A few disarming moments on “Octahedron” unfold slowly, with pockets of space and calm. Don’t be lured into trusting them. This album, the fifth studio release by the Mars Volta, employs stillness as a setup for all manner of disruption: sharply pealing riffs, phantasmagorical metaphors, convoluted song structures. In many ways it’s a typical effort from the guitarist Omar Rodriguez-Lopez and the vocalist Cedric Bixler Zavala, who make up the Mars Volta’s cunning and ever-agitated core.
But that’s not to discredit the more measured side of “Octahedron,” a harbor for some of this psychedelic prog-rock band’s most alluring melodies and among its most coherent recordings. Presented as an eight-song suite, the album delivers a panoramic range of intensity, sliding along that range in ways both gradual and startling. So a brooding tune like “With Twilight as My Guide” can swell and then ebb almost to the lulling point before the next tune, “Cotopaxi,” arrives with whiplash force.
As a lyricist Mr. Bixler Zavala still favors the enigmatic and ominous, with the haziest of interpersonal connotations. Aside from the opener, a remorseful ballad called “Since We’ve Been Wrong,” the songs fix their uneasy sentiments to unsettling images, like carcasses or “tables of ringworms.” The syntax can suggest an antiquarian contortion: “With qualms that I speak/Of the wrists I have cut,” he sings at the start of “Desperate Graves.”
But the panache of the singing, and the radiant complexity of the music — an achievement shared by Mr. Rodriguez Lopez and a handful of regular collaborators, including the Red Hot Chili Peppers guitarist John Frusciante — drive the album relentlessly forward. And it’s the subtle touches, no less than the sweeping ones, that leave an impression.