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Don't Stop Dragging the Lake

By Christian Hagen | Music | July 15, 2009 |

By Christian Hagen | Music | July 15, 2009 |

2206241.jpgThe Mars Volta: Octahedron
[Warner Bros. Records]

The Mars Volta have had a career path that’s almost as strange as their music, and that’s certainly saying something. Beginning as a splinter group (along with Sparta) from the vastly overrated At The Drive-In, guitarist Omar Rodriguez-Lopez and singer Cedric Bixler-Zavala began by crafting two almost perfect albums: The slow-building and subtly brilliant De-loused in the Comatorium and the mind-bending, extreme Frances the Mute. On these records, they showcased their abilities to rock (and rock HARD) but also to mellow out, as on their only hit single to date, “The Widow”. And for all the experimental weirdness and highly challenging sonic bombasts, critics and fans mostly appreciated the band for what it was and gave them free reign.

Then the band’s path took a strange turn. Somehow, Rodriguez-Lopez, who also produces and composes most of the music, managed to write enough material, he claimed, for several albums. Basically, he’d crafted enough material to last the band through the end of the decade and beyond, presumably without having to write another note. What this did for the band was create a definite good news, bad news situation. On the good side, the band could comfortably keep a strong momentum and keep their profile high for years to come. On the bad side, they ran the risk of falling into patterns, no longer stretching themselves or their instruments with the same power or creativity. 2006’s Amputecture showed little of the subtlety and nuance of its predecessors, and failed to inspire most listeners. 2008’s The Bedlam in Goliath did manage to bring back some of the surprise and promise of the band’s early work, with moments of staggering intensity littered throughout an overall solid piece of work (also notably the first time the production managed to capture the raw power of the drums, which was a definite plus). Unfortunately, however, this was the time that most mainstream music critics began to turn on the band.

So now, the band returns with the latest dip into this reportedly vast musical vault, and the results are certainly unexpected, if not entirely captivating. In a twist, the band has risen from their self-made hard rock explosion with a regained appreciation of the slow melodic ballads that dotted their first two albums so successfully. The whole album is probably the closest the band will ever come to a quiet acoustic record, which is to say that Thomas Pridgen’s masterful drum work is mostly mixed down and appears sparingly as opposed to plowing through every breathing second of their last album, and Bixler-Zavala drops his vocal screeching to a more manageable register (again, most of the time). But that’s not the only change. For the first time in the band’s career, none of the album’s eight tracks breaks ten minutes in length. Whether they are exhausted from playing hour-long jam sessions on extended world tours or they wanted to give listeners a break is unclear, but the move is definitely noticeable, and adds to the overall presentation by making it easier to wrap one’s mind around the song structures.

Of course, understandable has never been a positive description for The Mars Volta, and it can easily work against them, as on “With Twilight As My Guide”, a ballad which drags not only on dull instrumentation but on some of the worst lyrics ever penned by anyone ever. When the band is in full force, Bixler-Zavala screaming nonsensical nouns and verbs strung together through rambling spanglish is completely acceptable, even welcome. But when singing softly in a normal tone, lines like “My devil makes me dream/Like no other mortal dreams/With a blank eye corner” stick out, and not in a good way. Of course, when that’s your chorus, that just emphasizes the problem.

Other than that, however, most of the problems with the album are minor. For those accustomed to the band’s signature sound, it is a mostly pleasant experience. Songs like “Teflon” and “Cotopaxi” contain all the prerequisite rock that you’d be expecting, as does “Desperate Graves”, though the merits of Bixler-Zavala’s voice are put to the test in that song as it teeters between haunting and purely cheesy. But the album’s brightest spots, experimentally speaking, may be “Copernicus”, in which the band’s musical explorations are audible and even satisfying. Electro-loops? Piano? These are tools they’ve never really employed before, and the effect is sufficiently mood-setting, and the closer “Luciforms”. Again, the band returns to the formula of slow-building, but also employs the concept of slow-burning. The rock, when it shoots through, is dirty and rollicking, and we really get a chance to hear the band as we never have before. It doesn’t provide definite proof, but it implies that perhaps their creative freedom is still very much intact.

Unfortunately, The Mars Volta has become very much a “wait and see” band, both in terms of what they will do in the future, but how we will feel about them even from day to day. Will listeners embrace Octahedron more or less with time? Where their first two records, each instant classics, bore their fruit quickly and stayed ripe for long after, there is a sense that the fruit hanging from the tree now may either be too heavy or too light to remain for very long. Either it will fall off or it will rot quickly, but either way, if the band doesn’t figure out how to grow naturally again, the fruits of their labor will go unconsumed.

Christian Hagen is a music journalist from Minneapolis (who is also in a band), who likes to waste his time writing about nothing, and who has yet to launch his own website (though one is on its way), so for now he can only link to his MySpace profile.

TK Burton is an Editorial Consultant. You may email him here or follow him on Twitter.

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