Release Date: Mar 27, 2012
Record label: Warner Bros.
Genre(s): Pop/Rock, Alternative/Indie Rock, Alternative Pop/Rock, Experimental Rock, Neo-Psychedelia
It's been three years since the noisiest little prog-rock band in Texas put out a record, but they haven't been slacking. Their newest is a "future punk" experiment based on a comic-book villain (Solomon Grundy) and a Greek myth (Hyacinthus). Ner-dee! The results send the band's usual tornado time signatures through some serious synth-and-gear grind; "Aegis" suggests Radiohead as emo metal.
I hold a fairly different view of the Mars Volta’s career than most. Fans of the group and the progressive rock community as a whole are generally of the opinion that the band’s first two releases, De-Loused in the Comatorium (2003) and Frances the Mute (2005), are their best ones. The album that gets the least love is their stripped-down 2009 release Octahedron.
The year's most feverishly anticipated musical event – at least for rock fans of the Napster era – is the return of bracing post-hardcore five-piece At the Drive-In. Not a great time, you'd think, for ATDI duo Omar Rodríguez-López and Cedric Bixler-Zavala to release a sprawling, unashamedly proggy concept album with their other band. Still, such is their wont, and those who tough it out will find more to admire in Noctourniquet than its bloody-mindedness.
After a decade on the block, prog rockers the Mars Volta haven't abandoned widdly-widdly guitar solos, Roger Dean-type sleeves or preposterous titles (Molochwalker, anybody?). However, they have suddenly produced a most accessible album. Tracks here recall such unlikely reference points as Blondie's Rapture (Dyslexicon), Cher's Gypsies, Tramps & Thieves (Lapochka), while the curious, reggae-tinged The Malkin Jewel could be a proggier version of Nick Cave's Do You Love Me.
Prog-rock has always had a coolness problem. For every killer lick like Rush’s ”Tom Sawyer,” there are countless bits of solo wankery and unnecessary rhythmic shifts. The Mars Volta recognize this, which is why 2009’s Octahedron found them sanding down some of their rougher edges in favor of smoother songcraft. Their newest includes surprisingly sweet harmonies (”Lapochka”) and dynamic choruses (”Dyslexicon”).
The Mars VoltaNoctourniquet[Warner Bros.; 2012]By Andrew Bailey; March 27, 2012Purchase at: Insound (Vinyl) | Amazon (MP3 & CD) | iTunes | MOGThe Mars Volta are back. Taken in the most literal sense, that is to say the band, fronted by Omar Rodríguez-López and Cedric Bixler-Zavala, have in Noctourniquet their first new album since 2009's Octahedron. But on a figurative level, what Noctourniquet represents is a return to a beloved past.
With all the hubbub surrounding the announcement back in January that afro-punks (afro as in follicles rather than Fela Kuti) At The Drive-In are to reform following ten-odd years of sniping between Cedric Bixler-Zavala, Omar Rodríguez-López and The Other Three, it’s easy to forget it’s coming up to three years since the last album from The Mars Volta. It marks something of a hiatus for dynamic duo Bixler-Zavala and Rodríguez-López’s unashamed prog juggernaut, which had previously racked up five studio albums in seven years (two more than At The Drive-In managed in eight years), in the process becoming the new millennium's multi-headed, revolving door, Ouija board-inspired, incomprehensible song naming, 13-minute latino jazz opus producing monster of choice. However, any of their hardcore following who are anxious this may signal that Cedric and Omar are ready to divert their not inconsiderable energies and inspiration back to their former band should rest easy.
This summer, a new generation of fans will discover the visceral scissor-jab to the senses of a reformed At The Drive-In at a brief series of shows, 11 years after their original implosion. When they call it quits (again), many of those fans will probably be curious as to what Omar Rodríguez-López and Cedric Bixler-Zavala deemed important enough to twice break up the greatest post-hardcore band in history for. Thus, the cycle shall begin anew, and The Mars Volta will confound, delight, infuriate and exasperate a fresh crop of ATD-I initiates.
The Mars Volta have made a career out of creating intricate, highly conceptual music that confounds just as much as it intrigues. The group’s records are usually intended to be examined as a whole rather than on a track-by-tack basis, and they can rarely be properly digested on a first listen. Thus far, the band has been successful at producing some of the most challenging-yet-rewarding albums in recent memory.
Anticipating At the Drive-In’s reunion, it’s best to think about The Mars Volta’s sixth album as a last purge before singer Cedric Bixler-Zavala and guitarist Omar Rodríguez-López rejoin their former band. Or maybe it’s best to not think about it much at all. Like its predecessors, Noctourniquet is a concept album of kitchen-sink noodling and lousy portmanteaus that makes absolutely no sense.
There is something to be said for musicians testing their mettle in a rock arena, jamming out or dueling licks or simply spreading riffs across the grooves of an LP so that we, the fans, the devoted ears, the adulating epitomizers of rock n’ roll worship, can lead better, super-enriched and happy, dappy, little lives. Somewhere along the lines, this wasn’t enough for rock n’ roll. It had to get sophisticated because musicians grew with their instruments and got…well, they got sophisticated, whether you wanted them to or not.
Released just months after Cedric Bixler-Zavala and Omar Rodriguez-Lopez' old band, At the Drive-In, announced they would be getting back together, the pair's sixth studio album as the Mars Volta finds them exploring the esoteric as they continue their journey ever further down the neo-prog rabbit hole. Noctourniquet highlights the more intellectual, esoteric sound the band has championed over the years, but even though the album soars creatively, it feels emotionally restrained. On the opening track, "The Whip Hand," the gradually building song is suddenly hijacked by electronics at the chorus when a droning synth dominates the mix while Bixler-Zavala's processed vocals proclaim, "That's when I disconnect from you," a sentiment that seems to track throughout the album.
Over the course of his 10-year history as engineer of the Grammy-winning prog-rock band The Mars Volta, Omar Rodriguez-López has more than earned his reputation for being a dictatorial mastermind. His ruthless methods — forcing his collaborators (note: not bandmates) to record in isolation, kicking out players by removing their names from press releases — have led to some of the most creative and complex records of the last decade. But his rigid system has also led to inevitable tensions, and things had to change.
The Mars Volta’s first album back after a nearly four year break – especially traumatic for fans given their early prolific recorded output – was always going to court controversy, but it’s almost striking how well this record has been received. The only concerns aired in some corners have focussed on its relative lack of heavy tracks, but whether that has anything to do with At The Drive-In’s reformation remains to be seen; the fact is that The Mars Volta remain a completely different beast. The distinction is usually drawn thus: ATDI were lean, sharp, angular, while TMV are loose and soulful.
This review originally ran in AP 285. The Mars Volta are members of a small yet esteemed echelon: a respected community of rock outfits whose new works—be they stellar or hideous—are always greeted with enthusiasm. Fortunately, Noctourniquet is a great installment to their canon: Frontman Cedric Bixler-Zavala earns his MVP status as the psychic Sherpa negotiating the band’s daring synergy of modern psychedelia (“Empty Vessels Make The Loudest Sound”), disorienting new wave and the tangled weaving of prog-rock and jazz-fusion idioms (“Zed And Two Naughts”).