The Mars Volta Mellow Out on 'Octahedron'
Every new album from The Mars Volta is thoroughly different than the one that came before it. Octahedron, the band’s fifth studio album, is no exception.
The Mars Volta have scaled it back after the relentless sonic assault that was The Bedlam in Goliath. As their self-described “acoustic” album, Octahedron is the band’s mellowest offering to date. Those used to the blasting percussions of Thomas Pridgen or the blaring atonal solos of Omar Rodriguez-Lopez will be surprised by the relatively subdued nature of this new record. But while it lacks the loud abrasiveness of which The Bedlam in Goliath was composed, Octahedron has that otherworldly ambience that has been missing from the band’s past few releases.
Acoustic guitar is prominent on a good portion of Octahedron’seight tracks, which is coupled with just the right touch of ambient noise and dissonance to give the album an eerily ethereal feel. Tracks like the beautifully somber “With Twilight as My Guide” exemplifies this mixture perfectly, subtle electric guitar plays over a melodic acoustic chord progression to create a sublime and stirring song. All of the “ballads” on the record create a type of mood that is both chilling and moving. Add Cedric Bixler-Zavala’s caliginous lyrics and haunting vocal melodies into the mix and you have The Mars Volta’s most atmospheric album since Frances the Mute.
So how can the band call this their acoustic album if electric instruments are present on every track? The Mars Volta have never been a band to conform to established conventions and labels, so their definition of “acoustic” characteristically deviates from the standard description. For a band that makes such heavy use of digital effects (just look to Rodriguez-Lopez’s pedal board for evidence of that), the elegant simplicity of the instrumentation on Octahedron is a radical enough departure to warrant the “acoustic” label. But those worried that The Mars Volta has gone totally soft, fret not, there are multiple tracks on the album that invoke the raw energy the band is known for. “Cotopaxi,” a track that would not have been out of place on The Bedlam in Goliath, is an explosive onslaught on the ears. “Luciforms” is a cross between progressive rock and jazz-fusion, and “Teflon” is sure to become a favorite of those who like The Mars Volta best when the band cranks it up to 11.
Clocking in at a meager 49 minutes (meager by The Mars Volta’s standards, anyway) Octahedron is the group’s most accessible album yet - the band’s tendency to draw out songs to excessive lengths is restrained throughout most of the record. This is both a positive and negative. The shorter runtime means it does not take as much effort to listen to the album from start to finish, which is a required experience for all of The Mars Volta’s records, though, the album’s relative straightforwardness allows for skipping around without sacrificing the overall mood. However, the fact that the album consists of only eight songs during its 49 minute span makes it more susceptible “burnout” than past records. The songs on the record are superb, but even the greatest tune can lose that “feeling” after it is played for the millionth time.
However, there is enough diversity on Octahedron to keep it feeling fresh for awhile. Those who are intrigued by The Mars Volta, but have yet to listen to them, would do well to start here. Octahedron gives the new listener a taste of the band without the dense, sometimes intimidating, musical concepts of previous albums. And fans that feel that the band has lost the knack for creating truly absorbing and atmospheric music, cheer up: The Mars Volta have their soul back.