Review Summary: Less is more
Octahedron is the fifth full length studio album released by The Mars Volta since
founders Omar Rodriguez Lopez and Cedric Bixler Zavala formed the band after the break up of At The Drive-In in 2001.
Musicians on this record include:
Omar A. Rodriguez Lopez- Guitar
Cedric Bixler Zavala- Vocals
Juan Alderete de la Pena- Bass
Thomas Pridgen- Drums
Isaiah "Ikey" Owens- Keyboards
Marcel Rodriguez Lopez- Percussion
Additional guitar by John Frusciante
Additional piano by Mark Anderud
The Mars Volta's last album, The Bedlam in Goliath, was released in January 2008. Even back then, frontman Omar Rodriguez Lopez was already talking about their next (then untitled) album; quoted as saying "I consider it to be our acoustic album." Fans already started setting expectations for an album full of mellow, acoustic guitar driven songs. Octahedron is proof that you should never take what Omar says at face value.
Octahedron opens with a single synth note that that crescendos and builds for almost two minutes, fading into an acoustic guitar passage, to which Cedric adds soft, mournful vocals. Immediately apparent is the complete sonic 180 from The Bedlam in Goliath, which was claustrophobic, dense, and grating. "Since We've Been Wrong" is a gloomy ballad, with sparse instrumentation throughout most of the song. Cedric's lyrics are slightly more straight-forward (relatively speaking), and the vocal delivery is spot on. The full band enters for the
finale, and the re-invention is evident.
As "Since We've Been Wrong" ends, the synth note that opens the album makes a return. It becomes the common theme of the album, the unifying core, the thread that stitches the movements together. Each song begins and ends with the note or a variation thereof. It's very simple, but it really adds to the atmosphere and complements the sense of loneliness and loss portrayed lyrically.
"Teflon" and "Halo of Nembutals" create my favorite two song combo on the album, I view them as sister songs. Both are mid tempo songs, driven by the rhythm section, with the keyboard, guitar, and vocal parts creating a spacey sonic landscape over the top. While lakcing the explosive energy of previous Volta endeavors, they contain a slow-burning energy that is captivating in it's own way. Rodriguez Lopez's guitar phrases are very different from what he usually plays, which will be welcome news to some. Gone are the piercing, blazing fast "wanky" phrases of Bedlam, replaced instead with a more atmospheric and spacey style of playing. The bass tone is big, solid, and boomy, locking in with Pridgen's creative drum parts.
I really dig the lyrics on this album, and these two songs offer some gems:
"Let the wheels burn, let the wheels burn. Stack the tires to the neck with a body inside"
"Serpent rays in prism tail rainbows escape."
"All I ever wanted is all you ever flaunted."
"Carcinogen tar turns to smoldering asp."
Nonsensical, sure, but that's par for the course. If you've listened to The Mars Volta before, you know it's all about the imagery, and Octahedron has plenty.
"With Twilight as My Guide" is in a similar vein as "Since We've Been Wrong". It contains a base of acoustic guitar, over which Cedric's vocal lines soar and dive. Electric guitar saturated in effects adds that spacey atmosphere that is becoming a common theme throughout the record. The result is haunting.
"Cotopaxi" kicks in next. This is the most energetic song on the album, and provides a much needed shot in the arm after the downtempo dreamscape of Twilight. It serves it's purpose, but doesn't do anything more for me. "Desperate Graves" is more similar to Teflon or Halo, and is a solid song. The bass tone sounds great, it gives the song a much needed hard edge. I hear a some influences in this song from their back catalog; a chord progression similar to Sarcophogi fromFrances the Mute; the structure of the chorus is similar to Eriatarka; and there are a few lyrical throwbacks as well.
The calm before the storm, "Copernicus" is another song with minimal instrumentation. Bixler Zavala's vocals sound as if they are traveling though 10 feet of water before they hit your ear, and I think it really detracts from what could have been one of the best songs on the album. The biggest surprise on the album is the bridge section of "Copernicus", which has a drum machine. I hated it on first listen, but since then I've grown to enjoy it. It's skillfully done, and fits well with the guitar and vocal parts.
After "Copernicus", the unifying synth note makes another appearance, and as "Luciforms" begins, it builds and morphs into a more sinister tone. "Luciforms" is my favorite single song on the album, but to be honest I'm a huge sucker for big closers. After a foreboding intro consisting of a pulsating bass line and an eerie vocal line, the song explodes. I'd describe it as the bastard child of "Conjugal Burns", "La Tirania De La Tradicion", and "Half Kleptos". The lyrical content is very cool, lots of angelic imagery is used; heaven, wings, harps; all of which are contrasted by more sinister images; a sickle, pesticide, broken glass. Cedric wails "My fingernail choir will make your chalkboard sing!" as Thomas plays an enormous fill, segueing into the only legit guitar feature on the whole album. Ah yes, I remember why I love this band. Moments like this. An immense and satisfying ending to another chapter in The Mars Volta's catalog.
This album represents why this is my favorite band. The Mars Volta managed to re-invent their sound again, while still maintaining the slightly eerie, slightly strange Volta edge that I find so compelling. While Octahedron is not my favorite Volta release, it still contains the elements that make me appreciate the creativity and passion that goes into the music. Bring on LP6!
And remember kids, never take what Omar says at face value.