Frusciante + Weird-ass Psychedelic-hardcore + Restraint = ZOMFG
Until this point The Mars Volta’s inherent musical hostility - bludgeoning most newcomers with baffling solos and pseudo-acid-jazz suites - was endearing to very few outside of their usual, albeit sizeable, fanbase. To most, it was a bit of a dickish, self-absorbed image to have; though live album ‘Scab Dates’ showed how the band’s songwriting was more organic, improvised jam session than calculated prog studio work there was still the impression that they were fucking with us for the hell of it, to be ‘original’ at all costs. Some of that assumed asshole-attitude was down to the cryptically obtuse lyrics spun by Mssrs Rodriguez-Lopez and Bixler-Zavala, whilst the rest could be blamed on some elaborate album backstories (Ouija Boards? Never letting your band members hear their colleagues’ recordings and then mashing it all together?).
This, for better or worse, made The Mars Volta a band that couldn’t possibly sound like a pastiche of themselves. Whether you thought it was innovative or plain unamusing was utterly subjective. Thing was, however, that the more insane the band got, the better their records sold. It was a victory for both artistic integrity and financial investment, but how do you adequately assess merit when a band go off the handle so often? Sure, the band’s technical prowess is beyond question, but when even Chilli Peppers legendary guitarist John Frusciante becomes just another part of the furniture in the aural equivalent of a student’s broom cupboard you have to wonder at what point you can call ‘bullshit’. Hell, at least The Dillinger Escape Plan (whose epochal ‘Miss Machine’ features a similarly absurdist cover art to ‘Octahedron’) had enough sheer rage to carry through their math-infused metal; The Mars Volta seemed far too lax by comparison.
So when ‘Since We’ve Been Wrong’’s opening minute-thirty of practical silence (thanks for that guys, who’d you learn that from, Korn?) finally ends with some wobbly, ghostly keys and an unexpectedly tender vocal turn from Bixler-Zavala there’s the expectancy that such a simplistic moment of beauty can’t last. But it does, and when it’s eventually accompanied by some mercifully untreated riffing there’s the sense that maybe ‘Octahedron’ won’t be as willfully difficult as what’s gone before it. For the most part, it isn’t: for The Mars Volta ‘Octahedron’ is economical, practically minimal. That’s not to say it isn’t still occasionally aimless, but most of its meandering passages are countered with distinctively more focused bursts of refined energy.
Take single ‘Cotopaxi’, which isn’t far removed from the band’s previous radio cuts. With that said, the ‘edit’ is the whole shebang, not trimmed down from an album version this time around; a concise, instantly memorable slab of what the two helmsmen have always done best: shrieked like banshees to some mildly experimental quirks that doesn’t capitulate into wankery; in short, it rocks like a mother, with no sign of lyrical nonsense about ‘waiting howl[ing]‘, either.
It’d be naïve, however, to expect the band to fill a full-length with short, to-the-point tracks like this: a compromise of sorts is reached with ‘Desperate Graves’, stabby guitar riffs in its chorus and Deantoni Parks’ almost arrhythmic, experimental drums clattering to seemingly their own beat throughout, irrespective of Rodriguez/Frusciante’s fretwork. But whilst this works just fine after the curiously James Bond-esque ‘Cotopaxi’ it’s otherwise surrounded by two tracks on either side made up of prolonged go-nowhere sprawls that marr any goodwill the album builds up.
Take ‘With Twilight As My Guide’, a creeping malevolence promising something more than the bland acoustic, country-esque soundscape swelling throughout its almost 8 minute length (though this is blessedly short by the band’s prior standards). ‘Luciforms’ is even more abortive, and ‘Halo of Nembutals’ is too up-it’s-own-arse lyrically to give a decent hook. ‘Copernicus’ is better, more the victim of unfortunate place in the tracklisting than through fault of its own, the IDM-lite glitches and glimmering piano in its second half coming too little, too late, even when the duo seem to have hit on a fine compromise lyrically between naked emotion and indecipherable evocation.
The most heartening track from ‘Octahedron’, however, is ‘Teflon’, a (comparatively) structurally uniform 5-minute compromise reflecting how great the band could sound with some restraint; a deep bassline sporadically intones menance, whilst droning guitars streak across the opening verses, gradually building to a denser, wailing bridge. The chorus is uncharacteristically understated, Bixler calmly condemning a man to death with - equally uncharacteristically - perfect clarity: ‘Let the wheels burn / Stack the tyres to the neck / With the body inside’. It’s a more fitting, lucid embracing of the band’s dark, nihilistic image than any of their unnecessary over-eclecticism. Who said you can’t slay without some respite?
Record Label: Warner Bros.
Release Date: 22nd June