I’m always open and diplomatic to anything I review (no matter what my preconceptions may be), but it’s fair to say I easily fall for anything Omar Rodriguez-Lopez is attached to. Since the 2001 breakup of At the Drive-In, The Mars Volta has been my favorite band. With their sixth full-length album, Noctourniquet, The Mars Volta have made another shift in their ever-evolving sound and have put together what may be the best concept album I’ve ever heard.
Concept albums are nothing new, especially to The Mars Volta. The problem with many concept works is either that they never fully tie together for the whole album, or they need expansive explanation of a back-story from the songwriters to make any sense. Noctourniquet, due out March 27, 2012, may not be that clear of a story either, but from song to song it’s a journey, for both the listener and the characters entailed.
Through interviews and press releases, vocalist Cedric Bixler-Zavala has said his writing was influenced by the nursery rhyme of Solomon Grundy (a man who goes from birth to adulthood to death in seven days). The nursery rhyme was even recited in parts of live jams the band have performed. I became slightly confused when first listening to the album, as I didn’t hear the rhyme, nor did I understand what anything I was hearing has to do with Solomon Grundy. As I continued to listen it all became clear: The Mars Volta have created their own twisted fairy tale.
Each song acts as new chapter/landscape. A child (who will be referred to as he/him from this point forward) moves through the expansive world as it is invaded by a cavalcade of sounds. Imagine the album’s artwork as a vast plane the protagonist is traversing — suddenly, everything is jarred as the backdrops are shredded by cutting guitar notes, and the air fills with ominous synthetic noise.
In previous Volta releases, fans have been adamant that certain songs seem to interrupt the flow the albums. The changing sound-scapes of Noctourniquet can easily be pointed to as a prime example of uneven flow if the listener does not buy into the whole experience. The opening harshness and crass, overbearing style of “The Whip Hand” mimics the uncomfortable scenario the protagonist lives within. As he escapes, he becomes part of a world previously unknown. Each song adds another piece to the puzzle, as the child encounters new characters and situations. By the time the album’s single, “The Malkin Jewel,” kicks in, a new character is in pursuit of the protagonist, pushing everyone further into this maddening world as the song’s chaotic ending comes to a head.
The album contains what may be the band’s most heartfelt melodies and lyrics. In past releases, Bixler-Zavala’s lyrics had always been enthralling chants of clever wordplay, and it was the music that seemed to draw the most emotional response. In songs such as “Empty Vessels Make the Loudest Sounds,” Bixler-Zavala creates some of his most strikingly down-to-earth metaphors. The implication of the lyrics along with the sweet-hearted delivery speaks volumes of someone in desperate need of help. That song in particular bears a mighty resemblance to the begging want and need of the trapped souls of Genesis’s “Home by the Sea.” The album speaks of no one real or that I could ever meet, but it makes me care and want to lend a helping hand.
Anyone looking for searing guitar solos and math rock progressions will be shocked when they first put this album on. When their previous album Octahedron was released, it contained the quick addition of a drum machine on one track. Further solo efforts from Omar Rodriquez-Lopez added synth to whole albums, but Noctourniquet takes the experience to a whole new level.
Typically, fans were used to The Mars Volta sharing a common sound through all their albums, while Omar’s solo work took things to extremes. While the Volta sound is in no way gone, it has morphed into a new rabid animal that crosses popular genre lines. Newest addition to the group, drummer Deantoni Parks, provides a bridge from the old sound to the new with frantically precise staccato work that matches the fast drum machine feel with real world aesthetics. Radiohead has perfected the electronic sound rock movement, but Phil Selway’s drums mimic the sounds making himself even sound synthetic. Parks, however, brings a grounding sound level to the songs instead of creating one large jumble of bleeps and zooms.
Nothing is permanent in Volta-land. The next release may very well be a grindcore metal album. On first listen, some people will be taken for a spin and be ready to scream and complain. Don’t let the shock affect your views on the record. Turn out the lights, lay back, put on some headphones, and allow The Mars Volta to take you somewhere I don’t think any musical artist has been able to take you before. Open your mind and pay attention — The Mars Volta have just changed the game.
(Warner Bros., 3300 Warner Blvd., Burbank, CA 91505)