The female breast as cultural icon

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Have you watched any “critically acclaimed” television lately? Whether we‘re talking Game of Thrones, Boardwalk Empire, The Sopranos, or even Australia’s very own Underbelly, chances are that your serious drama would have been served up with a handsome dollop of bare flesh. Increasingly, in the U.S. liberal dominated entertainment industry, this is apparently what “cutting-edge” has come to mean; shocking conservative audiences, challenging taboos and going to all the young audience-garnering places where “adult” television programs dare go – always, of course, in humble [cough] service [cough] to the plot. A flash of boobs or a sex sequence has seemingly become the television writer or director’s “filler du jour”, should the creative team’s reservoir of intelligent dialogue and plot be running a little dry. If this modern trend develops toward its logical conclusion, it can’t be too long before the likes of Julianna Marguilies and Sandra Oh are forced to formally compete directly with Christina Hendricks’ or Paz de la Huerta’s breasts for the Outstanding Supporting Actress nomination at the Emmys.

As a society, we are indisputably obsessed with breasts. Men are obsessed with them for well, visceral reasons, aided and abetted by their rampant sexualisation by the mass media. Women, in turn, have been driven to obsess about their own; whether they are too big, too small, whether or not this top flatters them, whether or not they can fit comfortably into that swimsuit. Bigger, women are meant to believe, is always better, regardless of any sense of anatomical proportion or optimal biomechanics. As Florence Williams notes in The Guardian, this year marks the 50th anniversary of the first silicone implant surgery in Houston, Texas with breast enhancement surgery emerging in the last couple of decades as a multi-billion dollar industry. This is no fetish kicking about the margins of society: this is front-and-centre stuff from which a few people are getting absurdly rich and many women are being made to feel utterly miserable.

Cultural reference points abound. Since November 1970, popular UK tabloid newspaper The Sun has published a photo of a topless model on Page 3, and continues to dismiss its critics as wowsers, puritanical killjoys, or slaves to political correctness. Strangely, it continues to count many women amongst its loyal readers, no doubt for its peerless commitment to cerebral investigative journalism [cough]. The primacy of the music video in modern pop music has proved telling; for women, it is probably more important today to have good hair, a chunky rear and a bounteous and oft-exposed chest than one or two catchy saccharine tunes in your locker. Janet Jackson’s infamous “wardrobe malfunction” during the Super Bowl halftime show in 2004 might well represent the most iconic cultural moment of the 2000’s, in direct contrast to its actual significance. Madonna revealing a nipple during a recent concert in Istanbul passes for front-page news for some publications and websites. Genres whose traditional target market is the teenage male are particularly afflicted; as Charlie Brooker acerbically observes, basically every female video game character in the history of video games has been a scantily-clad 16DD. Damien Walter’s recent Guardian column dwells in part on the fantasy genre and the popularity of the previously mentioned Game of Thrones, but also on the absurd depictions of women that we have come to expect from comic-books – check out these two brilliant links for some examples.

I am not sure how the needs of young and/or hormonal men came to be the primary force shaping the public conceptualisation of “the woman” in the 21st century (though the answer for some will be “the patriarchy!”). I also don’t know how “the woman” can be re-made to reject superficiality and to reflect the legion of distinctive characteristics and qualities that women so often seem to offer and men so often seem to lack. The plump, jutting breast has been so thoroughly sexualised by the mass media and men that it has been transformed from a humble gland into an aspirational ideal for girls and women of all ages. That’s really very sad for everyone – besides, of course, those teenage boys.

Muse, The Resistance

Over three years (has it really been three years?) after the release of their previous blockbuster Black Holes and Revelations album, Muse finally released a follow-up last week: The Resistance.

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These days, I am not that sure Muse release albums anymore; they release bombastic dystopias. This new album does not pack as much pop-rock punch as its predecessor, but it does pump the Winston Smith factor to a new degree of incredulousness. Opening track and first single Uprising sounds like a Dr. Who theme remix in the hands of Queen, and The Resistance aims to continue the program, with its head so thoroughly on another planet that the naff lyrics don’t bite as hard as they should do. Undisclosed Desires is the change of pace dance track sitting in the same album position as Supermassive Black Hole was on the last album, and probably won’t do as well, but still showcases the band’s absurd range.

