The Mars Volta certainly are an enigma in music today. While not quite the most innovative outfit when compared to more out-there artists, they certainly have far more popular support than any other genre-pushing artist out there today. Both De-Loused in the Comatorium
and Frances the Mute
saw huge critical and commercial success, particular for their seemingly dense musical landscape. Thus, it is no surprise that Ampoutechture
, the newest release from the band, seems to be the perfect successor to those two albums; it’s more accessible than ever, but also more intricate and fulfilling than either of their previous major outputs.
The most noticeable aspect of the album is how brilliant Cedric is. Listening to early demo’s from his previous band At the Drive-In
and comparing them to this would show just how much Cedric has improved; he has in a matter of ten, fifteen years become one of the best vocalists of this, or perhaps any, generation. Cedric uses a spectacular amount of vocal effects, ranging from standard reverb to a pinched-vocals effect on “Tetragrammaton”, he twists and bends his voice to sound otherworldly. However, while the massive amount of these effects would normally cover-up a weak voice, and also perhaps cover up the performance itself, Cedric is so unique and powerful it works perfectly. He hasn’t sounded so relatable and emotional since Relationship of Command
, yet he keeps the incredible vocal range and power from Frances the Mute
. He also carries songs like “Meccamputechture", where the senseless meandering is only held together by his entrancing singing.
While Cedric has become something transcendent on this album, Omar Rodriguez-Lopez and “transcriber” John Frusciante leave a bit to be desired. Omar, in an attempt to be more detached fro mthe music and thus be a more effective producer and composer, recruited Frusciante from the Red Hot Chili Peppers
to record the guitar parts to the album, only playing a few of the solos. However, even with the less mistake-prone Frusciante playing, Omar’s guitar writing skills seem to have taken both a hit and backseat on the album. Yes, the more minimalist approach works perfectly on songs like “Vermicide”, where the strange western feel lends perfectly to his toned down writing and short solos, but on tracks like “Meccamputechture” which screams for something interesting to be happening, it feels empty and nearly futile, and makes for a large disappointment. It’s not as if the playing is bad in any sense; “Tetragrammaton” features an incredible solo midway through that will blow you away, and the riff in said song following it is both quirky and effective, and nearly everywhere else he and Frusciante contribute positively.
This does leave the majority of TMV’s flair to be left to the two main supporting cast members, drummer Jon Theodore and bassist Juan Alderete. Theodore picks everyhthing up in stride and, in doing so, becoems nearly as awe-inspiring as Cedric. His drumming throughout the album is powerful and remarkable, often breaking into a near-solo halfway through a song. It’s just as often you’ll be wondering how he can drum so fast; the intro fills and such to “Tetragrammaton” is mind-numbingly swift, and the rumor/truth that he would vomit from playing so fast in the recording of the album seems perfectly believable. Alderete also is at his finest, seeming more comfortable here than on Frances the Mute
and returning to the speed with which he played with in his days with Racer-X. He also fiddles with effects more often; the droning bass tones on “Vicarious Atonement” are a pleasant surprise, and “Meccamputechture” has its most interesting musical facet from the metallic bass effect he utilizes. No talk of him would be complete without mentioning the bass solo on “Day of the Baphomets”, which starts out innocently enough but quickly turns into a shredfest by its end. It’s arguably the highlight of a song that is, essentially, the culmination of everything The Mars Volta is.
“Day of the Baphomets” takes nearly every member of The Mars Volta, from Ikey Owen’s dueling keyboards with the sax work in the littered musical breaks in the songs opening minutes, to Paul Hinojos’s incredible vocal effect work with Cedric’s soaring performance. Marcel Rodriguez-Lopez, the percussionist picked up after Frances the Mute
(and yes, Omar’s brother) often overtakes Theodore in regards to rhythm here, and even is let loose for a percussion solo near the songs end, something that I haven’t heard since Mago de Oz’s second album. The song itself mixes elements from nearly every facet of The Mars Volta, from their slight metal tinges, to their penchant for slight jazz outbursts, to the extremely progressive song structures, hell, they even infuse a salsa and swing feel into the songs chorus.
