by Spencer Kornhaber June 23, 2009
The prog-punks of The Mars Volta have endured more than half a decade of criticism that they make noisy, incoherent albums, so itís refreshing that the groupís fifth full-length is tied together by silence. Well, not silence per se, but thatís how it sounds at first. Only with the speakers cranked is it clear that the opening minute and a half of Octahedron holds a low, suspense-building hum that reappears throughout. Itís easy to get numbed by The Mars Voltaís overwrought echo-chamber jamming and lyrics lifted from chemistry textbooks, but the hum serves as a reminder of why anyone likes this band in the first place: These guys know how to create, corral, then dissipate tension.
With a few exceptions, Octahedron is an album of ballads. Thatís a problem, because slow songs lean on Cedric Bixler-Zavalaís wordy, watery whine and donít come with the structural tricks and percussive energy that differentiate The Mars Volta from more standard forms of metal. Worse, theyíre poor vehicles for delivering the whiplash and catharsis that make the bandís best tracks so addictive. Itís frustrating, because even the weepy opener ďSince Weíve Been WrongĒ shows that Zavala can plant hooks in a sonic mess. This is a band that excels when its sing-alongs double as freak-outs; on Octahedron, theyíve largely ditched the chaos in lieu of an admirable, albeit unsatisfying, experiment in being quiet.