The Mars Volta Octahedron

[Universal; 2009]

Styles: prog-rock interpreted by indie-rockers with big budgets
Others: Omar Rodriguez-Lopez, El Groupo Neuvo, De Facto, At The Drive-In, Sparta… (Coheed and Cambria?)

Even if you didn’t have an opinion about Omar Rodriguez-Lopez and Cedric Bixler-Zavala before they started The Mars Volta, you definitely have one now. Maybe you think they’re the best thing that’s ever happened to you; maybe you hate their hairy, haughty jams; maybe you even think they’re a couple. (Rodriguez-Lopez assured me during an interview that this was a persistent rumor when At The Drive-In broke up.) But no matter what your opinion is, you can’t deny one thing: their Vision. You might not know what it consists of or what it is supposed to accomplish, and to many their Vision constitutes ruining modern rock music with unnecessary syllables and month-long codas, but it’s there.

If you choose not to see it, that’s on you. I, for one, have located and lost Mars Volta more times than I care to admit, and I find the ensemble overall to be very, very effective at bringing out the absolute worst in reviewers and the music press in general, which is an odd skill to possess. Worst of all for my purposes, a lot of my waffling per Mars Volta has appeared in print. I loved De-Loused in the Comatorium (and should have purchased about a dozen copies of the vinyl version). Frances the Mute, I felt, was a worthy exploration, but nearly impossible to listen to, while third effort Amputechture sorta fell in the middle.

Bedlam in Goliath, 2008’s monstrous cleanup hitter album for the Volta, is where the zaniness of O R-L and C B-Z’s aforementioned Vision finally came close to matching the enthralling output of Rodriguez-Lopez’ solo/side-projects. To me, Goliath was the first time the puzzle pieces all fit together, the first time the unit fired on all cylinders where composing is concerned. As always, there were childish, free-form squiggles galore, but there were also ghostly choir chants, a nutty orchestral track included on a ouija-pointer 7-inch (which I refuse to play in the dark after a scary late-night experience), and many other elements that rendered Goliath’s contents a lot more satisfying and warm — an adjective never, ever directed at their music — than what preceded it, save possibly De-Loused.

Now, in 2009, The Mars Volta follow Goliath with what may be the toughest pill for their fans to swallow: restraint. Ahhh, yes, you heard the rumors and read the blog posts about an “acoustic” Mars Volta album, and now, by god, here it is, blushing in front of the cameras and using the back entrance to your brain rather than the neon signage of the front. And if you think The Mars Volta are over-calculated to a fault, this will be your ultimate victory, because Octahedron is about as self-conscious as it gets. I’m not going to try to get into the heads of Volta’s principle players, but if one were going to write and produce an album strictly to answer the bitter clucks of brain-dead critics, this would be it. Octahedron has so few of the signifiers found in old material that it’s almost like the first chapter in a new book, the opening day of a new season, or the initial thrust of a foreign fuck.

What surprises is how satisfying it is to hear The Mars Volta bend to tradition. It’s almost as if they were afraid to strip themselves this bare for fear that their insurmountable skills wouldn’t be noticed, but far from coming off as a Big Dumb gesture to mollify the plebeians, Octahedron simply presents itself as the result of a band getting back to (or, in this case, visiting for the first time) the beautiful basics.

Even more shocking is how much harder the heavy stuff hits when it’s (a) surrounded by the glow of acoustic guitars, (b) only rendered when it needs to be rendered, and (c) not so strangely predictable. Crunchier tracks like “Cotopaxi” and “Desperate Graves” benefit so much from the presence of the syrupy ballads that it makes you wonder what Frances or Amputechture would have been like with more séances and less spectacular car-flying-off-cliff crashes and dives.

Rodriguez-Lopez and Bixler-Zavala also seem more content to let their songs be, for christ’s sake. Rather than start with a good idea and expand it into some strange sort of technicolor opera for Yes fansite moderators with no end in sight, the duo start with a good idea and stay with it until its completion. It sounds like a simple artistic process, but for a group that launches itself so far into the stratosphere as a matter of course, it amounts to a giant step forward in maturity. Even the lyrics, which in the past have allowed so many former-English-major critics to scoff simply because of the cryptic nature of the words, are a bit less oblique. Lines like "Let the wheels burn/ Let the wheels burn/ Stack the tires to the neck/ With the bodies inside" might not be a reference to atrocities in Africa — wherein officials put flaming tires around the necks of dissentors — but they point to a writer less guided by vagaries and more compelled to share his actual, concrete thoughts.

Again, this would be a small step for any other band, but for the Volta, it’s nothing short of a quantum leap. You can hear it in “Since We’ve Been Wrong,” the newfound confidence in composition over flat-out technicality, and it continues through the trepidant “Teflon,” the measured “Halo of Nembutals,” the mellow-but-portentous-of-bad-things-to-come “With Twilight as My Guide,” and right through to also-ballad “Copernicus” and album swan song “Luciforms.”

Octahedron isn’t a representation of the best The Mars Volta are capable of, but it is a glimpse into the power they possess when they better harness their capabilities.

1. Since We've Been Wrong
2. Teflon
3. Halo of Nembutals
4. With Twilight as My Guide
5. Cotopaxi
6. Desperate Graves
7. Copernicus
8. Luciforms

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