The fourth track on the album and arguably its crowning glory in all its blunder is United States of Eurasia, ostensibly a new national anthem for Orwell and Huxley’s brave new world. A massive string section provides a backdrop of pomp and clever middle eastern motifs to Bellamy’s vainglorious warbling. From there the band launches into Guiding Light, a mid-range power ballad with a wink and a nod to the previous album’s epic Invincible. Unnatural Selection and MK Ultra reignite the band’s cyber rock tendencies, but its fair to say that these two tracks are not as incendiary as the middle section of their last work.

The latter portion of the album is indeed strange – on the one hand there is I Belong To You, in which Matt Bellamy attempts to lead the band on an oddly out of place Jackson 5-like romp. The final triplet of tracks, the “Exogenesis Symphony”, allow Matt Bellamy the freedom to exercise his maniacal self-indulgence, backed by a grand series of orchestral string movements. Its all a bit more grandiose than it is cathartic, and although the album is tied off nicely, one is left feeling a little unsatisfied.

If you thought Black Holes and Revelations was unbearably over-the-top, you won’t like The Resistance one little bit. On the other hand, if you are willing take your disbelief out behind a back shed somewhere and shoot it (repeatedly) dead, you might get quite a bit of bemused mileage out of this album.

ELSEWHERE: Pitchfork predictably pan it (5.9/10), The Guardian gives it 4/5 stars.

Not invincible, but indelible

And so, as every media outlet across the globe has been blanket reporting for the last hundred hours straight, the King of Pop is dead. I suppose rationally speaking we shouldn’t be that surprised, given all he has been through and his legion of rumored health and drug issues, but the news still came as a shock last Friday morning. Even in spite of his last, horribly wasted decade, the bright lights of his prodigious talent managed to touch arguably more people during his lifetime than just about anyone else in modern entertainment history. He certainly has a rightful claim to be one of the three most significant acts in popular music in the twentieth century, alongside Elvis Presley and The Beatles. The word ‘iconic’ is thrown about loosely in this modern hyperbolic world, but Michael Jackson was, regardless of all his faults and absurdities, an iconic figure.

Jackson’s body of work and the sheer ubiquity of his contribution to pop music have ensured that he will be remembered for his talent first, and his history of scandal second. This is exemplified by the similarities in affect of the media’s treatment of Jackson’s death to that of Princess Diana’s. Strangely enough, both figures, in death, seem to enjoy similar levels of reverence in the public eye. There will no doubt be a lot of people all over the world who will always remember where they were when they heard the bad news. I was just about to start eating breakfast at home on Friday when the story started breaking across morning television. I don’t own a single Michael Jackson record right now, but Friday still felt like a bit of a bad dream.

I am a “rock” person, but there was still never any avoiding Michael Jackson.

There was a copy of Thriller in my household growing up, and of course as a card-carrying member of the music television generation, I was exposed to the title track’s magic at a young age. Weird Al Yankovic’s “Fat” and “Eat It” served as humorous lead-ins, growing up, to Jackson’s Bad album. I can recall playing as Michael Jackson in the Moonwalker game on the Sega Megadrive at some stage as a young adolescent, and indeed, generating a lot of static electricity but very little result whilst attempting to moonwalk on the carpet of the family home. I bought a copy of Dangerous on cassette tape, and was astounded at the cutting edge video clip cuts from that album, and intrigued that someone like Slash would collaborate with Michael Jackson (or maybe that someone like MJ would work with Slash). Jackson’s 1995 collaboration with his sister Janet, Scream, was as cool a tune and music video as anything he has ever done. Indeed, even the HIStory misfire included some worthwhile cuts, including quite a cool reading of The Beatles’ Come Together.

So, yes, he was a cartoon character; a garishly distorted caricature of his former glory by the end. But maybe that’s just what makes his passing so ultimately affecting… cartoon characters shouldn’t be able to die, just like that. Especially not characters with the whiz-bang genius of Michael Jackson.

