Review Summary: Could've been a classic, if only it was more consistent.
The Mars Volta is a tough band to get into. They're like an eccentric relative--an all-too familiar presence that equally irritates and intrigues you. They never cease to entertain, but they also have an uncanny knack for getting under your skin. My first encounter with The Mars Volta (something off of De-loused) was just this sort of dichotomy. I was immediately put off by the asymmetry, the dissonance, the weird vocals, the seeming lack of melody and flow. It was as if they had taken everything that was normally enjoyable about music and twisted it into a misshapen, convoluted mess. And yet--there was something captivating in the midst of the noise. I suddenly realized the reason I didn't like it: it was too complex. And being the competitive person that I am, this thought excited me. It was a challenge. And at that moment, I knew: I was going to love this band. Eventually, all of the intricacies would make sense. Given time to sink in, the angular riffs, blistering, intense leads, and spastic drumming would come together in perfect harmony to form the musical definition of the word titillating.
There is clear genius at work in the brains and in the fingers of those mop-headed Latinos. And this was the reason for my lack of concern when the direction for Octahedron was revealed to be mellower than their usual unruly turbulence. I fully trusted the band to make a smooth and satisfying transition into the softer side of music. And I wasn't let down: Octahedron is great. However, it could have been even better. It has potential classic written all over it, and yet it can't quite break through and deliver on it's own immense potential. There's obviously some serious skill behind this album--there are more "almost epic" moments here than there are botox wrinkles on Pamela Anderson's face. But as for truly epic moments such as those found on Cicatriz Esp, Take The Veil Cerpin Taxt, Cygnus...Vismund Cygnus, L’via L’Viaquez--there are none to be found. With that said though, this is still a very distinctive and enjoyable album.
The first thing to be noted is that there is not nearly as much acoustic guitar as the band seemed to let on prior to the release, with Since We've Been Wrong and With Twilight As My Guide being the only acoustic-driven songs. And also, while the album is definitely relaxed compared to their previous work, there are plenty of energetic moments (the entirety of Teflon and Cotopaxi, the choruses in Halo of Nembutals and Desperate Graves, the last half of Luciforms). This isn't a radical departure: it's The Mars Volta we all know and (most of us) love, just dialed down a few notches on the bombastic scale. Undoubtedly, this will turn some people off. Which is unfortunate, because as I mentioned previously: mellow TMV is not a bad thing, when executed well. And on the majority of Octahedron, it's executed extremely well.
In fact, the highlights are rather stunning. Since We've Been Wrong opens up with a simple but pleasant acoustic melody layered behind a stirring dual lead guitar lick. It's simple, and repetitious due to the 7 minute+ song length, but it's extremely hard not to close your eyes and get swept away in the searing melodies. Teflon is just plain groovy: an addictive drum lick paired with excellent bass rhythm against backdrop of wailing guitar noise. This one'll get your blood pumping. With Twilight As My Guide follows the same pattern as Since We've Been Wrong, only in minor key. However, I find With Twilight slightly better, due to the darker feel and some fantastic slide guitar work. Cotopaxi is a mid-album volcano eruption, just in case your pulse was feeling a bit lazy. Definitely a throwback to edgier times. Desperate Graves also is reminiscent of some of TMV's past work, with the soft verse and an exploding chorus. A nice melody kicks off the song, but it's deceptive: much of the song that follows consists of reverb-soaked verses and choppy choruses (one of only a few instances that rhythm guitar makes it's presence known on the album). Copernicus is a well-constructed and very emotional track, with more stellar guitar work. The background guitar melody is similar to Since We've Been Wrong and With Twilight As My Guide, but easily holds its own. The lead guitar is great once again, coming in at just the right places. Also, the piano in the last couple minutes really enhances the atmosphere well and helps set the song apart.
Instrumentally, the guitar work is obviously the focus of the album, and on the whole it is phenomenal. Pattern picking is the foundation of most of the songs here, acoustic and electric. The lead guitar is excellent in almost every single song as expected from TMV, spending much of it's time sliding around the upper reaches of the fret board. Rhythm guitar is very sparse, having a strong presence in only two songs (Cotopaxi and Desperate Graves). Drums also have been discarded on several of the tracks. However, that lack of strong rhythm fits the laid-back nature of the album well. And it makes the moments where the rhythms do appear that much more stimulating and strong.
So, after all of this praise, why is Octahedron only rated a 3.5" The answer is quite straightforward: some parts of the album are just simply…boring. With a band like The Mars Volta, this is obviously not a feeling you’d be used to, and certainly not one that is welcomed. I’m not talking about the (relative) calmness of the album; as I said previously, TMV is fabulous when they execute the mellow vibe well. The problem is: they don’t execute it well consistently. Since We’ve Been Wrong almost put me to sleep before the drums kicked in after the second chorus. It’s still got great guitar lines and everything, but it would be a snoozer without the drums and the louder bridge/final chorus. Halo Of Nembutals is unfortunately mediocre and forgettable, and would almost be a total waste except for the awesome outro of creepy, dissonant piano and the sudden erratic beating of an electrified drummer. Cotopaxi isn’t boring, but only in the context of the rest of the album. It has a good riff, but if it had been on De-loused, it would only be filler. Nothing original. Desperate Graves is a fun, energetic song, but it is quite repetitive. It’s a good thing the drumming is superb in the chorus, because that chorus is repeated over and over and over again. In Luciforms, the music just isn’t quite interesting enough to justify the length of the song. The song does build well, and the last three minutes are pretty cool, with lots of great lead guitar. But when your attention fails to be grabbed for the majority of an eight-minute period, that’s a clear sign that the song just isn’t anything special. And in a nutshell, that’s the main problem with the album; it is too uninteresting too often for the album to be anything special.
Inconsistency is the Achilles heel of Octahedron. While it has many superb moments, it also has it’s share of sub-par or, at best, average moments. Even though the album as a whole displayed great artistic restraint, there were times where the band held back a little too much. On several occasions, songs that were ok as-is, but would have been greatly improved had the band injected some energy into them at some point--were not given the needed adrenaline jolt. It’s like the songs were held back just so that they would fit the mold; that mellow vibe that The Mars Volta was searching for on this album. To their credit, TMV found that vibe, and it worked very well most of the time. But it’s definitely a hit-and-miss journey.
Thankfully though, Octahedron is certainly more hit than miss. I would even go so far as to say that Teflon, With Twilight As My Guide, and Copernicus are among the best stuff this band has ever done. It is a great album. However, as I said before: I expected this to be great. I would expect no less from Cedric, Omar, and the gang. But I was hoping to have my expectations exceeded.