The Mars Volta
Frances the Mute (Universal)
by Tim Den
Ever since vocalist Cedric Bixler Zavala and guitarist Omar Rodriguez-Lopez left At The Drive-In to form this complex beast, people have argued over the nature/impact/revelance of The Mars Volta. Are they retro because they’re prog? Are they prog? Are they Latin Rock? Are they hardcore? Are they “trying too hard”? Are the songs “too long”? Are they trailblazing geniuses? Or are they self-indulgent wankers wasting listeners’ time with useless nonsense?
I don’t really care if the band are prog or have afros or write long songs, cuz if the songs are well-planned and eventful, then they’re fucking good songs, right? I found De-loused in the Comatorium breathtakingly recorded, explosively performed, overflowing with raw emotion, and (most importantly) melodically mindbending. I could be counted as one of the faithful, but that doesn’t mean that I’ve got nothing but praise for Frances the Mute.
First and foremost, The Mars Volta have really wrung out every possibility of the minor progression. Rodriguez-Lopez has confessed that he can’t write in major, which leaves the band’s music only one route to go. Which was fine for De-loused in the Comatorium, but for a second (almost an hour and-a-half long) album? The tank’s kinda running low. And Rodriguez-Lopez’s spastic playing style is also starting to wear thin. You can only flake and chisel octaves and fifths for so long, ya know? To quote a friend, “it’s funny how the two main guys are actually the weakest links.” When compared to drummer Jon Theodore, keyboardist Isaiah Ikey Owens, and new bassist Juan Alderte de la Peña’s abilities, Rodriguez-Lopez’s attempts at shaking some sort of guitar revolution out of his seizures seem elementary. And don’t even get me started on the five-minutes-too-long “avant garde” noise passages.
Secondly, Bixler Zavalas’ lyrics are becoming even more uncompromisingly obscure. “Pour Another Icepick” makes “One-Armed Scissor” read like a Sesame Street exercise. These aren’t metaphors, folks, these are WAY out there cut-and-paste passages inhabited by robotic voice effects and references to “mandible tongues.” Thankfully, when Bixler Zavalas reverts to his native Spanish, the psychtrip tones down a bit.
Frances the Mute might overstay its welcome, but when it delivers… WHEW, it’s revelatory like the best moments of De-loused in the Comatorium. The acoustic intro of opener “Cygnus… Vismund Cygnus” kicking into a sinewy, punchy verse; “The Widow”‘s grandiose vocal line; the entirety of “L’ Via L’ Viaquez” making you break your hips dancing: These are orgasmic, hair-raising, worthy-of-losing-consciousness-from-flailing-about pieces of music that transcend the aural experience. The combination of harrowing minor riffs, punishing rhythmic passion and precision, tragically monumental vocals, and haunted mental anguish feels like a resurrection, a divine hand reaching into your dead soul and making you live again. And that, my friend, is worth treading through the mire.