Bloc Party, Intimacy

This third long-play effort from British band Bloc Party was released in Australia last Saturday, despite being released as a download over the Internet over two months ago. I have been a fan of the band since travelling to London last year and picking up their first and second albums, the critically acclaimed Silent Alarm and the less well received A Weekend in the City. This latest effort from the band seems to have garnered some fairly mixed reviews – not entirely unexpectedly given the fact that it does take their sound in a decidedly more electronic direction.

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It’s probably fair to say that most people who do like Bloc Party like them for the band’s angular guitar lines and somewhat dance-oriented rhythm section. Kele Okereke’s vocals can be somewhat polarising, and in a lot of the band’s best cuts his voice is used more like an instrument than as the fulcrum of the music. Intimacy for me is an interesting record because the angular guitar lines, if not quite removed altogether, are not the focus of this record. Okereke’s vocals also take a bit more of centre-stage than on previous albums. To complicate things further, this is something of a concept album, focusing pretty squarely on sexuality, love and relationships. Ares opens the album in a fairly nerve-jangling matter, with spitting drums, buzzsaw guitars, and a call and response vocal performance from Okereke that clearly has been cut and spliced around quite a bit. It is followed by Mercury, the first single, which with its repetitive lyrics and drum and bass orientation, exemplifies the polarisation that Intimacy presents to the listener. It is very much a song of these times, as these lyrics indicate:

This is not the time, the time to start a new love
This is not the time, the time to sign a lease
Try not to worry about what’s forgotten
Try not to worry about what’s being missed

Scars on my shins, scars on my knuckles
Today I woke up in the basketball court
JohnJo’s in Sydney and he ain’t returning
I’m sitting in Soho trying to stay drunk

Squalling horns invade the track towards the end, and it is at this point that you realise that Mercury is Bloc Party’s answer to Radiohead’s The National Anthem. Next off the line is a straight ahead rocker, Halo, running along at a rate of knots that is almost difficult to follow. It is almost as if the band are making up for the lack of rock to follow by compacting it all into this single track. Biko is a gentle, touching ballad in which Okerekes’s vocal performance takes central stage, lamenting the passing of a cancer victim.

We then return to another stinging, distorted rock track, Trojan Horse – for my money one of the album’s weakest tracks. From there on in, though, things improve markedly. The gentle xylophones of Signs recall Sigur Ros, and Okereke’s vocal performance is right on the money. One Month Off is a shining example of what the band does best – jagged rock with some sharp, repetitive riffing and a catchy chorus. Zephyrus is an indicator of where the band might head next – a bold electronic masterpiece that features Okereke backed only by electronic beats and as the track progresses, a stunning choir.

Ninth track Talons had an interesting genesis in the context of this album – it was not part of the original electronic release and was evidently added into the physical album release last week. It is a good thing it was – as it is a great cut, and of all the tracks on Intimacy, this is the one that has “hit” stamped on it the most. It seems made for inclusion on a Bond soundtrack. It is followed by Better Than Heaven, a somewhat off-beat, part-electronic track that once again puts Okereke at the centre of the action. The album concludes with Ion Square, a track that slowly builds towards an upbeat, synthesised squall of noise, based in part on E. E. Cummings’ poem I Carry Your Heart With Me.

The consensus of the reviews of this album that I have read so far is that it is a middling album at best. On this score I have to disagree – Intimacy is one of those albums that manages somehow to be more than the sum of its parts. It experiments (Zephyrus, Ares), throws up some interestingly edgy lyrics from time to time (check Ion Square), and it also, through tracks like One Month Off and Talons, deliver some catchy rock. I am not sure that all of what the band tries works here, but it’s great to hear a band mixing it up a bit, taking risks and at the end of the day, pretty well much succeeding.

