Review Summary: Frances the Mute is a prime example of what happens when talented songwriters focus too much on ideas and not enough on the actual music.
Easily the biggest issue with a band like The Mars Volta, especially when compared to their peers, is that like a good chunk of the post-2000s progressive rock bands, they're a real "moment factory" of a band. I say this, because whereas the progressive rock music of old- particularly bands like Genesis, Yes and Rush- helped popularize the movement back in its heyday by attempting to break down the constraints set by popular music and stepping outside the box, making music that was meant to be seen as treating music like an art form and rather than making music for the masses, not being afraid to write rock music a tad symphonic in nature by not allowing themselves to be bound by the 3-minute pop single barriers put up and rather focus on the art of what they were doing. Thanks in no small part to progressive rock's evolution, even to the jazz influences being a more popular choice to focus on, that seems to be lost on a good number of bands nowadays who seem to treat it as an excuse to fill an 80 minute CD with lengthy compositions devoted to showing off their technical prowess. There isn't anything inherently wrong with this, if done right, of course- this form of prog has, in fact, seen some of the genre's greatest latter-day masterpieces filled with a fair share of "holy-shit-did-he-just-play-that" moments that come out of nowhere and pull the rug out from the listener's feet.
And make no mistake, there are a lot of bands nowadays who deserve a good chunk of this flattery that pre-dates the release of their albums. "So," you ask, "if there isn't anything inherently wrong with this, why can it be a negative sometimes?" Good question, but the answer is easy, and can be found by listening to a lot of today's prog-rock artists: because more often than not, they seem to think it's a good substitute for actual songwriting. Going back to the first sentence's claim, despite the massive influence they've had on the genre, and despite the non-shortage of masterpieces they've managed to churn out, The Mars Volta are definitely a "moment factory" group thanks in no small part to some of the insane stuff they've pulled in their music. What else explains the reactions to stuff we've heard in their music such as the Guitar/Saxophone duel in "Day of the Baphomets" or the static-laden intro to "Ilyena"? And despite this, they've managed to keep it from substituting for songwriting... for the most part, at least.
I say "for the most part" because there are moments when it comes back to bite them in the ass, and when those moments come, they're more noticeable than others. Their debut album De-Loused in the Comatorium
, for better or for worse, was a joyous blend of jazz fusion-influenced prog, Latin rock, post-hardcore with some sprinklings of Yes and Led Zeppelin in there for good measure. That being said, it was 2003, and they knew as well as we did that if they were to survive, this couldn't last forever- Post-Hardcore was going the way of the dinosaur, and with how technically skilled they were, an evolution into prog-rock was important. That being said, while Frances the Mute
is an album that's easy to respect due to the band's desire to expand their horizons and branch out more into the Yes and Zep side of their music and abandon the last few remaining traces of At The Drive-In, the execution is where it falters. Depending on who you ask, Frances
is either one of their very best albums or one of their worst, and the lack of accessibility on display certainly doesn't help matters. I mention "lack of accessibility", because it's clear once you look at the back of the CD- 5 tracks, with the average song length being 13-15 minutes, all culminating in a 32 minute final track
. Older, more seasoned prog-fans probably immediately think of Yes' Tales from Topographic Oceans
, a controversial double concept album with four tracks running 20 minutes on average. Now, music being accessible indeed doesn't make it good by default, but it's easy to see where these comparisons run valid, because both albums tested the patience of even their fans, and are exhausting to listen to in one setting.
Now, as I mentioned, I'd be lying if I said that the band don't deserve points for the non-shortage of "holy fuck!!!" moments they're capable of, because they're on full display throughout the whole album, and the best place to start is the album's opening track, "Cygnus... Vismund Cygnus". Hell, they waste no time giving us a nine-minute series of them right off the bat: the song starts quietly, slowly and acoustic with the sound of water running down a stream and Cedric softly singing "All my life I've been sowing the wounds/But the seeds sprout a lachrymal cloud
", before the song suddenly slams into a much louder, heavier and intense section with Cedric singing, quite conversely, in his chest voice and in Spanish. It's jarring, but it grabs your attention and keeps you hooked for the majority of the song- schizophrenic in nature, violently switching time signatures, at one moment sounding heroic and the next sounding like the babblings of a schizophrenic druggie, even with a frightening
crash-out in the middle, and an intense build-up leading to a final chorus and an outro with Cedric screaming over a weird time signature. As epic as this sounds, this epic insanity is then almost-completely ruined by a rather disturbing trend that is prevalent throughout the album: a four-minute outro consisting of nothing but static and noise. A number of the reviews I've read claim that this adds "atmosphere"; to me it just serves as both Omar thinking up a crazy idea and carelessly throwing it in there without a thought for how it would blend into the music. And even the one track on the album that's under 10 minutes (the five-minute "The Widow") isn't immune to this, being a steady 3 minute poppish tune with a needless 2 minutes of noise tacked on at the end.
This is exactly what makes the album such a chore to listen to; Omar Rodriguez-Lopez seems to be more focused on what crazy shit he can stuff into 76 minutes than translating them into music. Even the one song on the album that's more musical in nature, "L'Via L'Viaquez" (and also the best track on the album) isn't immune to this at all. As awesome as it is that the song switches back and forth between a catchy, upbeat rock song verse and a salsa chorus, there really seems to be no reason for it, and it doesn't contribute much in the way of atmosphere. While the salsa choruses are cool the first two times, and indeed surprising, the third and final one we here dulls the idea's impact as a whole by dragging it out to the very end of the track, leaving you to wonder why they even bothered in the first place. As also cool as it is that John Frusciante plays two guitar solos on the track, they seem to only be thrown in there just to add to the "look everybody, we just went there!" factor.
And then there's another problem... the "Spanglish" lyrics. They, too, are unnecessary, especially considering that the album is supposed to be a concept album, and that's not even mentioning how Cedric deliberately mispronounces his Spanish words so he can sing them (in which case, why even bother at all). They're on "Cygnus" too, and even despite the shorter presence there, they don't add much to the track, only serving to be gratuitious. And then we reach the final track, the mammoth, the centerpiece, "Cassandra Gemini", which, again, seems to only have been done for the sake of "because we can", rather than out of a natural inclination to do so. It's 32 minutes long for the sake of it, and starts off pretty exciting, despite a bizarre spoken-word portion by a Southern nerd who seems to have smoked far too many packs of cigarettes (which miraculously doesn't
ruin it). In fact, the first 6 minutes of it as a whole are among some of the most beautifully intense minutes of music they've made, and there's a number of awesome moments that follow, such as a gloriously intense buildup that starts at 11:30. Problem is, the good parts of this song constitute maybe 14 minutes of the song's runtime, which, if you're still following, is less than half the song's runtime
. Talk about potential impact immediately dulled by needless excess.
Despite some of the harsh remarks I've made, I would definitely agree that calling this album terrible music would be an uneducated statement, because it's definitely not bad. That being said, calling it "good music" would be a bit of a stretch too. The biggest issue is that there's a lot of potentially awesome music ruined by the band's lack of self-censorship and primary focus on the idea rather than the songwriting. As I mentioned in the previous stanza, "Cassandra Gemini" could have been a great 14-minute song, but instead of that, we get a lumbering, aimless and meandering "epic" that hammers out the riffs and the "moments" in a fatigued way, stretched beyond justification. And that seems to be the best way to describe the album as a whole. The Mars Volta might be one of the best things to happen to prog-rock, but even they have moments where their self-indulgence catch up with them, and this was one of thankfully very few moments where that happened. And even then, this album is still preferable to the majority of albums by other "moment factory" prog bands out there... so there's that, too.