The Bedlam in Goliath is an album of prog-rock that does well to fulfill any preconceptions one might have about the label. A quick glance at the tracklisting gives an apt first impression: With several songs surpassing the eight-minute mark and song titles ranging from the pretentious “Wax Simulacra” to the nonsensical “Ouroborous,” the listener is fairly warned of the excess to come. Furthermore, the band’s website contains a six-page history of the album recounting the purchase and use of something called a Soothsayer (a mystical Middle Eastern device not unlike a Ouija), which forged a haunting connection with the band, leading to the creation of an album that "transfers" this connection to the listener. To this end, the record doesn’t disappoint, as former At the Drive-In kids Omar Rodriguez-Lopez and Cedric Bixler-Zavala package their fourth Mars Volta full-length as a 75-minute exercise in bombastic exposition.
The Bedlam in Goliath is filled with tracks that self-consciously skirt conventional song structures, including both brief excursions falling short of three minutes and epic suites nearing ten minutes that shift so frequently in tone and tempo it becomes difficult to tell where one take ends and another begins. In all, these shifts and variations create a sum of homogeneity rather than one of expansiveness and lead the listener through a maze of sonic dead ends that are never fully realized. It’s a shame, because the virtuoso talents of the band are largely buried in all of these detours and meanderings, and you begin to wonder what they might be able to accomplish with a little more focus.
About halfway through the record, I could predict with some accuracy what lay in wait, a characterization inconsistent with the expectation that progressive- and art-rock be unpredictable at every turn. It’s all very manic, breaking from fast to less fast and rushing through currents of sound that include both the typical shots of powerful drums and guitars as well as more inventive showings of horns, strings, woodwinds, and piano that seem to run from the free-jazz tradition; there’s even a Middle Eastern aesthetic apparent in the opening parts of “Soothsayer.” The musicianship is often very good, and the efforts to demolish convention are welcomed, but none of it is very interesting or memorable, and it’s hard to appreciate experimentation for the sake of experimentation.
If nothing else, Bixler-Zavala has mastered his screaming falsetto, constantly howling above the layers of instrumentation and at times causing confusion as to whether one is hearing the new Mars Volta or some terrible record by Coheed and Cambria. I often struggled to force the image of that Coheed guy with the infuriatingly long hair out of my mind and back into the pages of Rolling Stone. While I would guess Bixler-Zavala is shouting urgent words that fit into a conceptual story spanning the length of the record, it’s easily lost amidst the myriad structural changes to have any real impact. Indeed, it’s difficult to follow the lyrics across any single track, much less the entire album.
In all, The Bedlam in Goliath is an exhausting and overwhelming effort that fails to leave any tangible impression — it quickly pounds the listener into submission, and for the rest of the album, you simply pass in and out of consciousness before finally coming to once the final polished note has died, recalling only that the experience hasn’t been a pleasant one.