive and experimental rock, post hardcore, jazz fusion and ambient with some salsa influence. Musical aspects aside, the band is also well known for their wacky lyrical concepts. Frances The Mute
is The Volta’s second studio release and a flawless exemplar of the musical/lyrical aspects described above.
The late Jeremy Ward was chiefly responsible for the album’s lyrical concept. Before working as an audio artist for The Mars Volta he had worked as a repo man. One day while in the process of repossessing a car he discovered a diary in the backseat. Evidently curious, Jeremy began to read through the diary and realised many similarities between the diaries author and his own life. The most noteworthy similarity being that both had been adopted. The diary conveyed the author’s struggled to find his biological parents. However, the author was not at all alone in his search. He was being pointed in the right direction by a collection of people. All named tracks on the album are named after said helpers.
Clearly the lyrical subject matter is a topic very close to heart for The Volta, so it is only fitting that the vocals and music have a passionate and sensitive aura to them, even while being extraordinarily flamboyant. The album opening track Cygnus…. Vismund Cygnus
is an excellent exemplary note of the disc’s smooth combination of sombre, patient music and frantic, frenzied waling. The song starts slowly with some medieval sounding guitar work, then about forty-five seconds in the song explodes into a hyperactive carnival of riffage. Amazingly enough this massive transition is pulled of exceptionally well and seems completely natural. Still early in the song we’re also given a taste of what Omar can do with a guitar. He belts out a short, but impressive solo packed with explosive bends that flawlessly coincided with songs unpredictable atmosphere. Aside from writing unique riffs Omar also has a definitive tone. The early goings of Cassandra Geminni
shows this off well. Sharing the focus with some melodic synthesizers, the guitar trots along with some neat-o FX.
The guitar wasn’t the only instrument to shine bright; all instruments brought forth an impressive showing. The bass work was exceedingly well done and at times reminiscent of Flea from Red Hot Chili Peppers (who did appear on the album, but only to play trumpet). The highlight of the bass work is definitely the faster parts of Cygnus…. Vismund Cygnus
as the bass coincided steadily with guitar’s frantic pace. The piano and brass arrangements were also impressive, while not as much of a standout feature. The piano was used magnificently as a climax in L’Via L’Viaquez
, which is one of France The Mute’s slower tracks. The brass arrangements in them album were particularly scarce, but miraculous when they did appear. Unfortunately, the brass was only heavily utilized in one of the album’s five tracks Miranda That Ghost Just Isn’t Holy Anymore
. This was one of the more one-dimensional tracks on Frances in the sense that the pace never really went anywhere until the songs second part; thirteen minutes in. However, regardless of the fact that the track may have been lacklustre at times the brass was a cool addition.
Cedric’s vocals were definitely the highlight of the album, for me anyways. Whether he was waling out high pitched notes at the top of his lungs, or simply slipping out delicate whispers he maintained a consistent passionate ambiance. Case in point, The Widow
. At the beginning of the song Cedric’s vocals are calm with a soft rasp at times, then towards the climax of the song there are brief stints where he belts tremendously powerful notes, all perfectly in key.
As if the awesome lyrical concept, astounding musical work and awe-inspiring vocals weren’t enough Frances The Mute also flaunts excellent song writing. With only one exception this album is consistently entertaining as transitions of genres were placed just right to keep the listeners focus. However, as I just mentioned there is one exception, which I mentioned earlier. The first thirteen minutes of Miranda That Ghost Just Isn’t Holy Anymore
basically go nowhere. That portion of the song is still wonderful, but after about five minutes it starts to get tedious. Had it not been for that this album would be completely unstoppable, but unfortunately it does slightly hinder Frances The Mute’s overall quality.
In summary, this album has a meaningful lyrical concept, brilliant instrumental work and song composure as well as top notch vocals and plethora of genres combined into a wonderful hybrid of sound. It’s certainly not for everyone and is rather experimental, but I’d recommend it to anyone who’s even vaguely interested. There’s not much else out there even remotely like it.