Band: The Mars Volta | Album:The Mars Volta | Genre: Art-pop | Year: 2022
From: El Paso, USA | Label: Clouds Hill
The Mars Volta, along with acts like Porcupine Tree and Dream Theater, helped revive the world of progressive rock in the early 2000s. They were one of the most beloved and influential prog acts of the 21st century. Their 2003 full-length debut–De-Loused in the Comatorium–and its 2005 successor–Frances the Mute–are two of the best prog albums of all time, irrespective of era. In addition to past prog influences, they incorporated post-hardcore, jazz, and electronic elements. Their classic sound is striking and immediately recognizable.
Now, ten years after their last album–2012’s Noctourniquet–they’ve reunited to put out their seventh full-length release. The core of the band remains the same; Omar Rodriguez-Lopez is still on guitar, and Cedric Bixler-Zavala is still the vocalist. Beyond that, though, there has been churn in the lineup. Bassist Eva Gardner has returned to the band after last appearing on their 2002 Tremulant EP. Omar’s younger brother Marcel–formerly the band’s percussionist through 2010–covers keyboard duties. (Longtime TMV keyboardist Ikey Owens passed away in 2014, though he did not appear on Noctourniquet.)
In reading about this album’s background, I found that Omar (always the lead (and usually sole) songwriter) consciously made an effort to move away from prog. This strikes me as a perplexing move. Just because Omar and Cedric are recording together, that does not make it The Mars Volta. Prior to forming TMV, they were both in the post-hardcore band At the Drive-In; and the two had collaborated in the one-off band Antemasque in 2014. If they wanted to make a non-prog album, reviving this band’s name doesn’t strike me as a smart move. They’ve got enough clout in the modern music world that they could have announced a new project and built hype off their reputations.
Cedric even cites the example of the band The Jam in describing the writing process. The Jam shifted sound, but they rebranded as The Style Council. So the decision to keep the Mars Volta moniker comes off almost as a money grab.
That’s not to say bands can’t pivot genres. Ulver is my go-to example for successful 180 degree turns. They went from playing raw black metal to electronica, and both are very good. Thing is, it’s hard enough to do one genre well. Getting two (radically different) genres under your belt is a tall, tall task.
A better comparison for what they attempted may be Porcupine Tree. They underwent big shifts in sound twice in their career. First, in the late ‘90s, the band pivoted from improv-heavy space rock toward more-focused pieces, resulting in some of their most acclaimed work. And then a few years later, they turned toward metal.
As a further handicap, the quality of TMV’s output had been on a downward trend ever since Amputechture. That album and Bedlam in Goliath are both good, though with some bloat and extraneous moments. Octahedron has more flaws, but about half the album is still pretty good; and Noctourniquet was my least-favorite release from this band. Even that had a few good songs, though.
Omar and Cedric claimed that self-titling this album was to give them a “clean slate,” but I can’t exactly agree with that thinking. If anything, it only emphasizes and increases the weight of their past work. Late-career self-titled albums are only rarely good, and they’re often quite bad. Just look at Van Halen III or Dream Theater.
The Mars Volta opens with its lead single, “Blacklight Shine”. Latin percussion and jazzy keys are enjoyable enough, but the slightly-robotic quality to Cedric’s voice is nothing short of grating. About midway through, there’s a shift in the main riff I like, and we almost get an echo of some of Omar’s past guitar madness. This was the best and most Mars Volta-y of the singles, but even then, it sounds like something that was cut from Noctourniquet for not being good enough.
“Graveyard Love” comes next and starts with an electronic pulse. Cedric’s voice has that same processed feel to it, which I do not like. There’s an attempt to increase the intensity by having the percussion drive a bit faster, but in the end, this is simply a middling, unimpressive track. It’s so spare it feels unfinished. The closing synth solo isn’t bad, but Cedric’s warbling over the top ruins it. The ending is distractingly abrupt, and this is a recurring issue on this album. It’s like they came up with an idea but didn’t quite know how to wrap it up, so they just stopped.
Things slow down on “Shore Story”. This is torpid, uneventful molasses. Omar is barely present, and this sounds like a weak echo of TMV’s quieter pieces on their last two albums. I never thought I’d describe this band as generic, but nothing about this song beyond Cedric’s voice is distinctive in any way.
