The Mars Volta- Frances The Mute
Throughout the nineties and early into the new millennium, At The Drive-In was one of the forerunners of the pop punk scene. Guitarist for the band, Omar Rodriguez had quit the band at the climax of their popularity. Singer Cedric Bixler-Zavala soon followed. The two set out with sights on new sounds, and proclaimed their newest project to be ‘The Mars Volta.’
The duo, along with the enlisted help of Ikey Owens on keyboard and Jeremy Ward, had their band together, and created a very fresh, new sound from their previous project. Blending hard rock, psychedelic, progressive, as well as latin and jazz, the band released their debut, De-loused in the Comatorium, featuring John Frusciante and Flea of the Red Hot Chili Peppers on guitar and bass, as well as having Flea provide horn parts on some numbers. The album, with such varying tracks from 2 minute power ballads and rockers, spawned into epic, ambient 12 minute stories. The album won the band popularity, and in 2004, they continued their venture into their own, vast music. This time around, Frusciante stuck around with Flea, but Flea only contributes horn parts, because the Mars Volta have found themselves a permanent bassist in Juan Alderete, the former shred king of Racer X, as well as numerous other projects, one including Tim Commerford of Audioslave and formerly Rage Against the Machine. Jon Theodore is on the drums this time, too. Juan credits Jon to making him aware of his musical surroundings. But unfortunately, not every member showed up, as Jeremy Ward had passed on due to a drug overdose in late 2003.
Musically, I would like to start off on the right foot by saying that the entire album, from start to finish, is mind boggling. Every track seems to have it’s own sound, as well as personality and mood. The ‘prog’ vibe is indeed present, but what it lacks is a mutual explanation of the concept. Simply put, I have no idea what the story is about. There are obvious rumors of it being a spoof of the show ‘Francis the Mule’. Different genres dominate and influence every track, and provide a great foundation, musically and mentally for, in my opinion, the best release of 2004.
We begin the album with the thirteen minute Cygnus…Vismund Cygnus
. Gentle acoustic guitar and nimble, quiet voices set the ambience and make you think you will be relaxing throughout the entire performance. Don’t think too quickly, because the nimble intro is followed by the frantic, galloping riffage and Cedric’s trademark shrieking vocals. Describing his voice in words is far too difficult, as the general description is a breathless shriek that makes its home somewhere in the higher middle registers. The lyrics are somewhat of a blur to me, he quickly switches between Spanish and English, so comprehending what he is actually saying is quite a challenge for me. In addition to Cedric’s wild style of vocals, Omar as well provides some fills, screams, and slurs to keep you interested in all aspects of the song, just not the creepy, lightning paced riffage and Cedric’s exotic voice.
After the high paced riff and vocal performance, Jon and Juan strut their stuff for a few seconds, with Juan pulling up a combination of strange effects to, alongside Omar and Jon, make hammering staccato blows and feverish polyrhythms. I would like to point out that Jon is a very underrated drummer. He can really give the skins a workout, and his fills are juicy and powerful. Cedric returns with some lower pitched vocals and more mystery lyrics.
The ambient section that follows is not quite your typical ‘four minutes of noise’ breakdown. It’s much better. :) Instead, Jon makes a steady rhythm and Omar spices up the song with a Latin dominated neo-classical guitar interlude. Technically, it’s not blazing or anything of that ‘Yngwie Malmsteen’ spectrum. However, it’s beautiful and dazzling to listen to. Perfect fit for the song. Omar’s voice returns around the seven minute mark to cover a wide array of pitches, ranging from throaty screams to Robert Plant-like moans of a pitch higher than I could ever imagine. The ‘Ooooh Yeah’s’ reminisce of Zeppelin onstage during a heated performance of Black Dog. This band embraces you in a spicy, modern-yet-classic sound that is just a music lover’s wet dream.
That lasts a bit, just before a variety of synthesized sounds and overdubbed voices of people proceed to fill the rest of the song. I hold this to be similar, in a vague way, to the Beatle’s infamous Revolution 9. It’s a bit creepy, but its intent is not to turn you off, just provide a contrast to the blazing music. If every track is as diverse and awesome as ‘Cygnus’, we are in for quite an extraordinary album. This song seems to be the wild, young, lustful, frantic song on the album and you can tell, we are in for much, much more.
