The Mars Volta – ‘THE MARS VOLTA’

By Ian Kenworthy

On their album sleeves it reads ‘The Mars Volta is the partnership between Omar Rodríguez-López and Cedric Bixler-Zavala’. That partnership ended in 2012, abruptly. They quickly reunited, playing in noisy bands Antemasque and At The Drive-In, but it has taken ten years to write that epigraph again. This is The Mars Volta’s comeback record, their twilight record, one you could listen to in low-light, in your slippers, clutching a mug of cocoa. It’s very different, it’s very good, but it’s a lot to take in.

Listen to any Mars Volta record and you’ll understand how the dynamic works. Omar functions as band leader, playing lead guitar while directing other musicians to create vast musical canvases, and Cedric sings over the top, his distinctive voice working as glue that holds the wild soundscapes together. Often singing in a high register, wailing and performing lyrical gymnastics he makes a deeply engaging counterpoint. However, this time that dynamic has changed, they have written actual songs. This is easily their most accessible work, the ‘pop’ record they have long-promised, but this isn’t like any pop record you’ve ever heard and it’s probably not what you’d expect either. It’s all pleasantly catchy, atmospheric and seemingly worked to perfection.

All fourteen songs here are layered and textured and rich, so it’s definitely not straightforward, but relatively speaking the album is quite simple and most songs fall within 3-minute mark with only ‘Equus 3’ lasting as long as four. Compare with the 15-minute suites from their first three records and this feels laser focused and not as weird or challenging, but that’s an illusion, it really is.

You can see a clear progression from where their last album ‘Noctourniquet’ left off, but there’s one huge difference, Cedric sings the whole time. Barely a moment passes when his voice isn’t soaring over the music and his style has changed too. Gone are the histrionics that defined their early work – heck on ‘The Bedlam In Goliath’ he could sound like an air raid siren, but here he’s much smoother (at times his voice is even electronically softened) as he croons his way through the songs, often as smoothly as waves swashing across a beach. Despite this, he’s always compelling, switching style, or even language, as the music dictates. On ‘No Case Gain’ his swaggering singing gives the song a druggy vibe while ‘Blank Condolences’ uses odd phrasing to give the song a different flavour. Mostly, it’s comfortable and easy to listen to and even the weird smeariness of ‘Cerulea’ is easy on the ear. This means that the strange vibes running through ‘Qué Dios Te Maldiga Mí Corazón’ and ‘Collapsible Shoulders’ really stand out, but his singing style remains a far cry from the desperate screeching he used before.

Notably, Cedric has actively toned down the abstract lyrics and strange constructions he favoured in the past. As with their insistence on describing the music as ‘pop’ you get the sense that they’re actively doing something new, or aiming for a different audience. For example on ‘Shore Story’ he slots between the gentle pulse of drums to vaguely sing a chorus about being ‘nervous on the phone’ while the hook of ‘Equus 3’ is a simple statement of ‘pain in my heart go away,’. While this change works, it does feel slightly out of character, something shared by the restrained song titles.

Unless you’re versed in international musical styles and post-hardcore accurately describing the songs is difficult because they’re all a strange, even unique, blend of styles and influences. Although Omar’s guitar is threaded through every song it’s distorted and shifted and pitch-bent so it always sounds unusual, this makes them all textured, varied and different. And of course the record’s feel is never just the guitar. Although the band has worked with some of the world’s most renowned drummers (Travis Barker and Thomas Pridgen spring to mind) Willy Rodriguez Quiñones still makes an impression. The whole record has an undercurrent of Latin rhythms and elements of bossa nova giving it a distinctive swagger. You might also notice the interplay between different types of percussion and electronic beats, especially as they shift between subtle and hypnotic, which is notable on the intoxicating ‘Collapsible Shoulders’ and ‘Flash Burns From Flashbacks’. It’s worth investigating the video version of the single ‘Blacklight Shine’ as it’s expanded from the 3 minute song included here and spends 11 minutes illuminating the song’s unusual rhythmic feel. It’s also notable how Eva Gardner weaves her basslines through the percussion and it really stands out on ‘Blank Condolences’ and ‘Equus 3’ but are often understated and even magical.

As the band’s first new record in ten years it’s difficult not to approach it with a certain amount of ambivalence, after all if anything’s possible you can’t help but be disappointed at what they’re not doing. ‘The Mars Volta’ is not made up of unstructured jam sessions with flashes of tune, and there are certainly no eight-minute guitar breaks, heck, as a tapestry of short songs there isn’t even a real structure. Hence, it’s an odd choice that the album is self-titled. Surely, it’s an attempt to pin down what the Mars Volta sound like and given their history it’s strange that they want to sound like this

And after all the overthinking, and trying to understand, it becomes obvious. This is almost the anti-Mars Volta, and that’s the point of the record. It’s tame but not toothless, soporific but not tired, it’s restrained and delicate but it’s also The Mars Volta being The Mars Volta. Distilling their music has made it effortlessly compelling. Leave your expectations at the door, this is a brilliant comeback.

IAN KENWORTHY

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