Review Summary: And I hear him every night, on every street...
I have only been heavily into music for the last three years of my life, and it has been a hell of journey to get to where I am now. My IPhone went from having 200 songs on it to around 5,500, and in my little musical odyssey, one of my favorite bands that I've found is The Mars Volta.
Frances the Mute was the first album of theirs I listened to. I didn't listen to anything by 'At The Drive-In' before it either, so I went in with literally ZERO context as to what this music was and what it was all about. If you're at all familiar with the band, then you're probably wondering how in the hell that went down, and yes, my relationship with this album has been complex and strange over the past two or so years. And while I am going to go over the album, I feel like I have a bit of a unique lens on this band and this album, and to fully articulate myself and my points, I gotta give that lens some context.
Story time, kiddos.
So the bulk of my musical growth happened last year, from January to about November, where I consumed music like candy. Any genre, any time period, any artist, if I had even a passing interest in it, it was going onto my library. I do owe a lot of thanks to the people here at Sputnik too, which definitely lead me to find a lot of cool stuff I otherwise wouldn't have found. Sadly, my time was way more limited then, as college and a part time job at my local drug store ate up a lot of free time. However, I am nothing if not good at being resourceful, so I managed to get a little bluetooth headset that was the same color as my skin, meaning it wasn't noticeable, and if it was, people assumed it was a hearing aid. So now I had the opportunity to play music literally whenever I wanted. My boring classes? On. Busy days at work? On. My ability to consume had once again been reborn in full force. I won't lie, just the idea of blasting Black Metal while restocking the freezer or checking out customers was pretty hysterical. Thankfully it never impeded my ability to work, so I had a good thing going, and I began to do the majority of my music listening at work.
The incentive for this journey began when I met my bestest pal in the whole wide world a year previous, who goes by 'Slowburner' on this website. And he had just about the broadest musical taste of anyone I had ever met, and it didn't take long for that to rub off on me. Hell, once I started looking into stuff on my own, I got to the point where I recommended music to him as well. One hilarious occurrence was when we were both tearing through the Opeth discography together for the first time. Shortly thereafter I found Porcupine Tree, the band that would become my new all-time favorite, and I shared it with him. He dug them just about as much as I did, and one day, come to find out, Steven Wilson and Mikael Akerfeldt of the respective bands were good friends, but Wilson produced all the albums and did some guest instrumental work post Blackwater Park. Neither of us had any idea that was the case and remains one of our favorite outlandish coincidences.
So one day we sent each other a list of our favorite albums/artists as far as we could estimate, and I remember seeing an unusual set of names. 'Frances the Mute' and 'The Mars Volta', an album he deemed his second favorite of all time. Immediately I wondered what the hell the album even was, I hadn't even heard of the band in passing. So naturally I asked him, what genre were they? Who do they sound like? Should I check them out? I still remember the text:
'I don't know. No one. And yes. Yes you should,'
So naturally upon arriving home I went to youtube, ripped the songs and compiled the necessary info, and put it on my phone. The next day at work I played them at the start of my shift, and it was a slow evening, so I really got to process the music with minimal distraction. At first, I didn't know what to think of them. I could hear prog influences, jazz influences, experimental stuff, large periods of ambience, some of the most 'out there' lyrics I had ever heard, and just a combo of musical proficiency that I had never heard. Keep in mind, before that, I hadn't listened to some of the stranger stuff I got into later like Godspeed! You Black Emperor or Swans, so at that point it was just the weirdest sh*t I had ever listened to. By the time the final notes of the title track played, I knew I liked it, I just couldn't articulate why or how. So instead of moving onto other music, that whole night until closing, I had Frances the Mute on repeat, and by the time I got home and went to bed, I could hear the chorus to L'Via L'Viaquez playing in my head over and over without much effort.
In time I graduated to some other stuff, but my listen to Frances the Mute remains one of the most interesting. About a month later and several listens, I felt it was a solid 4.5/5 so I rated it here. Some time passed, I listened to the Porcupine Tree discography in full, and after I was out of albums, I went back to Frances. Weirdly enough, i wasn't vibing with it like before. I still liked it and thought it was one of the most unique and well put-together things I had heard, but some places felt like they dragged a whole lot. The interlude to the title track felt grating due to it's odd sound effects and bloated length, the more atmospheric and ambient moments on the album kind of bored me, considering you have songs like 'L'Via L'Viaquez' and 'Cygnus... Vismund Cygnus' that are just these bombastic explosions of insanity, and even the most low-key and accessible track, 'The Widow' started slow but built to an incredible chorus with some intensely dark verses that followed. So my newfound take was that I still loved it overall, but changed my rating to a 4 because I just found my enjoyment to be kind of inconsistent.
Fast forward to around two months ago. Again, more music, more genres, more everything. Truth be told I'm still far from done trying to look for new music, there's just so much and the more I find, the more I find things that I simply adore that I would've otherwise paid no mind to.
