Review Summary: The Mars Volta go for more progressive atmosphere, but lose what made them have such a strong effect on listeners in the first place, and are left sounding so heavily inspired that they sound like a more streamlined version of their specific inspiration f4 of 9 thought this review was well written
Just going from the down-tempo vibrancy of the muted colors on the album cover itself, it's clear that The Mars Volta have toned their act down quite a bit for Noctourniquet. As to be expected from a band being built based off of the remaining pieces of a shattered post-hardcore group (At the Drive-In), The Mars Volta is notable because they took the rapid energy assault of punk's personality, but then furthered it into experimental territory with progressive rock inspired composition. Punk pieces have always been naturally short, and constructing them with the established lengthiness of progressive compositions while still retaining the intensity and speed of the former was a refreshing new thing, especially in the 21st Century where both punk and progressive needed some new ideas to break conventions. This promptly made The Mars Volta the band to revive progressive for the internet age.
They had imaginatively insane, and colorfully artistic style in their art direction and lyrics, and didn't lack experimental integrity in their sound which married punk and progressive through elements of jazz to electronics, and an overlaying cultural influence of Latin dance/rock shining through, that appealed to fans of music scenes that before where complete opposites of each other. They are unmistakable, and broke bland punk stereotypes, and overused aspects of progressive, with something like a spastic quick roller coaster, that lasted as long as a book in story-telling, and visually played out like a both dreamy and nightmarish LSD trip, but above all else never let up in this relentless sound.
On their latest effort though, they have decided to drop these elements in favor of being more reserved and subtle, attempting to create a well-rounded electronic atmosphere that soars out of the stratosphere and into the depths of space, that is most apparently inspired by classic progressive space psychedelia along the lines of King Crimson and Pink Floyd.
Pros are hard to find on this, as everything that made TMV built and sound like nothing else in the new age, is absent and is definitely to be desired. It's obvious upon the first few tracks that they wanted this to be an atmospheric and soaring album, shortening their compositions to a more reasonably accessible length in order to prevent songs from dragging. They go about achieving this through the method of electronic rock to give this atmosphere a space rock-like sound, because let's face it, if you want big atmosphere there's nothing bigger than infinite space.
Unfortunately though, this is too much like the classic psychedelic progressive bands that pioneered this sound in the 60's and 70's. TMV have always been a heavily inspired band in the respect that they had a vast range of varying influences that where all present and working with each other to expand upon their ideas, as opposed to being inspired in the sense of capitalizing solely on one source of inspiration and raising comparisons to the ones that inspired them.
The band has been criticized of being too self-indulgent on past albums, but at least what was being indulged into on those albums always kept listeners guessing at literally every note. You aren't given much of a choice on what to indulge into here, as listeners are forced to float into Noctourniquet's vast void of electronic space, like an astronaut in limbo who strayed too far away from his ship and is burning up in the Earth's atmosphere at an alarming rate. Critics may note that this can come off of less insane and more directional than past releases, but this doesn't feel subtle or tame, it feels strained and contained.
There is nothing mind-boggling here, yet TMV persist on attempting to boggle the minds of audiences with overused progressive ideas. But perhaps the biggest flaw of all, is that this one new found dominant element doesn't water down the type of music they originally played, it waters down the way the band members themselves have developed and perfected a reputation for performing like.
Vocalist Cedric Bixler-Zavala has always been known for, and been his best at his high-pitched tenor rapid-fire shrieks and wails (something rare to find amongst the slow paced droning of low voices in most progressive bands) in his energetic delivery of dramatically emphasized adjectives. He slows down on this album, and paces himself to that of a snail. This is a problem as it is another aspect that is very generic and outdated progressive, but it borders annoying territory as he keeps the high octave screaming and whining in his voice, but crawls along like a tortise as he holds every note.
The singer had many angles to his lively voice in past albums. Switching from spunky jabbing, to violent whispering, to soaring cries, to funky attitude, all in typically a single song, and consistency and cohesiveness was never an issue because it felt like he was displaying multiple dimensions of a character. On Noctourniquet, he makes a band that already sounds like a castrated Muse on this album to begin with, sound like a castrated Muse except with a very bored Andrew Stockdale from Wolfmother on vocals, and completely drained of emotion and that "wow"-inciting factor either way.
This is mediocre, but nothing special. This disappointment would be easier to look past if they weren't a band that proclaim to be completely about besting their previous release with experimentation with each new album. One could summarize this album's overall feel as neo-prog that fails to convey its integrity with proper execution, due to poor and contrived methods of expression. Sort of like a lesser Coheed and Cambria.