Mars Volta


(Warner Bros.; 2009)

By Eric Sams | 21 October 2009

You know all that shit you secretly believe, down in your brain’s heart, about the preconceptions of critics and the disingenuous nature of popular album reviews? That we know what we’re going to say about an album before we hear it for the first time and then say it anyway, regardless of the quality of the actual music that we actually hear from the actual record?

Generally speaking, that’s all pig shit.

I wish to God I knew what to say about an album before I heard it. That way maybe I wouldn’t habitually sit hunched desperately over my keyboard for two hours on the day of my review deadline trying to think of synonyms for “expansive” or “lo-fi” before deciding to fuck it all and just say “expansive” and “lo-fi.” That’s why writing up an album by Mars fucking Volta entitled Octahedron is such a breath of fresh air, because for once, you cynical assholes are right!! I’m writing this before I’ve heard even one big stupid shrieking half-Spanish verse!! And I’m telling you that Octahedron sucks!!

So, yes, my initial analysis of this album lives on its shiny surface, goes no deeper than the jewel case. That shouldn’t suggest that it means nothing. Here: the album’s called Octahedron, which is a geometric term with no real conceptual value as it would apply to this record. I’ll show you. It’s this:

Were I in a generous mood I might allow that they could be making an allusion to the multifaceted nature of their particular brand of salsa-jazz-rock fusion, but they aren’t. They really, really aren’t. Their last record was named after a ghost living in their Ouija board, and the one before that was called Amputechture (2006). They picked this title because it sounded cool and vaguely futuristic and vaguely ominous and, well, vague. And this is what happens when a band who has sought to become known by adjectives like “progressive” and “experimental” stops progressing and stops experimenting.

See, for at least the past two studio efforts almost all Mars Volta tracks struggle to function under a crusty layer of long stale auteurist goo. All of the twitching mechanics and tempo jolts are gummed up by its calcifying effect, the effect of having twitched and jolted in the exact same pattern a few too many times before. The goo, I suppose, was interesting when it was goo; when it coated the Mars Volta machine and made it wet and slick and lithe; and when we weren’t quite sure what the machine was made to accomplish, but the prospect was exciting and the figure was imposing and complex like a contraption from a Terry Gilliam flick; and we still had the cultural tuning fork that was Relationship of Command (2000) buzzing in our heads.

This is why Deloused in the Comatorium (2003), while not exactly solid all the way through, was at least exciting because it represented the snapping of the emo tether that had confined ATDI to the realm of hard rock. Every fan knew that Rodriguez-Lopez and Bixler-Zavala were the avant-garde contingent of the group and that their new project could whiz in almost any direction. This uncertainty seemed timely in the nascent post-9/11 America at the start of a new century. Not many people realized that the duo would try to go in all of those directions at the same time. Now that blitzkrieg has become exhausting and stultifying. Bixler-Zavala’s nasally falsetto is as familiar as that of a stunted Gibb brother, ostracized from Bee Gee’s fame because he wouldn’t stop insisting that one of the songs on Main Course (1975) should include a pack of hyenas setting a tire fire on the White House lawn. Somewhere, for some reason, these guys have completely lost the plot.

Rodriguez-Lopez says that Octahedron is “our version of what we consider an acoustic album,” adding that when people inevitably point out to him that Octahedron—with its synthesizers and its electric guitar solos and its tick-tick-boom production—most certainly is not an acoustic album his response will be: “That’s what our band does—celebrate mutations.” See? Crusted goo. I think by “acoustic album” he must be referring to the ultra-bizarre Chaucer-era traveling minstrel that flounces through the song cycle. It’d be Zepplin-esque if it wasn’t crammed awkwardly into an already kaleidoscopic mélange of influences that makes up any given Mars Volta song.

And I know the chaos is intentional. I get that. But I’m not sure why anymore. I’m starting to think that these guys want to be the post-modern Ronnie James Dio, their mythos is so straight-faced and muddled and fantastically ridiculous. “With Twilight As My Guide” contains the line (and if you’d heard the song you’d know that they’d want me to use Middle English) “mye devyl maekes me dreame / as noe othyr mortals dreame.” If this is the aspiration then maybe I get it after all. Let’s see: all the bridge trolls and crones are feelings of alienation and psychological hang-ups, and the fire-breathing dragon is, like, the military industrial complex?

The new character, the minstrel, opens the record, dominating the first five minutes of “Since We’ve Been Wrong,” though a full two of those minutes a nearly imperceptible drone. Don’t worry though, MV fans, he doesn’t monopolize the entire track since it then continues on for almost another three fucking minutes in offering a more traditional Volta’d classic metal rehash of the first five minutes. It’s like an A-side/B-side conjoined twin. A remix grafted to the original, as unnatural as it is unnecessary. But when I heard it I wasn’t surprised.

Nothing on this album surprises me because anyone who has listened to this band regularly has become so steeped in pointless oddity that they have moved past surprise into the realm of mild annoyance. Which is why I knew this album was going to suck, but wasn’t gratified to find, after forcing myself to spin it a few times, that it did. The minstrel doesn’t count as going in a new direction, fellas. That’s just adding another lubed participant to the clusterfuck; and, in a way, that’s the exact direction your band has been headed in for years.