The Mars Volta Amputecture

[Universal/GSL; 2006]

Styles: post punk, prog
Others: Sparta, At The Drive-In, Queens of the Stone Age, King Crimson

Whenever a band has their neck on the chopping block as often as The Mars Volta, I try to give them — and their work — the benefit of the doubt. Just as with many Joan Of Arc reviews, many accounts of 'da Volta's albums talk about the artists' intentions — using words like "bloated," "self-indulgent," and everyone's favorite, "pretentious" — more than they talk about the music. Hey, it's nice to know that Tim Kinsella loves to fuck with everyone, but could you tell me a little bit about the RECORD? No? Ok, understood ... but surely SOMEONE will plug in their headphones and offer a more detailed explanation for why the artist in question licks godhead style, right?

Well, let's pretend none of the Mars Volta reviews out there exist and start over. Forget about At The Drive-In; they weren't the next Nirvana, they were a more-aggressive Jehu clone that happened to last longer and slightly pierce the mainstream. Then, because they broke up in their prime they joined Botch and others in the Ridiculously Canonized Because They're Gone category. Legendary? Hardly. Enjoyable? You bet! "Napoleon Solo" still gives me a blindsiding, slippy-fisted goose when I hear it. But I've moved on, and so should you; it's like when Small Wonders got canceled. I swore I'd never live or love again, but I soon found a new, even hotter robot girl to fawn over, and the rest is history.

The Mars Volta, for all the teeth marks on their catalogue, are creating new worlds. They are breaking rules, but the indie community refuses to take notice. You'll find many of their latest moves — grotesquely up-front sax solos, long, twisting song structures — on the latest Comets On Fire album, so why do TMV get all the backlash? Why do so few people mention that Cedric Bixler-Zavala has gone from a Zach De La Rocha-plus-two into an even more unpredictable vocalist with amazing range? I'll be honest: I didn't get five minutes through Frances the Mute before I made a raw-lemon sour face and turned it off, making some offhanded remark about how I would melt Close to the Edge and Abraxas together if I wanted to hear a truly affecting Latin-flavored prog album. It blew. It sucked. It vacuumed. It carpet cleaned. But it was different from anything I'd heard that year and still a rung or two above the wanna-prog dingo-rock of Coheed and Cambria.

Amputechture, though not near as spam-handed as Frances, is a bumpy ride, registering somewhere between the latter and debut full-length De-Loused in the Comatorium. It starts quite promisingly, too, "Tetragrammaton" being the best track Volta have managed since Comatorium's "Roullette Dares (The Haunt Of)" or maybe even "Concertina" from the Tremulant EP. The Spanish-sung "Asilos Magdalena" was a big surprise as well, plotting a rift of pitch-bent guitar behind lovely verse by singer Cedric Bixler-Zavala, all of which is eventually infiltrated by a maddening, loopy swirl of more p-bending and effects. And not a single guitar solo!

"Day of the Baphomets" proves to be another hot-dogging boon for awhile, but... [cough-hack-sputter] this is where I start to lose energy and enthusiasm for Amputechture and fall right into the lap of critics I was impuning above. If The Mars Volta want to send me into space, guide me through a haunted house and the drooooopy contortions of a room full of mirrors, there's one condition I must insist on: that it all make sense; that every nuance, notch and dimple exist for a reason. I just can't say that for many of these tracks, "Baphomets" being a prime offender. This is where the traditional arguments make more sense. Sure, you can cram a million different tricks into a song and say, "Look what I can do!" But why? Volta segue into a lovely synth line about halfway through "Baphomets." Soon after, however, the original, less captivating side of the song leaks through and oversoaks the ear, the vocals winding on forever and ever into the unknown like a stairway to heaven.

Too bad: The Mars Volta don't pack enough Led to float their Zeppelin. Omar Rodriguez-Lopez can shred on par with Page, and Bixler-Zavala can pucker his ball sack and hit those super-high registers circa Plant, but they're too busy trying to show us what they can do, and what's more, to show us that they can get away with doing it. AND THAT'S WHY TMV PISS ME OFF. I spent this entire review trying to be the one that understands them, and they force me to be a fence-rider, both happy and confused by their so-artsy-it's-almost-beyond-art art. Both extremes are so... extreme that I end up somewhere in the middle. I respect their enthusiasm, prolificity (didn't Frances the Mute come out like, last year?) and skills, but I loathe their instincts in many cases. Snap, maybe it's time my At The Drive-In phase acquired a second wind.

1. Vicarious Atonement
2. Tetragrammaton
3. Vermicide
4. Meccamputechture
5. Asilos Magdalena
6. Viscera Eyes
7. Day of the Baphomets
8. El Ciervo Vulnerado

Most Read