Review Summary: If 'restraint' and 'improvement' somehow shared a synonym, it would be 'Octahedron'.
The Mars Volta. Immediately what should come to mind is that of a frantic musical nature, a fairly illogical one. We can take a glimpse at the song “Day of the Baphomets”, a varietal masterpiece off Amputechture, and it's visible that although it's outright impressive and fun for the way it sheds its skin about eleven times, in the end, the whole metamorphosis didn't make that much sense in the first place.
This idea describes The Mars Volta rather well; they seem to pride themselves on doing the unexpected, say, placing a catchy percussion interlude where a blistering guitar riff would perhaps have fit a little better. Their fourth full-length release, The Bedlam in Goliath, portrayed this concept best, for the introduction of Thomas Pridgen seemed to give way to a percussive rebirth of the band. Thomas Pridgen is my biggest influence behind the drums, but even I confess that it was too much for the album. One begins to lose respect for an amazing instrumental talent when it's the pinnacle of the music, and attempts to pull together songs that just are boring (Here's to you, Soothsayer...). If The Bedlam in Goliath was considered a puzzle that the band had completed together, it was one glued and taped together, accomplished earnestly but in the messiest of ways.
Going by this analogy, Octahedron was elaborately put together, delicately planned and constructed as only perfectionists would have it. Dull moments are quite scarce on the album, as the band taps their potential by restraining. These guys restraining? It's an odd concept, but what's even a stranger fact is that the boys haven't ever created something this uniformly consistent. There's at least one part in every song that is genuinely breath-taking, maybe sometimes from a technical perspective but mostly for the musicality aspect of it all. The opener, “Since We've Been Wrong” functions about as smoothly as the band has ever experienced, as a powerful ballad introducing the listener to the emotion of the band, which is the pendulum of the album. Octahedron is the most emotional music the band has created ever since the lovely second half of “Viscera Eyes” awhile back, and they're the better off for it, tapping into enormous reserves of potential unseen in the last few albums. The Mars Volta held back their tendency to shred in the most irrelevant musical ways, and the end result is much worth it- it's perhaps most visible from the drums. The highlight of the powerful track “Halo of Nembutals” is the outro, where the drums pick up quite a bit of steam, whilst maintaining a sense of direction. Also, “Teflon” showcases the new Thomas Pridgen, a man playing the same industrious beats but at a much slower tempo, moving to the song's heartbeat over all else.
One other unique attribute of this album is its songs that are entirely lacking of Pridgen- about a third of the album is acoustic. “With Twilight As My Guide” is certainly the first song by the band that can be called genuinely pretty, and “Copernicus” similarly reflects this, especially in its chorus. This is surely a sign of what we can expect more of from the band in the future, unfortunately for devout France the Mute fans.
The only downside of the album is the track “Desperate Graves”, which just struggles to find its footing until about halfway through, and then shortly after still meanders quite a bit. It isn't a bad song, but definitely is one that loses an unfortunate amount of luster over time; as it does depend of a bit of instrumental proficiency to fuel its musicality, the feat ultimately proves unsuccessful. However, the other tracks more than make up for the blemish, as Octahedron is still much more cohesive than the band's other albums.
If this is an idea of where the band will be heading next, then what a promising sign this is. Whatever the band heads next, we can only hope that it's as much of a step forward as Octahedron was; after all, that's what progressive music is all about, right?