Augie March, Watch Me Disappear

The enigmatic five-piece band from Shepparton hit pay dirt with their last album, Moo, You Bloody Choir, achieving airplay on radio stations they never would have thought possible before, and widespread recognition and acclaim. It must have been a fairly daunting task fronting up to deliver this fourth long play effort, Watch Me Disappear, which hit stores last week. Fans of their previous album with its breakthrough single One Crowded Hour will no doubt be looking for something of a continuation of Augie’s wordy folk rock vitality. Long time fans of the band will probably be wondering if the time has come for Augie March to sell out and go all pop rock on them. My initial feeling is that it is the latter group of fans who will be most satisfied by this album.


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The album opens with its two most accessible (and possibly most winning?) tracks, the cool and aloof Watch Me Disappear, which was released as a preview track over a month ago, and Pennywhistle, the first official single from the album. Pennywhistle is quite simply a great deal of well-crafted fun, replete with the obligatory whistling and a jauntiness reminiscent of Heartbeat and Sails. These two tracks are followed by another track with quite a bit of a hook, the somewhat eerie Becoming Bryn

And if you see me rising up through the floor
with unblinking eyes
Run run run run run

From there on in, at least for me, the album gets caught up in a bit of mid-tempo sameness. City of Rescue is a short folksy burst that doesn’t seem to quite fit in with the rest of the album, and Farmer’s Son is an all too smooth identikit single. The fairly gripping subject matter (reportedly inspired by recent muggings / attacks on a couple of band members) in Mugged by the Mob probably saves the track, a mid-tempo slowburner infused with horns and backed with some elegant keyboards:

You see them walk the streets in packs
Like so many chimpanzees,
Those mental amputees,
No culture only liberties.

The Slant is a sleepy nursery rhyme of a song, and is followed by The Glenorchy Bunyip, a colonial stomper that many people have already compared to This Train Will Be Taking No Passengers. Like that track, this one that will no doubt only reveal its true value when played live, with the band given the opportunity to boil over and really shine. Dogsday takes the listener back to easy listening territory, before the circuitous melody of Lupus gets the band rocking out gently again, another of the album’s highlights. The album draws to a close with some more eccentricity, the charming keyboard-driven pomp of The Devil In Me, infused with strings and backed with a choir including the likes of Dan Luscombe and Dan Kelly.

Although you will want to hear this album again once you have finished listening to it the first time, I honestly don’t believe this album fits together as well or has as many golden musical moments as the band’s previous album. In short, I am a little disappointed with Watch Me Disappear. Perhaps the album’s charms will reveal themselves more with time, but for now, at least, this album feels a bit suffocated by its own moderation for me.

Seven Song Audio Meme

I am only about a month and a half late, but back in early August I was tagged by Oz over at Decomposing Trees with this meme:

List seven songs you are into right now. No matter what the genre, whether they have words, or even if they’re not any good, but they must be songs you’re really enjoying now, shaping your spring. Post these instructions in your blog along with your 7 songs. Then tag 7 other people to see what they’re listening to.

I am going to decline to tag seven people to pass the meme on to, but if you’re reading this and interested, please accept this as an invitation. Anyway, here are my seven songs:

Bloc Party – Mercury YouTube
I first heard this track when I saw Bloc Party open their set with it at the Hydro Connect Festival last month. It’s a great track – loads of energy – and despite the fact I have heard it exactly once, it has burrowed its way firmly into my head.

Sigur Ros – Gobbledigook Video – Not Safe for Work!
The opening track of the increasingly iconic Icelandic band’s latest album, this song is quite simply the sound of pure joy. An very interesting diversion from the band’s trademark slow-building crescendos.

Youth Group – In My Dreams
One of the standout tracks from Youth Group’s recently released follow-up to their breakthrough Casino Twilight Dogs album, The Night Is Ours. Some great pics and a link to the first single from the new album over at Boudist.

John Butler Trio – Peaches and Cream
I have an extremely limited CD collection to draw upon in my car currently, and one of the few CDs I have is JBT’s ragingly successful Sunrise Over Sea. Is there anything like driving through the gumtree-smattered suburban roads of Sydney with some authentically Australian music playing in the background?