The slow synthesized and overdubbed sound effects wearily fade out before this strikingly different song, The Widow
. Light, yet classy piano whispers underneath Cedric’s subtle, haunting voice. The lyric that opens the song, ‘He’s got fasting black lungs, made of clothes splintered shares.’ sets the ambience of gloomy, dark and depressing times. Omar backs Cedric with a tasteful acoustic chord progression that just subtly lies under the dark melody. The voices seem to climax until the chorus, gaining volume and strength, where on the chorus, he’s full blown screaming. The lyrics, such as ‘ And I’ll never, never sleep alone’ evoke thoughts of my current read, Fahrenheit 451. The second verse marks the rhythm section’s introduction into the music, with the woody, dark tone of Juan’s fretless bass being the perfect accompaniment and seductress to the albums only single. Jon doesn’t wander from the groove, only doing what is necessary, but lets loose on the choruses, doing some flashy fills that are great and a blast to listen to.
Towards the end, Flea plays around a bit on his trumpet, just before a series of guitar solos. Omar strategically does a flashy, but not wanking, solo that tiptoes around Cedric’s voice. It’s like cream on your ear. Every member in the band is working in perfect unison and really giving quite a performance. Omar, for one, is a very skilled guitarist, and knows when to flaunt his talent, and when to just let hell break loose while staying grounded.
This song, being exceptionally unique from its predecessor, is basically it’s polar opposite. As the first was a blast of energy and ambience, this was a divine ballad, expressing a very dark mood. The album is moving along at a very exceptional level, and isn’t losing any attention to detail.
Very faintly, you can hear a drum pattern, and some slightly ascending static noise. This marks the coming of L’Via L’Viaquez
. The build up of noise climaxes into what is easily one of the coolest guitar solos I’ve ever heard. John Frusciante is the lead guitarist on this track, and boy, what a performance. I’d play the song just to listen to his guitar parts. After the solo, the band starts what I would call marrying Led Zeppelin’s ‘Trampled Underfoot’ to Santana’s ‘Aye Como Va’. A flavorful blend of a Latin samba meets keyboard driven rock n roll. You couldn’t ask for anything more. Cedric’s voice resembles a throaty, midrange honk, while he sings. The lyrics are in Spanish during the verses, so my comprehension is slim to none. Judging from the music, the lyrics may be happy in some parts and sad in others. This is as well the introduction of the character Miranda. A very nice, Zeppelin-esque factor is Cedric’s moans at the end of every verse in an excruciatingly high voice.
The chaotic 2nd verse whisks around and loops the same pattern before everything seems to comes to a halt. The guitar plays a couple of chords before a spiced up keyboard groove just whips out of what seems like nowhere. The percussion is very similar to famous Santana songs. Cedric’s menacing low voice is now speaking English, with lyrics like ‘And with everybody that I find, and with every claymore that they mine. I won’t forget who I’m looking for.’ The overall tempo change was very sudden, yet adds wonderful color to the song.
After the final lyric from the Latin samba portion, John serves another awesome solo that was just as cool as his first. The verse goes on again, before Cedric’s wailing moan gives into the samba yet again. The same lyrics, same structure and all that. Another solo follows, but this time it’s Omar, and you can tell, because the styles and tones are too dissimilar to be John. The song just keeps getting better and better.
The final breakdown groove happens around the 7:20 mark and leads into an ambient version, with Jon kicking it off with a series of Bonham-like fills. The groove drags on a tad, but not enough to completely put you to sleep. Omar and Ikey trade off solos, with different genres influencing different licks. You hear Cedric after about 4 minutes and you notice the lyrics from the beginning of the groove. ‘Blackmail shezelle on every mountain.’ His voice starts to lose speed and pitch, giving you the slow motion ambiance just before this 12 minute rocker comes to a close.
As we move on through the album we come across some subtle, dreamy noises. This would be the beginning of Miranda, That Ghost Just Isn’t Holy Anymore
. The song might turn some listeners off, just because of the ambient intro. The noise shifts last about a good four minutes before any trace of music is even evident. Dreamy noises, such as whistling, and light foreplay on guitar will be sure to relax the listener and climax into a dramatic, chaotic swirl of sounds.
Flea’s trumpet begins the song with a Spanish-classical sounding etude before Cedric starts lightly honking the lyrics. The music is ambient as well, with Floyd-esque chords ad sounds that depict ‘Echoes’. The presence of a violin paints a dramatic picture, and it’s colors are Cedric’s voice and Flea’s trumpet, which keeps the classical drama intact.
