Since around 1994 critics have been heralding bands as the next “Nirvana”. Now, I’m not even sure what being the next Nirvana consists of. Is it having the ability to causally rip off an entire underground scene and feed it through a process that will make it easily relatable to the mainstream? Is it “reshaping” the sound of music in the mainstream? Or is it just being a highly influential band in a time when music critics deem music as becoming stale and far too similar? Perhaps it is a combination of all of these, but every few months I read a review that says “This band may just be the next Nirvana”. So it shouldn’t come as much surprise that in early 2001 a small band from El Paso, Texas by the name of At the Drive-in was the “new Nirvana”. It is important to note that Nirvana and ATDI do share a similarity in that they both had ripped off the sound of a thriving hardcore scene, Nirvana a mash-up of Pixies hooks, and Husker Du aggression, and ATDI basically completely stealing their sound from the early ‘90s DC Fugazi branded sound. “Relationship of Command” catapulted ATDI into super stardom, but really had nowhere near the effect of “Nevermind” which all but put an end to hair metal in the mainstream. Everyone knows the rest of the story when it comes to ATDI, the group collapsed under the sudden success and split into Sparta, an ATDI sounding band, and The Mars Volta, a progressive punk band that had a little too much love for their Mexican heritage.
Now, The Mars Volta’s first release “Deloused in the Comatorium” was certainly receiving a lot of excitement regarding its release when it came to music magazines, but nobody was claiming that The Mars Volta was going to be the next Nirvana. Oddly enough, “Deloused in the Comatorium” is probably one of the, if not the most recognized album by bands currently playing as highly influential. Maybe, being herald as the next big thing is something nobody can predict and I mean really, in 2003 nobody was expecting a resurgence of progressive rock. A band that blatantly wore their King Crimson and Yes influence on their sleeves certainly wouldn’t evolve into being the unabashed voice of a generation. But The Mars Volta have done that, a band that is equally loved by appreciators of music, and the average listener, a band that sold nearly 500,000 copies of their second LP, which consisted of five tracks, one of which was over thirty minutes long. Now to me this sounds almost ridiculous, bands like the Mars Volta aren’t suppose to have that level of success, especially not immediately after their releases. I could see the Mars Volta being one of those bands that gradually gains respect over time, but obviously the music populous does not agree with me, so when I attend their concerts I’m greeted with the faces of forty year old prog heads, and fourteen year old scene kids. As well as this diverse fan base, I see bands from Tool to My Chemical Romance to Can all talking about how great the Mars Volta is. It’s extremely ridiculous if you actually take the time to think about it, but so was Nirvana’s popularity in the early ‘90s so what can you do. When music needs evolution, bands rise up to the call and that’s what the Mars Volta have done in the last five years.
And so “Amputechture” is upon us. After two solid LPs and a misstep with a live album, The Mars Volta’s third LP is being released all over the world this week. Have they lost their touch, will they fall into the hole of over indulgence like most progressive bands do over time? Or have the Mars Volta continued their excellent progression of evolution that has followed them since their ATDI days? Well, in my opinion it’s a little of both, while “Amputechture” is certainly not any more modest than “Frances the Mute” or “Deloused in the Comatorium” the band is making subtle changes to their sound which keep it sounding fresh. While this is certainly not the level of evolution in sound we saw from “DiTC” too “FTM” the band is with “Amputechture” showing the eclectic range of sound they can produced. While “DiTC” and “FTM” where basically 70 minute plus runs of pure energy, “Amputechture” is willing to dwell in lands of relaxation and ballads. Another important development in “Amputechture” over their previous releases is that the band seems to actually be having fun with this album and that makes sense. While the subject matter on the last two LPs was basically dedication to lost comrades. “Amputechture” is a collection of stories dealing with issues of faith, and while this certainly isn’t a light matter, it does give The Mars Volta some room too fool around (the vocal intro to “Meccamputechture” comes to mind when regarding the band’s less than serious approach). With this less pretentious approach to making music, and the combined addition of a varied sound, in my opinion The Mars Volta with “Amputechture” has released their best release.
Defining “Amputecture” is difficult with songs ranging from genres that include raga, progressive, salsa, and even some Spanish styled acoustic guitar this album is all over the map. From opener “Vicarious Atonement” it’s quite obvious The Mars Volta has mellowed their sound down a bit, it’s basically an eight or so minute slow paced guitar solo with that takes a full band swing towards the end of it. While the opener with it’s incredibly cheesy guitar tone, and very ‘80s feel may have Mars Volta fans scared that their band has turned into Rush, the next track “Tetragrammaton” completely blows away that opinion with it’s relentless sixteen minutes of endless progressive rock. So and so forth, The Mars Volta balances its new experimentation with slower pacing and softer songs with it’s old sound of frantic progressive rock.