So now, I had started collecting CDs after several trips to my local Half-Priced Books. I can't play Vinyl and it's expensive, sue me, I gotta eat. One day, I had been browsing Amazon for some CDs, trying to scrounge together some of my favorites so I could say I had them. Some Brand New, some Pink Floyd, Metallica, Kendrick Lamar, King Crimson, David Bowie, etc, etc. Eventually I see the now iconic cover of Frances the Mute in the recommended section of the site, and then it dawned on me: I hadn't listened to ANYTHING from the Mars Volta aside from that one album. Frances is just such a monolithic and strange beast that I almost felt like I didn't NEED to, I was, and am still, pretty certain I hadn't unraveled it's many layers completely, but now I was feeling adventurous and excited, there was more of their music! So, I got ahold of what is considered their masterwork, De-Loused In The Comatorium. I was immediately sucked in. The second 'Inertiatic ESP' began I knew I was locked in. I listened to the album ravenously for weeks, as I found it to be more accessible than Frances, mainly due to the emphasis on ambient/atmospheric stuff being absent, so the project felt more focused. Then I went down the rabbit hole, reading the stories behind both records, in which my appreciation only grew. The stories of how these came to be are just as interesting as the albums themselves. It didn't take long for De-Loused to become a record I'd put in my top 10, one of the few perfect scores I'd give, and for these two records to consider The Mars Volta one of my favorite bands. They could've made complete sh*t after Frances, but it wouldn't matter, they gave me two masterpieces. Thankfully it wasn't the case, as I checked out Bedlam In Goliath and Noctourinquit and immensely enjoyed both. But after that, I went back to Frances to see how I felt now that I had more deeply dived into their music. It all sounded new again. I found myself more open to the more low-key moments, as the cinematic nature of their albums are more akin to films than traditional song structure. These albums are stories, often with three acts, peaks and valleys included.
The second 'Cygnus... Vismund Cygnus' begins you are immediately rocked out of your comfort zone. You've got Cedric's vocals, which are smooth and high-pitched simultaneously, to the point where he sounds like a living instrument himself rather than a voice. The music is eclectic and crazy, and often has the improvisational feel of jazz. The drumming is hectic and heavy, and somehow, the production mixes everything in such a way that you can make out each distinct part and appreciate it. Frances had felt like a slog for me in places before, but when I resigned myself to taking it all in rather than trying to expect the utter insanity I felt when I had first heard them, i found myself way more receptive. My pal was right, nothing is comparable to The Mars Volta, not even At The Drive In beyond both of them being very raw expressions of emotions.
The second track, 'The Widow' was the hit single off the album. It's probably because it could be easily cut for proper radio time, and is pretty accessible compared to the rest. I don't think we would've seen the thirty minute titan of 'Cassandra Gemini' on MTV. The Widow is melancholic and occasionally explodes into bursts of energy, and my love for Cedric's vocals only improves here, he is just as effective in quiet and intimate moments as he is when he's passionately erupting. You can hear the lyrics in this song a little better, because it's less intense than the opener, and you find just how odd it all sounds. This works because of the psychedelic feel that the band often aims for, so thinking in the really backwards and obtuse way that the lyrics lead you to is perfectly in line with the experience you'd want from this.
'L'Via L'Viaquez' might be my favorite track on here. The more latin influences show up on this track in full force, most of the song being sung in Spanish, and once more Cedric delivers a god tier performance that requires him to flex his range almost on a word by word basis. The distorted guitar riffs and rhythmic drums make this more of a song you can bang your head to, the first half contains a lot more structure that allows for that. The passionate cries that are belted out of 'whoa' and 'yeah' in any other hands would sound generic, but here it's with such vigor you can't help but do a little mental fist pump. It really psyches you up.
'Miranda That Ghost Just Isn't Holy Anymore' starts out being the most ambient and dry track on the album, but changes halfway through into a somber and almost sinister piece once the vocals come into play. The vibe here is really dark and unsettling, and it feels like whatever is happening in the story we're following, is really going to hell.
Then we have 'Cassandra Gemini'- the song that originally closed the album because of some complications with their record label at the time, so the title track was added later at the end. This almost isn't even a song. It's a thirty minute long movie. I'd highly recommend looking up the narrative of the album if you haven't, because here is when things go full batsh*t and it's incredible. It's divided into several movements you can distinguish, and overall is just a supremely dynamic piece of music that contains everything that makes this band so awesome. it has slower moments, and musical change ups that are abrupt or strange that I'm not super keen on, but it's pretty minor.
The final track, 'Frances the Mute' is the only track I'm not SUPER behind. I may have minor nitpicks and may think Cassandra overstays it's welcome just a little bit, but here I'm torn. On the one hand, halfway through we get an incredible creepy interlude into the gigantic and climactic ending to the album and story. it gets electronic, experimental, and everything in between, and it's cool. However, that damn interlude with that electronic bell ringing? Yeah that hasn't gotten any easier to listen to. I don't know if it's just me being a bit of a bitch and being sensitive to certain sounds, but a solid three minutes of this song is just nails on a chalkboard to me. I get it, the music is weird, it takes risks, and it challenges you, that's the appeal of albums like this, but I enjoy the other discordant and challenging moments on the album, this one sort of sticks out like a sore thumb and simply didn't need to last this long. I skip this segment every time, purely because it gives me a headache.
So after all that, I bumped my rating back up. Is it perfect? No. But that's not the goal of the band. The goal here is to mystify. To wow you by giving you something unique and crazy that you can't hear anywhere else, and on that front it's a resounding success. It had some minor flaws here and there, by my metric anyway, but the only thing they do is keep the album short of being flawless. Frances the Mute remains a masterpiece that exemplifies the appeal of the Mars Volta wonderfully, and while I would recommend De-Loused as a starting point, as it's easier to get into and is the stronger album in my eyes, this is the one you go to afterwards, because it's likely that you may even enjoy this one more. The discography of this band is really solid, but the first two entries remain as some of my favorite albums of all time. If you haven't listened to these yet and you want something weird or new, and you like progressive rock or experimental stuff, then look no further. This album has everything, including a narrative and passion that resounds emotionally in a lot of different ways. If I were stranded on a desert island and could only pick the discography of one band to have with me, I'd pick The Mars Volta, simply because with just two of their current six albums, I know I'd never be bored.
Favorite Tracks: L'Via L'Viaquez, The Widow, Cygnus... Vismund Cygnus
Least Favorite Track(s): Frances The Mute (still pretty incredible in that second half though)