Around 8:40, the pace picks up with drums and bass behind a much louder Cedric, but quickly fade into creamy layers of trumpet playing. His trumpet playing is absolutely phenomenal. The use of dynamics, such as the crescendos and changes from mezzo-piano to mezzo-forte are very interesting, before an unbearable scratch is heard above a drum beat and viola-like guitar parts.
This song was, as the previous reviewer stated, unlike any other song on this album. Not only is it the most ‘ambient’ song, as it is jammed with lots of drama and schizophrenic sound effects, but the trumpet part is wonderful. Great track that affects you much like a classical composition- it can go from mellow and moody to dramatic and edgy. Wonderful splash of dark color to the album.
As we near the end of the album, we come across the epic seventy seven-and-a-half minute Cassandra Gemini
. From the get go, Cassandra is as nerve racking and intense as the guitar and vocal melody that starts the tune. “I think I have become one of the others." The flowing bassline carries a strange voice recital. Cedric’s voice shifts pitches very fluently just before a fantastic jump in pace, with Jon and Omar showing off, with some fancy offbeat work and rapid, frantic guitar riffing. The horn, courtesy of Flea, is very technical and fast, to just overbear you with excess of noise.
About 4 minutes in, Juan’s bass picks up a big, creamy wah/distorted effect and it jumps into a crazy guitar driven section and fluid rhythmic blows. The guitar work is probably Omar’s best on the album, exceptionally the solo just after the ambient section. The mood swings between sections are remarkably enjoyable to listen to. The music picks up afterwards with a dramatic, Latin-doused classical section with scary horn parts and spiraling guitar. Yet again, Juan and Jon provide an excellent foundation and the basslines are thoroughly a perfect fit. Juan, out of nowhere, starts to walk a trippy minor scale with Omar soloing beneath him. Jon throws around some out of place, yet ‘what the hell is this guy doing’ drum work. Juan tastes an assortment of liquidy effects, and from there, the song reaches a sudden halt.
At around the 18-20 minute mark, the music slows down to a descending, creepy run, with the rhythm boys staying basic, while Omar shreds and Cedric provides some ambient sounds with ‘ahhhs’ and moaning. He begins to start singing but the voice is to indistinguishable to understand the words. He procedes to whisper ‘I peel back all my skin’, just before Juan rips a crazy solo and spawns a sci-fi break in the music, but with him still soloing.
The space age effects, along with guitar soloing and drum fills, provides the listening for a bit until the drums slow until Juan just plays with Omar and Jon’s ride cymbal and snare are periodically blowing at you. This instrumental ambient stage is quite a good change of pace from the usual synthesized sounds that make up the ambient sections. I can’t help but notice the jazz-esque qualities of it, with walking basslines, and crazy solos a la John McLaughlin. I think this rhythm section just might be the best in the modern rock music scene, as most of the song’s sections feature powerhouse, bass/drum driven qualities.
After 5 or so minutes of the rhythmic breakdown, Omar proceeds to drop an awe-inspiring solo section, easily using up more than 10 effects to achieve some quite innovative sounds. Flea as well, makes a comeback as well as other horns. The presence of a tuba is felt, and the trombone brings the horns into the front of the mix, but with the sci-fi ambience behind it.The resemblance between the shrieking trumpets and Cedric’s voice is actually uncanny, not in ability, but stylistically, they’re very similar. Needless to say, the trumpet is amazing. It sort of combines the sound of Miles Davis with the speed of John Coltrane. This is just before a return to the slowed down intro to Cassandra’s first section, ‘Tarantism’. ‘Multiple Spouse Wounds’ is a bi-polar assortment of noise, with tempo shifts and riffs that flow into one another with complete random timing, and passes you by without even chipping the surface of your eardrum. Before you know what happened, acoustic guitar gently rolls along and Cedric’s midranged, throaty honk vocals gently sweep you out of what I firmly believe to be the most entertaining album of 2004.
You may or may not agree with me, but your groin area will be throbbing after listening to this album, regardless of your opinion of the music. I cannot give this album a perfect 5, because even an ambient-lover like myself found the noise to be overbearing and annoying to listen to at times. But other than the burden of walls of sound pouring into your ears randomly, the album was stunning, from start to finish. It has truly made me a fan. This album was a blast to listen to, and the review was my pleasure. Thank you.
(Feedback is welcomed!!!)