Green Day – Wake Me Up When September Ends YouTube
Again this track reflects the current limitations of my CD collection, but in the very least it is pretty topical, and Green Day must be given plaudits for somehow remaining “cool” for over 15 years.

Augie March – Watch Me Disappear
The title track from Augie March’s forthcoming fourth album, which will be released on October 11th. One of my favourite bands, and I am looking forward to seeing them live again in either Sydney or Melbourne. Tour dates here. You can hear two tracks from the new album from their MySpace page.

Manic Street Preachers – Your Love Alone Is Not Enough YouTube
Another highlight of the Hydro Connect Festival, the Manics have had a mixed record in recent years, but there is certainly something to like about this single from their latest album.

Hydro Connect Festival 2008

I’m back in Sydney now after a long and thoroughly enjoyable month of travel throughout August. I am not too sure what is going on with the weather at the moment, but the London-like conditions in Sydney are quite frankly unacceptable.

One of the things that I did manage to get along to during August was the Hydro Connect Festival, which was held over the last weekend of the month at Inveraray in Western Scotland. The weather there was not much chop either, but to be honest the rain did not really ensue during the performances of most of the headline acts, so all was well that ended well. Despite gumboots becoming obligatory by the second day of the festival due to the rain and 20,000 people tromping across the grounds, it was certainly the best festival I have ever had the pleasure of attending.

The festival highlights for me were performances from Mercury Rev, Bloc Party and the inimitable Sigur Ros, whose bombast knows no equal. I also managed to catch Ladytron, Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks, Noah & The Whale, the Manic Street Preachers, Gomez, Conor Oberst and the Mystic Valley Band, Spiritualised, Michael Franti & Spearhead, Grinderman, Goldfrapp, Elbow and Franz Ferdinand over the course of the long weekend. Needless to say, it was great!

Some pictures below:

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Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks. Had never seen Malkmus before live so this was a treat. They played a solid set, although nothing I was familiar with. I have his self-titled album, but none of his albums recorded with the Jicks.



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Mercury Rev closed out the Friday night of the festival for us and they were excellent, as usual. The band really has a flair for theatrics and know how to make an impact visually and sonically live.



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Nick Cave heads Grinderman, his “rock” outfit with which he has recorded an album and is in the midst of recording a second. Warren Ellis was free to cut sick to an even greater extent than usual as Nick;s right-hand man, and the band had the audience in thrall.



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Bloc Party closed out Saturday night and were awesome – probably the pick of the festival for me. All the band’s best tracks were played along with two encores (the second quite unexpected), and track Flux off A Weekend In The City was accompanied by a very cool laser show.



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Sigur Ros as always put on a great show on Sunday night before the headliners – including a horn section in Scottish apparel.



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Sigur Ros.



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Franz Ferdinand closed out the night and the festival with a pretty tight set. They probably suffered a bit by comparison with Sigur Ros’ immediately preceding epic set, but of course the predominantly Scottish crowd went nuts. A number of tracks from the band’s forthcoming third album were given a run, getting something of a mixed reception.

Portishead, Third

I had not previously explored the work of Portishead prior to their recent second coming, so I was a bit unsure of what to expect. When I picked up their new album last week, I was genuinely surprised. Thinking about the gamut of music I have listened to over the last decade, I don’t think I have come across a sound that is quite as bleak and confining –and yet beautiful – as that produced by Portishead on this new album. While I don’t want to put folks off, I am tempted to describe this album as utter depression in musical form. 

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The first track Silence has a strong and compelling groove and is probably the most up-tempo track on the album. I am sure you could dance to parts of it, but one would have to wonder at what sort of party revellers would gyrate to Beth Gibbons’ pained and cracking wailings. Her voice is truly rare; so fragile and so emotionally expressive. On this album, at least, the emotions Gibbons expresses are almost exclusively negative and oppressive, to the point where it can be honestly hard to listen to. Even still, you will want to listen to it again, because the quality of the music and the production is so accomplished.

