If you’re unfamiliar with the The Mars Volta, one of the ways to describe them is as a band that managed to change public perception of ‘Prog Rock’ being considered incredibly uncool by bringing in a ton of unbridled energy along with crazy song structures.
Destroying and rewriting the rulebook with their debut ‘Deloused in the Comatorium’, they featured a unique combo of wavering synths, pulsating ambience and frenetic guitar riffs that would make the biggest Metal heads nod their heads in appreciation. For the second studio album ‘Frances the Mute’, Omar and Co took the formula from ‘Deloused’ and turned it into an over-arching prog-epic concept album. However apart from album single “The Widow” many of the songs often seemed erratic to the point of being a drag to listen to, that’s not to say they weren’t good, but there’s a good bet that most people would not want to devote half an hour to ‘Cassandra Gemini’. Their third studio venture ‘Amputechture’ moved away from the concept album idea and went back to songs being more self-contained.
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The Volta had always been tight with the Chilli peppers, Flea having filled in on Bass for much of Deloused. The fact that John Frusciante played most of the guitar on this album is evident from the first track ‘Vicarious Atonement’. Bluesy bends with fast flurry of notes and pentatonic scale noodling give this a laid back, more standard song feel than we’re used to from the Volta. You’d be forgiven for thinking you’d popped in a Led Zeppelin CD by accident. However a discordant saxophone slowly creeps back in over the dual timbre of ambient synth and Cedrics hazy vocals, which throw the listener straight back into what we know best with the second track.
16 minute epic ‘Tetragrammaton’ explodes back into familiar noise-scapes that were so prominent on Frances and Deloused, a winding guitar riff bigger than anything you’d hear from any modern rock band. This may have been drummer Jon Theodores last venture with the Volta, but the way he hit the skins and added to the overall composure was phenomenal. The first of three tracks on this album over 10 minutes long, we are reminded of the bands penchant for glorified and self-indulgent song names and themes. One thing this record does best in comparison to ‘Deloused’ or ‘Frances’, is that although the songs are on average longer than your average radio rock song, all the pieces are extremely rewarding to listen to as a whole, even with the musical indulgence. For example a quiet refrain is played with slowly rung out single notes, then a hair-raising bassline is played just before it kicks straight back into manic shredding and a chorus that is catchy despite the bizarre lyrics (‘You locked the cuffs/Arsenic erupts/Will you drink the shadow/Of my red hair’} every aspect fits perfectly within the whole journey of the song. It is grandiose and over the top, but brilliant.
The chilling and naturistic chirps of ‘Vermicide’ then come into play, featuring hooks you may find within a mainstream pop song and key changes with the odd vocal effect thrown in for good measure. The chorus is extremely catchy and yet again there is something to be said for Cedrics ability to make what shouldn’t be extremely catchy. (‘Bare them/Sevens/ Three to a pall/Marks the /Venom /Lush and terminal’) The refrain then goes back in swirling synths while Baxlar Zivalas hushed spoken word undergoes a slightly demonic transformation, before throwing the listener back into another Hendrix-esque finger-burning guitar solo.
However this is only the first 25 minutes of the album, and there’s still roughly 50 left to go. ‘Mecchamputechture’ comes in next with bizarre backing vocals and another meandering riff, taking you on a journey of modulated guitar tones and lyrics about dismantling limbs. Then comes ‘Viscera Eyes’ which must contain one of the most underrated yet classic riffs ever written. Doused in Spanish vibes throughout, this is one of the most well-crafted songs on the album. The guitar work contains many intricacies, which lead on from one another incredibly organically, and all serve to punctuate Cedrics’ powerful lyrics. With as much packed into the song as it is, it does not get old at all. Around the 6-minute mark, a powerful and brooding change takes place, with the bass going crazy and many crazy Hendrix-sque bends build up to what is an amazing rock outro reminiscent of ‘Stairway to Heaven’ but 20 times more explosive.
This may be up there as Voltas most diverse album, as next comes in Asilos Magdelana with a shimmering intro, acoustic guitar strumming in the background as an almost eerie siren call. This is probably one of the most beautiful moments in The Mars Voltas’ career. For a band who’s known for making a lot of noise, they show that they definitely know how to craft an intimate track. This is before penultimate track ‘Day of the Baphomets’. A noise collage comprised of wind sounds, maracas and crazy saxophone solos blow the listener out of the water and show us that even the Volta can surprise us with stuff that isn’t strictly ambience or Wah-pedal soloing (although there is quite a bit of that)
Many people may write off this album and The Mars Volta in general as too self-indulgent, but Omar and Cedric described it as being the way it is because they “get bored” really easily, and enjoy combining different aspects of music and seeing what results come out. It has definitely been dipped and left for several hours within the melting pot of Cedric and Omars various influences garnered over the years, including Hardcore, Funk, Improv, Latin and Dub.
That’s one of the strongest points of this album, that amidst all the chaos, strange turns and staggering crescendos built up, there are true moments of catchy and legendary musical brilliance, clearly influenced by greats like Hendrix and Plant. Being sandwiched between the tumultuous rhythms and ridiculous melodies, after a while you truly learn to appreciate it all. Furthermore their last two releases since, Octohedron and Noctourniquet seemed to lose the sense of intrigue and dynamism that was so present on their earlier releases and feel dated, whereas Amputechture still contends and sits very comfortably, both in technicality and scope, when put next to any style of music that can be deemed “Progressive” today. If you want to hear the afro’d duo in the zone, look not further.