The Mars Volta – The Mars Volta
A self-titled album is a statement of intent. There’s a reason why we most often find eponymous labels attached to debut albums, as it’s a way to announce your existence to the world in the hope that people will stand up and take notice. For those few, far rarer instances where you see an already established band release an eponymous record, they are usually intended as a clear cut boundary from what came before. A reboot, a reinvention, a fresh start. Such a bold statement carries a lot of risk, and in my experience it’s something that few acts really pull off.
The new album from The Mars Volta certainly sounds far removed from the kind of music the outfit is best known for, more than enough to justify being called a reinvention. However, it’s so far apart that one wonders if it should even have been a Mars Volta record at all. Before you sharpen your pitchforks, be aware that this is an unusual case. Ordinarily I’d praise a band willing to try something different, that’s how this project came to be after all, but therein lies the problem: The Mars Volta started life as a side project to explore a specific sound. It began life as Omar Rodríguez-López and Cedric Bixler-Zavala wanting a break from punk outfit At The Drive In to explore more outlandish sounds. The ideas they had didn’t fit their band, so they made a new outlet for it. This isn’t a one time occurrence, this is something the duo (both together and individually) have done a lot over the years: fresh ideas spawn a new project.
Putting the TMV name on a record this different was bound to alienate a lot of existing fans, and it’s an issue that would easily be avoided under a different name. ‘The Mars Volta’ represents something unique. The wild frenetic punk energy, the mind-melting psychedelic jazz freak-outs, the compelling Latin rhythms and sprawling enigmatic album concepts – there’s no other band out there that sounds anything like them, no other place to get that buzz, so I can understand how disheartening it is to feel like the band are closing the door on it and looking elsewhere.
Don’t misinterpret criticism of this record as “I don’t like their pop stuff, I want my prog back!”. My favourite band is Rush, and their 80s synth pop period is where most of my favourite material lies. Prog doesn’t have a monopoly on interesting, and pop needn’t be boring. Listen to an album like Rush’s Power Windows and you’ll find straightforward song structures, no wild and crazy multi-part ten minute epics, but you will also find a vibrant dynamic mix that’s crackling with life and colour, a whole world beneath the surface for those that want to go deeper. There’s just no meat on the bones with The Mars Volta. Much of the run time blurs together, the arrangements feel like a steady slog through treacle, and the interesting ideas it does offer are few and fleeting. The album’s two highlights, it’s most Latin inspired offerings ‘Blacklight Shine’ and ‘Qué Dios Te Maldiga Mí Corazón’, both fall short of the three minute mark, with the latter being just over a minute and a half. I can understand saying “no ten minute freak-outs” but I can’t fathom going so far in the opposite direction to offer such brief snippets of half-baked ideas.
My thoughts on this record land in much the same place as they did for Steven Wilson’s The Future Bites – another record touted as a big creative leap that dismissed legitimate criticism as fear of change. One where everything “new” had been done before and done better. TMV is certainly more of a leap than that album was, and as a whole it doesn’t sound anything like your typical Mars Volta album, but in every Mars Volta album you hear snippets of what this album could have been. Tracks like ‘Since We’ve Been Gone’ from Octahedron and sections of ‘Empty Vessels Make The Loudest Sound’ from Noctourniquet are better examples of the band’s softer contemplative side than anything found here, as well as showcasing a more interesting and dynamic mix in the process. The band had an accessible breakout hit with the bluesy rise and fall of ‘The Widow’ on Frances The Mute, and even way back on their debut there where more than a few earworm choruses sandwiched between the wild psychedelic breakdowns – granted, you wouldn’t have a clue what they actually meant, but they were still more effective hooks than anything found here.
This eponymous effort does have it’s plus points; Cedric’s vocals are in fine form, and it’s great to here the obtuse cryptic lyrics set aside in favour of more immediate and personal songwriting. But between the underdeveloped ideas, languid pacing, inexpressive arrangements and flat production, as a whole the album loses more than it gains. The band certainly had potential to make an accessible record of a higher calibre. There’s nothing wrong with pop, there are plenty of interesting pop albums out there – this just isn’t one of them.