Regarding musicianship, every member of the band is in peak shape, whether it is the rhythm section of Juan and Jon (“Days of Baphomets”) or Ikey’s more unique keyboarding lines (“Viscera Eyes”) or even Adrian’s Coltranesque wailing (“Meccamputechture”) this album makes sure every members gets to show of just how far they can go. Omar’s style has not really changed from “Frances the Mute” although there are some more theoretical based guitar parts, which is mainly most obvious in the intro and outro to “Tetragrammaton”. Production wise Omar has greatly improved the less than perfect production found on “Frances the Mute” the tones on this album are at times gorgeous and at other completely ferocious. Musically this is what we come to expect from the Mars Volta, extremely talented and original as well as at times virtuoso.
Now while the rest of the band certainly put in excellent performances, lead singer Cedric Bixler has certainly out done himself on “Amputechture”. His unique voice combined with his beat infused lyrics make him in my opinion the most essential member of the band, even over composer Omar. While Omar is certainly an interesting composer his obsession with ‘70s progressive rock does at times make The Mars Volta seem a tad bit dated, in comparison to Cedric’s dealing with current issues in his post-modern roundabout way. While “DiTC” was certainly no strange to vocal effects, Cedric and sound manipulator Pablo Hinojos-Gonzalez has one upped even that album with the massive amount of excellent layering and subtle effects on Cedric’s voice. Even considering all this, just Cedric’s range on this album is completely ridiculous. The work out his voice must be getting from singing “Tetragrammaton” live has to be painful and exciting. In my opinion Cedric is the key element to the Mars Volta’s unique sound, and also one of the most original and interesting singers/lyricists currently composing music.
As has become expected every Mars Volta release has an extremely epic song found somewhere on the cd. While in the past it was the finale, (“Take the Veil” on “DiTC and “Cassandra” on “FTM”) “Amputechture” switches that up a bit by putting the big epic next to last. “Day of Baphomets” is perhaps the best song the Mars Volta has written and basically a showcase for everything they have done up too this point. Beginning with a highly entertaining bass solo, and then jig jagging between a rehash of TMV b-side “A Plague Upon Your Hissing” and a extremely catchy chorus, the song climax’s with a ridiculous percussion solo provided by Omar’s younger brother Marcel. “Day of Baphomets” is in my opinion the peak and culmination of what the Mars Volta has basically been trying to do for the past five years and now in a sense will have to move on from because they have mastered it far too well.
Obviously I have been painting “Amputechture” in a pretty good light, but of course almost every album has its flaws. “Amputechture’s” mainly come in the form of the fact the Mars Volta have mostly done all of the music found on the album before. While it is certainly the best they’ve done it, it is kind of sad to not be completely shocked at moments like I had been on their previous records. Also, on “Meccamputechture” Omar has brought over the horrible “jazz” based jams that were found on his solo album, meaning he’s basically jamming in one straight chord for nine minutes, which can be incrediblely grating. Some of the sudden shifts in the songs are sloppy and make them not seem as fluid as previous Mars Volta songs and also Omar’s guitar playing just gets a tad over the top in sections. But the heaviest compliant is one that has been haunting the band for three albums now; the constant feel that Omar’s composing is so heavily influenced by bands like King Crimson and Yes that at points they just sound like a cover band. While it’s nice at times to see bands wearing their influences on their sleeves, The Mars Volta is certainly pushing the lines between influence and plagiarism at some points, and hopefully with their next album they can get out of this rut of constantly looking to Mr. Fripp for inspiration. But disregarding all of this “Amputechture” is a fun, interesting, and imaginative album that despite its quirks is still a really great listen.
Like I was saying before, The Mars Volta may be regarded as this generation's “Nirvana” but they certainly haven’t fell trap to any of that bands faults yet. Instead of trying to recreate what some deem as a perfect album over and over again, the Mars Volta have stuck with what they’ve been saying since they’re conception and are basically just making music for themselves. While other bands such as the Fall of Troy and Tool dwell in realms of ridiculously high seriousness and pretentiousness, The Mars Volta shows once again they are far ahead of the pack but instilling a sense of humor and playfulness in their music with “Amputechture”. Although, if the Mars Volta doesn’t make an extremely different record their next time around I can see many fans becoming quite upset, because they’ve been playing the same card for five years now. With “Amputechture” hopefully comes a shedding of skin and the Mars Volta once again goes to an area where their music can’t be anticipated and is once again extremely varied from their previous material. But maybe that’s just my hope, that one of my favorite bands will continually surprise me as much as they did when I first discovered them. I don’t know what will happen, but I can say I’m excited to see where the band chooses to go next.