Review Summary: The instrumental and vocal virtuosity and a few musical highlights keep it from being a complete waste of time, but it's a close one.
It took me a while to figure out why exactly I dislike Between the Buried and Me, Protest the Hero and Dream Theater with such fervor. Initially, I had thought that the general pretentiousness and self-indulgent noodling was the only reason, but it is more than that. Every so often, I would come across something I liked a lot. For example, I like the majority of the song “Turn Soonest to the Sea” by Protest the Hero, and “Mordecai” by Between the Buried and Me. The bands obviously have flashes of goodness, even whole good songs. I realised that even more annoying than what I like to call "wank" is something brilliant in a song that is ruined about five seconds later by a pointless drum fill or an idiotic sweep or whatever else.
Frances The Mute is the ultimate incarnation of all that I hate about the aforementioned bands. Its ineffectiveness and frustrating nature are made even more evident by the fact that only a short time before Frances, The Mars Volta produced one of the best progressive rock albums in recent years in De-Loused In The Comatorium. The unpleasant music is actually overshadowed by the knowledge that the band is capable of so much more. Practically nothing on this album works, and the little that does is poorly executed and rarely exploited or expanded upon by the band. Conversely, every unappealing idea is repeated in an almost insistent manner. As a listener this is terribly frustrating. You’ll hear snippets of music that will make you think “wow, this is really coo-oh wait never mind.” I hear people laud this album for the way it flows, but honestly cannot see it at all.
Occasionally there are a few great moments. “Miranda That Ghost Just Isn't Holy Anymore: C. Pisacis (Phra-Men-Ma)” is for the most part a great track. The opening groove is built upon fantastically (the addition of horns was a good choice too) and the sneering vocals are a fitting compliment to the track’s chaotic, shrieking guitar. When Cedric sings the following lyrics is probably the best part on the album; the personality in his voice is incredibly infectious:
If you should see the dice,
Charmed with its snaked choked eyes
You'll wear the widows weeds
Because they're just your size
The atmosphere after this stellar vocal performance is immediately fouled by the last two minutes, which are an insanely annoying mess: a sprawling guitar solo, gradually fading into a jumble of piano. Why? Why would they do
that to such a great track? This segment reminds me of the end of King Crimson's "21st Century Schizoid Man" except instead of being about ten seconds was about a third of the song, was too much of a mess to be interesting melodically, but too little of a mess to evoke that awesome feeling of chaos that King Crimson achieved. That said, the full "Miranda" is hands down the best track on the album.
For the majority of the record, it’s the other way around. That is to say a mostly sub-par track will have traces of greatness. Examples include segments of both Cygnus…Vismund Cygnus (that awesome transition from acoustic strumming to a funky proggy groove at the start) and L'Via L'Viaquez (the slow latin section about seven minutes in). Ultimately these few great parts are vastly overshadowed by the sheer volume of utter crap The Mars Volta chose to include on the album, like all but the last two minutes of Cassandra Gemini.
In a purely technical sense the album is superb. I have always been a fan of Cedric’s vocals and I love the sound The Mars Volta manages to coax out of their instruments, the wail that is not too overproduced, similar in sound to that of their At The Drive-In years. Naturally, the percussion is equally skilled. However to me this all means nothing when there is very little that is musically enjoyable. If I may use a sporting analogy (and I’m going to regardless) it’s kind of like a soccer team whose members have all spent hours on end practicing their juggling and sleight-of-foot tricks but have clearly never played a game together.
Frances the Mute is an example of progressive music at its most irritating, pretentious and incoherent, akin to Genesis live, or anything by The Human Abstract and Dream Theater. It is the exact opposite of what my idea of music is and is made worse by the fact that The Mars Volta, who had released a stellar album two years before, concocted it.
The (occasionally fitting) instrumental virtuosity, vocal acrobatics and a few musical highlights keep this from being an endeavor with no musical worth, but you'd be better off listening to other, good music.
The album cover is really cool though.