The biggest distinction from previous albums is the fact Amputechture
has no single narrative, and instead expounds on a few ideals, mainly religion and the pineal gland. It’s also the first time where you can really take a Mars Volta song as being a a love song, as opener “Vicarious Atonement” and the opening suite to “Tetragrammaton” are both heavily leaning on the short side of balladry. Cedric has also finally found the perfect balance between other-worldly lyric writing and being able to write something that makes sense, as even though his lyrics are still heavily metaphorically based and filled with allusions, they aren’t filled with words that are either of their own concoction or unable to be found in a normal dictionary. It’s also relatable and touching, the albums slowest tunes “Vicarious Atonement” and “El Ciervo Vulnerado” are both touching and haunting, “El Ceirvo Vulnerado” in particular.
Whoever expect Paul Hinojos to have such a large impact on TMV’s sound on his first record appearance should be collecting their rather large earnings now, as he has quickly become as subtly integral to the music as either Omar or Cedric. His touches are apparent everywhere; there are sudden swirls of water or static on “Day of the Baphomets” that keep you on your toes, and he so effectively opens the album with “Vicarious Atonement” that you could almost throw Omar out of the mix, and the song would still be as strong. His shining moment is “El Ciervo Vulnerado”, however, where he takes nearly all of the musical output of the album and, although assuredly guided by Omar’s vision, creates a soundscape that builds without any real notice, but when the song ends with an unexpected sitar jam, you feel spent and completely fulfilled.
, for all its strengths, contains one glaring weakness, and it may be due in part to their being no cohesive narrative. None of the songs really connect with each other, and often sound forced, with transitions between them almost painful. “Asilos Magdelena”, a soft and quiet spanish acoustic ballad, is stuck in between the jazzy overblown-ness of “Mecamputechture” and the salsa/groove of “Viscera Eyes”, and never gets the chance to be a listen-able song, as it feels out of place. Both the previously mentioned soft tracks, “Vicarious Atonement” and “El Ciervo” are great tunes, but would have worked better elsewhere on the album, despite the one unifying aspect of the album being its opening and ending softly. Te only transition that effectively works is “Viscera Eyes” and “Day of the Baphomets”, where “Viscera” constantly hints at exploding throughout but holds it all in until the very end, setting the stage for the opus of “Baphomets.”
Thus, it is best to take the album as a collection of songs, and oh what a collection it is. “Viscera eyes” is a very poppy salsa tune for its first half, featuring the most effective hook TMV has made in its chorus (“In your viscera eyes”), and the bassline that begins the second, more danceable and groovey act is perfect. “Vermicide”, the albums shortest song, is arena-rock at its finest, with a strange country/western melody and vocal-echo and swirl effects that cause it to be a perfect single candidate. In fact, the only song that truly falters on its own is the previously stated ‘Meccamputechture”, which lasts far beyond its initial impact, with the jam session nearly negating the albums defining chorus of “Please dismantle all these phantom fears, it’s the evidence of humans as ornaments, humans as ornaments, humans as ornaments!”
All in all, Amputechture
stands as basically The Mars Volta perfecting their formula. Excluding the final two tracks, TMV does nothing particularly new or different from what they’ve previously done, and when they do, it’s nothing mind-blowing or unheard of. However, they still push the boundaries on what can be done in a single song, with “Tetragrammaton” somehow being enthralling for 17 minutes; “Day of the Baphomets” being astonishing for 12, and them finally crafting a perfect ballad in “Vicarious Atonement.” Amputechture
may not have pushed them as far as either De-Loused
or (in particular) Frances
did, but its by far their most whole-heartedly solid and consistent effort yet. It sets them up well for their next release; they need only come up with a new twist and cut down on the excess fat to finally become the next “revolutionary” musical act- although they still might yet be regarded as that.
R.I.P- Jon Theodore, Omar Rodriguez-Lopez as sole guitarist, wind instruments in TMV songs.
Day of the Baphomets
El Ciervo Vulnerado