Review Summary: There is fun, intrigue, passion, horror and sheer power here - but only if you are prepared to let this album mess with your mind a bit...
Whenever I hear a band described as "experimental", I am often struck by the bizarre and intriguing implicit comparison between musicians and scientists. "Jamming", "grooving", "riffing", "singing", "crafting songs", "creating soundscapes" and the like are all known to us as tropes and jargon of music as an art form; when a band is dubbed "experimental", I start to imagine them more as stages of some kind of scientific method, where songcraft is an esoteric, even mystical, manipulation of metaphysical matter. If experimental bands are like scientists, then, the Mars Volta must be pretty much the maddest, most deranged scientists around. Love them or hate them, there's no denying that these guys are WEIRD, and not in your average "alternative post-hardcore" way either: if music is an experiment, they surely experiment with more exotic, eldritch and explosive chemicals than just about anybody in their league, throwing them together and mixing them up with reckless, almost unhinged ambition. Listening to this, their latest album, you could at first be forgiven for thinking that Messrs Rodriguez and Bixler-Zavala have at last completely lost their minds, for it is even more entropic than anything else I've heard out of them. But before long, you begin to consider the possibility that they are not on an eclectic rampage, but are simply experimenting where few bands have dared to experiment so ambitiously before: the subconscious.
THE BEDLAM IN GOLIATH does not strike me as either cerebral (as most experimental music is, or tries to be) nor emotional, but spiritual. By that, I don't mean to say, "it's the most awesome thing I've ever heard in my life!" in a fanboy-hyperbole kind of way. What I mean is that it's not really music for the mind, the body, or the hearstrings, but more for those weird feelings and thoughts that pop up in nightmares, acid trips, or caffeine-fuelled forum posts at three'o'clock in the morning. It attempts to tap in to those feelings with a stream-of-consciousness style of music that mixes a myriad of different styles, including funk, jazz and sixties/seventies psychedelia, with a refreshing disregard for the conventions of those styles. Fans of the band will know what I mean, and would probably describe their earlier albums as being in this style as well. What's different about this one, I think, is that it goes deeper into those bizarre places in a much more strident way - basically, that unlike some of their earlier work, it's consistently and deeply powerful stuff, whether that power renders you speechless with wonder, or whether it frazzles and scares the hell out of you. For me, it did both!
From the second that "Aberinkula" smashes through the speakers, a fiery Molotov cocktail of aggressive funk rock and twisted Floydian fusion, you can tell that this album is going to take you on a breakneck and jolting ride. All twelve tracks contain the kind of diverse sonic feast that fans of the band have come to love. "Askepios" sounds like the soundtrack to a Tim Burton film that the band have blown up with dynamite and re-assembled into a haunting, twisted masterpiece - and then overdubbed a jazz-rock jam on top! You are then given a second or two to breathe before the schizoid tribal beat of "Ouroborous" kicks in, around which the collective of incredibly talented musicians construct their Byzantine rhythmic interplay and dazzling harmonic textures. "Soothsayer" lulls you into a trance with its rich interwoven keyboard and guitar sounds; "Ilyena" leads you slowly into the depths of a nightmare with ambient progressions and downright scary studio-effects trickery; "Agadez" goes from edgy, swaggering jazz-funk to billowing and clangorous soundscapes before you've had time to blink. The variety of this album is, in short, stunning.
Be warned, though, that it's not the kind of variety that makes for easy listening. This album demands your full and undivided attention before it rewards you with this atmospheric feast, and if you don't listen carefully and keep up, it dissolves into a terrifying whirlwind of musical insanity that will have you convinced you are hearing the sound of a band possessed. This in itself might be great for some listeners, but it would not be at all hard to be put off by all the relentless genre-bending and reckless eclecticism. True, not many people buy a Mars Volta CD for easy listening; but if you're not 100% prepared to be dragged through a musical maelstrom, you run the risk of being profoundly annoyed by this album, which just refuses to behave or give you a break.
If that sounds like weird stuff: it's the lyrics that are really something else. Mars Volta veterans will be accustomed to Cedric Bixler-Zavala's style: Umberto Eco's occultist, cultural and spiritual symbolism meets Syd Barrett's stream-of-consciousness acid shamanism, delivered in a piercing wail to sinuous, mode-hopping melodies. Basically, it's unique! What's different this time is that the creepy imagery seems to chill a lot closer to the bone, for a reason that I can't quite put my finger on. Maybe it's the fact that Bixler-Zavala merely sketched out the concepts for each song and all but ad-libbed many of the lyrics; or maybe it's the unifying concept of his (reportedly true...) experiences with an ouija board, but the lyrics on this album sound a lot less like esoteric, abstract babble and a lot more like Cedric is reading out transcripts of your nightmares. Again, that is IF you're in the right frame of mind; if not, it may sound as weird and waker-ful as it looks on paper.
Looking back on my first review, it is probably a raving, scarcely comprehensible collection of pretentious brain-fart! Apologies for boring you all to death. This album, however, does not deserve to be described in the same terms. It's demanding, elaborate and downright insane, dragging you (whether you're dumbstruck with wonder or kicking and screaming in frustration) into the kinds of places you normally only go in your strangest dreams. I give it a three and a half. For some people, it will be an album they trip out to again and again, sitting alongside the more ambitious works of King Crimson and Eloy. For others, it will only irritate; but one thing it will not do is leave you cold. THE BEDLAM IN GOLIATH is above all a vivid and dynamic album that touches those corners of the mind that usually go untouched by music; and whether it does so in a rewarding way or not, it's one hell of a musical achievement.
HIGHLIGHTS: "Askepios", "Goliath", "Ouroborous", "Soothsayer", "Agadez"
YOU WILL DEFINITELY ENJOY THIS ALBUM IF:
- You are intrigued by the idea of suffering from epilepsy
- You read the words "subconscious", "occultism", "ouija", "spiritual" and "Umberto Eco" in this review without laughing or sighing
-You find Pink Floyd too sedate and mainstream
YOU WILL DEFINITELY NOT ENJOY THIS ALBUM IF:
- You ALREADY suffer from epilepsy
- You think "Amputechture" was pretentious and overblown
- You try to listen to it with a hangover