2008 / Music

Review: Mars Volta’s ‘Bedlam’ Brilliantly Assaults Ears, Minds

Neo-Prog-Rockers Return To Form On Fourth Album

If the Mars Volta has one overarching mission that the group wishes to use their visceral, sometimes overwrought music for, it’s conquest.

Photo: Universal Motown Records/Gold Standard Laboratories

Photo: Universal Motown Records/Gold Standard Laboratories

Honed over three albums and a series of well-regarded tours, the prog-rock explorers’ narrow-minded focus is clearly evident when it comes to what they want to achieve musically. On every song, the combo wants to overwhelm its audience’s ears and minds with a relentless siege of sounds. This music isn’t conquest by seduction, but a brick delivered to the head. And it’s an idea that burns in their creative consciousness as brilliantly as it did when the band members first shed a former skin — hardcore punk’s lumbering fury — for a new musical modus operandi that allowed them to develop a savage, polyrhythmic charge that refuses to let listeners catch their breath.

The Mars Volta’s new album, “The Bedlam In Goliath,” is the group’s fourth and by far its most consistent assault on listeners’ senses. It recaptures some of the snapshots of furious melodicism evident on their first two records, but melds it with the concise songcraft the band explored on their last disc. Who would have thought such artistic stubbornness would pay off?

Formed in 2001, the Mars Volta emerged from the wreckage of post-hardcore heroes, At The Drive-In. The El Paso, Texas-bred group was on the cusp of underground-rock stardom, but collapsed suddenly at the reported instigation of guitarist Omar Rodriguez-Lopez Cedric Bixler-Zavala and vocalist Cedric Bixler-Zavala. The pair, who went on to become the Mars Volta’s central brain trust, cited creative strife for the group’s dissolution. Their claims seem entirely plausible if we contrast the trajectory of the Mars Volta and most successive post-hardcore bands. At The Drive-In can be viewed as the culmination of the movement, and of all those bands seeking to be the next Fugazi, only At The Drive-In seemed truly capable of making exhilarating music, bending the genre’s overly rigid forms but without upsetting the true believers. When Rodriguez-Lopez and Bixler-Zavala pulled the plug on the group, they were in essence saying they wanted to leave the cocoon. Post-hardcore never recovered and effectively surrendered to emo as the Mars Volta veered into a more wildly experimental and eclectic direction.

Rodriguez-Lopez and Bixler-Zavala seemed to have a basic game plan when it came to the new music that they sought to create. Essentially, they wanted to turn the Mars Volta into an indie-rock Tool. The duo sought to inject jazz, funk, industrial and Latin music influences into the guitar-heavy new songs, but surrendering none of the frenetic energy, structural elasticity and humorlessness of the At The Drive-In music.

Like Tool, the Mars Volta is something of a misfit next to its stylistic contemporaries — if there truly are any. Its songs aren’t Daughtry three-minute singles. In a time and place in which so many of us feel pressed into service as constant multi-taskers, nearly everything about the Mars Volta demands unusual attention. There are no casual fans of this band. To take their music, lyrics or even album artwork lightly is to miss a large portion of the message and risk confusion amid the bewildering sidesteps and digressions. It’s a group ideally suited for the fanatic who has nothing better to do. Their songs are intense, dense and unbridled, smearing together skittish prog-rock song forms, disjointed studio gadgetry and navel-gazing poetics into a blitzkrieg of palpating noise and bleating vocals.

It’s no wonder then that the band’s maddening musical zigzags have attracted the Red Hot Chili Peppers eccentric guitarist John Frusciante. The screwball axe slinger sat in for most of the Mars Volta’s last record and now stands in as a semi-member of the group. One expecting to hear Frusciante’s soulful fretwork on “The Bedlam In Goliath” are in for disappointment. His playing is like all the sounds that main composer Rodriguez-Lopez pulls and distorts from the band’s toolbox, whose only purpose is to serve the greater whole.

