Review Summary: The Mars Volta climb back to the top with "The Bedlam in Goliath," the record that "Amputechture" could have been.
It turns out that The Mars Volta may know what they are doing after all. Their new release “The Bedlam in Goliath” is an exultant return to semi-sanity for the Texas octet.
The band’s 2003 debut “De-Loused in the Comatorium” and 2005’s ultra-successful “Frances the Mute” lifted guitarist Omar Rodriguez-Lopez and vocalist Cedric Bixler-Zavala to full blown “rock-god” status, but that didn’t stop the band from making the hugely disappointing “Amputechture” in 2006, a nearly unintelligible amalgam of dissonance and acid-jazz freak-outs.
The opening three minutes of “Bedlam” seem like more of the same. “Aberinkula” begins with Bixler-Zavala’s wailing vocals over swirling layers of dissonant effects-laden guitars and a pounding rhythm section that seems at odds with the rest of the band. The whole thing sounds like it could have been lifted directly off of “Amputechture,” until the song abruptly changes feel with an intriguing guitar melody that would have been at home on “Frances the Mute.” Adrian Terrazas-Gonzalez’s squealing saxophone shifts the song into yet another gear.
“Ilyena” displays the sort of melodic center that was so prevalent on the band’s earlier releases and so conspicuously absent on “Amputechture.” It begins with Bixler-Zavala’s heavily distorted vocals twisting beneath electronic thuds and bleeps. When the rest of the band finally lurches into motion at the one-minute mark, it’s one of the best moments in the band’s career.
Inspired by the supposedly evil spirits that came along with a Ouija board that Rodriguez-Lopez bought in Jerusalem, Bixler-Zavala’s lyrics are as weird and inaccessible as ever.
“When I seep inside your truth through suspicious little coughs/You sank your nails inside a key while the door you shut closed up,” he sings on “Goliath.”
This stream-of-consciousness approach has been a constant theme in Bixler-Zavala’s work with both The Mars Volta and the late-90’s post-hardcore experiment At the Drive-In, but it works much better on this record than it did on “Amputechture.”
“Bedlam” is still too full of the unnecessary production decisions that plagued “Amputechture.” Too many distorted layers of vocals and guitars undermine the melodic core of certain songs. Thankfully, the ambient noise that provided a four-minute buffer between all of the songs on “Frances the Mute” and dominated “Amputechture” has been deleted altogether.
The record works in spite of these decisions, however, because the songwriting takes a huge step up from the Volta’s last release.
“Ouroboros” is a pummeling journey-to-the-center-of-the-Earth with ethereal soaring choruses, brief flailing guitar solos by semi-member John Frusciante of the Red Hot Chili Peppers and demon-orchestra breakdowns.
“Soothsayer” takes us to the Holy Land where the Ouija board was found. Eccentric classical and Middle-Eastern melodies weave in an out of spiraling guitar phrases and Bixler-Zavala’s climbing vocals. Frusciante really shines on this track with a chaotic guitar solo in the center of everything that adds layers of mood to an already seething track. The whole song collapses into waves of weeping strings and a haunting, echo-laden chorus of voices.
“The Bedlam in Goliath” is a triumphant return to glory for the Mars Volta. What they will do next is anybody’s guess, but expectations are once again high for the modern prog-rock pioneers.