“Blank Condolences” begins similarly. It has a little more spine, the melody in the chorus is okay, and this is the first place the guitarwork has truly sounded like Omar. Despite the unimpressive opening, this winds up being one of the better songs here.
The weakest of the pre-release singles, “Vigil”, is next. It’s more bland, mid-tempo nothingness. Ignoring Cedric’s lyrics (which are way too scrutable for a Mars Volta release; I expect TMV lyrics to be like a thesaurus vomiting), the music reminds me of something that would play at a high school graduation.
Latin flavors return in the opening percussion of “Que Dios Te Maldiga Mi Corazón”. At under two minutes, it’s mercifully short, and this is the first song that actually sounds like The Mars Volta. It’s tense, energetic, and features some very Omar-sounding guitar. It’s not a good sign when the best song on the album is half the length of everything else.
“Cerulea” is an unimpressive, sleepy piece that makes zero impression. “Flash Burns from Flashbacks” is also un-memorable mush, albeit with moderately more distinctive guitar playing. I like some of the keyboard tones on “Palm Full of Crux”, but that’s the only thing about this ballad that I like.
“No Case Gain” has a vocal melody and delivery which reminds me of Toni Basil’s “Mickey” at points. The chorus is competent, but it evokes bland, mid-2000s butt rock. At least this unfocused, unfinished-sounding hodgepodge is short.
The acoustic guitar on “Tourmaline” is creepy, but Cedric’s voice should not be front-and-center with the effect they’ve got on it. This song calls to mind some of the band’s better slow songs, like “Televators” or “The Widow”, but it’s just a pale shadow. Despite being less than four minutes, this song feels much longer, and its ending is irritating.
“Equus 3” shows some promise in its opening moments with sinister electronic growls, and Cedric’s voice is better than elsewhere. Unfortunately, it can’t deliver on that promise. Cedric’s performance degrades as the song progresses, and this four-minute cut vastly overstays its welcome. The ideas–while better than elsewhere on The Mars Volta–sound underdeveloped.
“Collapsible Shoulders” might be the worst song this band has ever recorded. Cedric’s voice grates incessantly and is mixed far too loud, and the music isn’t much better.
The Mars Volta ends with “The Requisition”. This is a relative high point. Cedric’s voice is bad only part of the time, and the music shows some creativity. Electronic touches are incorporated into the rock backing well, and there’s some tension for once. This song actually has a climax, though there’s not a resolution. It’s a jarring end, but thankfully, it’s an end.
Calling this a Mars Volta record is just begging for misaligned expectations. Sure, the band’s previous two albums had been moving in a less-bombastic, more-focused direction, but they were still prog albums. Flawed albums, granted (very flawed in the case of Noctourniquet), but prog nonetheless. I don’t expect TMV to reach the genre-defining heights of their first two albums, but I do expect something better than this.
I really don’t know who the target market for this is. Reviving the “The Mars Volta” name is going to disappoint longtime fans like myself, while potentially scaring off more mainstream audiences. But the name isn’t the big issue here. The big issue is that the music isn’t very good. This album seems half-baked. None of the songs end well, Cedric’s voice is put through an awful filter, and this project just sounds overall passionless.
One thought on “Album Review: The Mars Volta – The Mars Volta”
I was excited by the news of this review as I’ve seen Mars Volta a few times in some of the most memorable, earth-shattering moments and that even an average to good album by them always has some exhilarating sections that get lodged in your brain. I read your review and wasn’t sure why you were wondering why they released this under the Mars Volta moniker. Just after, I was listening right through the entire album waiting for something major to hit me. It really didn’t happen. It kind of feels like they absorbed a lot of Pop and modern R&B, Hip-Hop music over the years and felt that their usual uniqueness needed to be tamed and fit into some pre-existing models of contemporary music. You were right on the money, this should have been released as a side project. I listened again to give it another whirl thinking that I might have been too harsh, but to no avail. Watered down ideas that never hit their former benchmarks. Too bad, I’m wondering whether or not to see them live here in Toronto, which was never a question in the past but a foregone conclusion. Great review!