In the grand tradition of too-clever-by-half music categorisation by media critics, I hereby label the oeuvre of The Mars Volta “hard rock sci-fi flamenco”. Their music in some respects make that of fellow rock melodramatists Muse seem subtle, and Pink Floyd’s work seem like mainstream four minute pub rock fare. Main protagonists Cedric Bixler-Zavala and Omar Rodríguez-López combine often non-sensical or incomprehensible lyrics with a maelstrom of instrumental riffing, with the resulting “song fragments” intertwining and interconnecting in a strangely symphonic way. Needless to say, the band is a love them or hate them proposition. My own view on them falls into the former category.
Fortunately for myself and others who like the band, they are reasonably prolific. Their albums tend to revolve around some sort of vaguely comprehensible conceptual theme, although the average listener (and perhaps even the diehard fan) may not even know what that is for any of their given albums. Their latest effort, The Bedlam in Goliath, polarises like every one of their previous releases. The album got one star out of five in the Guardian. Pitchfork’s Ian Cohen gave it a 4.3 out of 10, observing quite correctly that the Volta’s back catalogue contains “an astronomical risk/reward potential”, and making the following prescient observation:
Few bands in popular modern rock share their technical prowess, super-adventurous listening habits, or K2 conquering ambition. If they could somehow manage to channel all of it into something other than a tribute to their own excess, even we believe it would probably be totally fucking awesome.
Indeed. Fortunately, at least in my view, there are always segments in any Mars Volta album that more than justify the band’s less listenable voyages into alien masturbation territory. Their latest effort is no different in this respect. First track Aberinkula does little to welcome first time listeners to the mix, launching from the first microsecond into a barrage of Cedric Bixler-Zavala’s insectoid howling and a seemingly discombobulated barrage of noise. Gradually the track changes direction and turns down the intensity, flowing without interruption into the stunningly catchy second track Metatron. So much of the band’s most memorable pieces and movements revolve around the music coming back in from “the cold” after an extended experimental passage, into a rousing chorus and intense backing from the band.
Ilyena opens with Bixler-Zavala reading a sing-song poem in a suitable alien voice, before cutting loose into another fine barrage of fairly mainstream but always interesting pop-rock noodling. Wax Simulcra is from a similar school, although this time with the lead singer’s voice in high-pitched insect mode, laid over the top of some heavy riffing. Goliath is the album’s most simplistic rock moment, kicking off with an almighty wah-wah riff that continues throughout the song, followed by Tourniquet Man, a Pink Floydian ballad if ever there was one. The first half of this album has, in short, enough gold in it to force a smile on to anybody’s face from time to time.
The second half is somewhat more obtuse. Cavalettas is raucously quick-paced and resists attempts for the band to reel it in. Agadez ventures into the peculiarly psychological, and Askepios forms more of a link in the chain in this album than an actual song. A decidedly mixed bag makes up the rest of the album. Ourobouros has an urgent and compelling refrain, and Soothsayer introduces a taste of Mediterranean mysticism to the mix. Conjugal Burns, concluding the album, manages to be as dark and twisted as the name of the song suggests it might be, as Bixler-Zavala rants, howls and croons his way through the track. Like many Mars Volta cuts, this final one seems to contain about ten or eleven crudely yet cleverly woven track threads within it. Like so many of their tracks, some of them (and more often than not, most of them) are pretty damned awesome.
This is probably not the album to start with for someone just starting to explore this band’s work, but if you liked their previous work, you will like this one as well.