The band does occasionally quite strongly recall some of their rainy day peers. The elongated arpeggio that concludes Hunter seems very reminiscent to me of a similar line from Radiohead’s Hail to the Thief – I would have to listen to that album again to put my finger on which track I am thinking of. The thumping beat that kicks off Nylon Smile again sounds like one of the celebrated b-sides released from Radiohead’s Kid A / Amnesiac sessions. The Rip has a bleakly stunning and anthemic transition mid track that recalls the best of bands like Sigur Ros and Godspeed You Black Emperor!, albeit with a more concertedly electronic mien. We Carry On and Machine Gun get all dark and industrial, punctuated by pulsing electronic beats. Neither track is recommended if you have a headache.

Penultimate track Magic Doors is one of the album’s standouts, an easy to empathise with lament with a middle-eastern twang. Threads picks up where the previous track left off, with the following somewhat less than uplifting chorus:

I’m worn, tired of my mind
I’m worn out, thinking of why
I’m always so unsure

I am not sure that the places that Portishead takes you are places you want to stay in very long, but I do think they are places worth visiting. Just don’t ruminate.

UPDATE: The Radiohead track I am thinking of is Sail to the Moon. Can anyone else who has heard both tracks confirm I am not losing the plot?

Bloc Party, A Weekend in the City

I have been aware of Bloc Party and the odd one of their bigger singles for a while now, but it was only late last year that I finally clambered clumsily onboard their bandwagon and got a copy of their debut, Silent Alarm. Suitably impressed, I’ve recently got my hands on a copy of their second album, A Weekend in the City, produced by Jacknife Lee. They are an interesting band, and their music seems to somehow combine cohesively a fairly broad sweep of elements from a number of other popular modern bands. Jagged guitar riffs ala Franz Ferdinand? Check. Electronic dabbling ala Radiohead on one of their more “rock” days out? Check. Rock anthems not dissimilar to that which U2 once dished out on a regular basis? Check.


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Song for Clay (Disappear Here) kicks off the album in a relatively sedate fashion, at least until just over a minute in, when the anticipated guitar riffs are unleashed, backed by some fairly urgent percussion. The third single released from the album Hunting For Witches kicks off next, with another urgent rhythm, and a spidery arpeggio repeating throughout the track. Third track Waiting for the 7:18 is one of my favourite tracks on the album, nostalgia-drenched and effortlessly building up towards a fairly anthemic climax. The track does manage to capture some of the existential sentiments that one can’t help feeling as a seemingly perpetually busy Londoner.

The Prayer was a bit of an odd track to pick as the first single off the album, for mine. Although I don’t mind it, it probably wouldn’t be in the first three tracks I would release as singles from this album. It’s a bit too discombobulated and seems held back some how by the juddering verses. Uniform poses as a ballad until about halfway through the track, when the pace picks up abruptly and the band adds some backing vocals that quite memorably, recall the voice of Soundwave from the Transformers cartoon series. I still can’t decide if it is a cool effect or naff, but more inclined to think the latter. On and Where Is Home> delve into a bit more studio trickery. On, unlike the previous track, really is a ballad, and quite a pretty one at that.Kreuzberg is a pretty track that quite strongly recalls colleagues Coldplay with its softly-softly approach and icily chiming guitars, followed by anthemic single I Still Remember, which but for the occasional dubious lyric, can not be that far off being the perfect pop-rock single. Lightweight, but brilliant.

Fourth single Flux is the closest thing to dance music on the album, driven by an electronic beat, with lead-singer Kele Okereke’s vocals distorted in accordance with the stereotypical rave track textbook. The album finishes with more of a whimper than a bang, with Sunday managing to be quite pretty without being particularly memorable, and SRXT droning on a bit, before surging towards an unexpectedly anthemic climax, with the band in full hair rock mode and what sounds like a choir in the background. A strange end, to be sure.

All in all this is quite a decent album, although I am not sure it warrants the accolades of the band’s debut. There are quite a few moments of brilliance on here, but they are surrounded in a bit of a pool of okay and so-so. The band’s energy on this album is likely to impress initially, but I have a feeling my interest in the album as a whole is set to wane, excepting of course those few moments of anthemic gold.

The Mars Volta, The Bedlam in Goliath

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.

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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.