This whole is a concept album, but a particularly strange one. According to press statements, much of the album was inspired by experiences related to a Ouija-like board that the group toyed with for awhile and they claimed told them various stories, but later blamed for a series of misfortunes. Many of the mysticism-minded lyrics allegedly refer back to the board. Musically, however, the new tracks aren’t so different than those on the older records. They’re just better songs.

“Aberinkula” kicks off the record by essentially leaping out of a plane without a chute. Listeners dive into a whirlwind of mangled guitar squeals and swirling oscillations. Bixler-Zavala’s familiar yelp is sped up so that he sounds like he’s inhaled helium while Rodriguez-Lopez tortures his guitar to extract new and unusual sounds from it. He then stacks the layers of effected licks to ride aboard the frantic rhythm. Later, he utilizes a couple quick-fingered guitar solos to blaze a path as the music slides between moods. Given the shifts and cacophony, the appearance of a free-jazz sax doesn’t seem out of place. (It also recalls a track off of their second record, “Frances The Mute,” which featured unorthodox honking.) The cumulative effect of all this is that the feeling that listeners are inducted into an altered state and it’s an experience that extends throughout the album.

Things certainly get stranger song by song. “Ilyena” is an art-rock tribute to actress Helen Mirren (the song’s title is her real first name). New drummer Thomas Pridgen demonstrates is adaptability by playing a dizzyingly malleable drumbeat and a series complicated fills. Rodriguez-Lopez is up to his old tricks, channeling geek guitar gods like Robert Fripp and John McLaughlin, but then skewing them with studio-created psychedelic effects. On the mic, Bixler-Zavala has dozens of voices and seemingly all of them are doctored to sound other-worldly. He’s also turned down the volume considerably from the old days. He was once a maniac barker on par with Rage Against The Machine’s Zack de la Rocha, but he’s increasingly using different attacks to sing his words instead of shouting at listeners.

Curiously, the record’s most instantly accessible track is also the one with the most explicit Rage influence. “Goliath” opens with a colossal, echo-laden solo worthy of Tom Morello before Rodriguez-Lopez slips into the verses with a Morello-patented wah-wah guitar pattern. He again lets his mathematical guitar lines guide the melody through fluctuating phases, but this time his digressions bare the stamp of early King Crimson. Bixler-Zavala, too, recalls de la Rocha on the mic but is less abrasive. His voice is twisted and contorted by effects, which matches the lyrics that detail a nightclub trip that goes awry. The cut climaxes with a thunderous coda that is hard-nose, James Brown funk delivered at a blurring Van Halen tempo.

Spotting those familiar elements, like landmarks, help navigate the album’s more challenging songs during the initial listens. As weird and convoluted as the Mars Volta’s sensibilities appear to be, one can hear in some tracks snippets of the band members’ record collection. The twin-guitar hemline that skates through “Metatron” owes a debt to the ’70s jam bands. “Ouroborous” is straightforward ’80s thrash metal, but split into segments and filled with accordion tangents and rhythmic workups. “Cavalettas” is racing engine that expels shards of shrill notes, but features a Captain Beefheart-inspired soprano sax solo. Over time, however, these references blend into the violent, moody amalgam that the band is still perfecting.

Of course, “The Bedlam In Goliath” is a landmark unto itself for the band members. It marks the point when the Mars Volta finally achieved a balance between the band members’ desire to experiment and to make art that’s enjoyable by more than a small circle of devotees. The disc isn’t an accommodation with popular tastes, but marks a evolutionary step. It recognizes Rodriguez-Lopez and Bixler-Zavala’s skills have sharpened to a formidable degree. In their quest to reign over their listeners, the pair now has not only the tools to make their conquest happen, but also the skills to keep what they capture.

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Note: David’s nationally syndicated music column, Soundbytes, appeared in the Entertainment section of all Internet Broadcasting websites. This column was originally published there.

©Copyright 2008 by David Hyland. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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