Since their inception, The Mars Volta have proven to be one of the more conflicting bands of the modern era. After splitting up underground punk heroes At The Drive-In, principal musicians Cedric Bixler-Zavala and Omar Rodriguez-Lopez kicked off TMV’s career with 2003’s sprawling masterpiece “De-Loused in the Comatorium,” only to follow it with 2005’s “Frances The Mute,” a self-congratulatory piece of shit made by people who were far too pleased with their own “unique” vision. The albums that followed, 2006’s “Amputechture” and last years “The Bedlam in Goliath” fell somewhere in between. They possessed moments of genuine inspiration, but didn’t possess the overall charm of the band’s debut.
This week, the ever prolific prog rockers are back with their fifth LP “Octahedron.” I was hoping for either a “De-Loused” style masterpiece (for the sake of enjoyment) or a “Frances” sized disaster (for the sake of being able to write an always enjoyable angry tirade.) But, as with their previous two efforts, I walked away not feeling much at all.
I will give the band credit, for even when they are making pretentious art simply for the sake of making pretentious art, they will always surprise you. I don’t know what I expected from “Octahedron,” but it wasn’t what I ended up getting. Rodriguez described the album as their version of an acoustic album, which seems to be an accurate assessment of the material. There certainly is a mellow feel to the album that, with the exception of the almost out of place rockus track “Cotopaxi,” stays consistent. Past Mars Volta albums have been all over the map sonically, but this album seems to have a pretty solid flow from track to track.
Another unexpected feature of the album is Bixler’s surprisingly straightforward lyrical approach. It’s almost ironic that he kicks off “Teflon,” arguably the albums strongest track, singing “I just don’t know the layman’s terms to call the mess you breed,” as this is arguably the first album he’s ever been apart of where his lyrics consisted of a steady dose of layman’s terms. He’s made a career out spitting out lines like “exoskelatal junction at the railroad delayed” with enough confidence to convince the listener he’s making perfect sense and not just spewing out nonsensical jabber.
And while there are moments of bizarre vocalization, most of the lyrics on the new album are pretty strait forward. This isn’t a hindrance however, as he sounds just as confident on tracks like “Copernicus” when he sings about being “left dangling in the wind.”
This is a technically efficient album musically, and for the most part is solid. But while there is quite a bit to like, like their previous two albums, there isn’t really much to love. There are good songs (the songs I mentioned above and the catchy “Halo of Nebutals” are all very good), sub-par ones (the out of place “Cotopaxi” and the silly “With Twilight As My Guide”) and a batch of songs that are just ok. I don’t know if that really counts as criticism, but all I can really say is this is a technically sound album with good parts, that ultimately just made me feel meh.
I know with an album like this, there is a chance I will discover enjoyable things I didn’t catch upon my initial listens. Hell, it took about two weeks for me to fall in love with my all time favorite album (Neutral Milk Hotel’s “In the Aeroplane Over the Sea” for the zero of you who care.) But as I write this, I’m far from blown away with “Octahedron.” I think what made “De-Loused” such an enjoyable record was its bursting energy. Bixler and Rodriguez said they broke up ATDI because they found their music boring and this could have been the reason the first TMV album, while pretentious, had an urgency that helped it overcome its snobbier moments.
The band then apparently felt the need to up the experimental ante for their follow-up “Frances The Mute.” Sadly, that album went waaaaaay too far with its indulgences, and was essentially like listening to a running vacuum for 70-minutes. Since then, the band, possibly realizing the only way to go further than “Frances” would be a disc of total silence, have been scrapping around trying to find the right balance. While their new approach works in spurts, it has yet to lead to the creation of another great album. “Octahedron” has it’s moments, but with new releases (WILCO!) on the horizon, it’s hard to think this album is going to become anything more than a casual listen I pull out every couple of months when seeking something new.
I realize I’m perhaps being too hard on The Mars Volta, and I don’t know if it’s because of how much I loved their first album, or how much I hated their second one. But when a band hits on such parallel ends of the spectrum, landing on middle ground doesn’t leave the listener feeling much. “Octahedron” is in no way a bad album, in fact, it’s quite good. But it’s hardly essential listening.
1. Since We’ve Been Wrong
3, Halo of Nembutals
4. With Twilight As My Guide
6. Desperate Graves
- Flows together well
- Good, not great, lyrics
- Some weak tracks
- Just sort of average
Final Score: 7.5/10 (Borrow it from a friend and rip/burn it.)