REVIEW BY: Bill Adams
How many bands can say that they started outside of the box and ignored the conventions of established rock orthodoxy but coerced a legion of fans to follow them without even attempting to reach for the brass ring of success by bowing to convention even once? The Mars Volta can. Since appearing on the popular radar six years ago, Mars Volta has done nothing but continue its course and won a significant fan base the old fashioned way: on the strength of their music, word of mouth and a few well-placed celebrity endorsements (most notably from Red Hot Chili Pepper guitarist John Frusciante – who also helps the band out by contributing some guitar occasionally). Because of those methods by which the band got noticed, they've never been asked to do anything but keep at it – and that's exactly what they've done. The Mars Volta doesn't have an artistically flexible bone in its body, but doesn't need to; if you find them, you hang around because what they're doing interests you – so that's what you're going to get because they're happy to provide it.
Such is the case with Octahedron. Mars Volta's newest effort continues to walk the line that the band started in 2003 with De-Loused in the Comatorium; it's business as usual – except that it isn't. While there's no mistaking songs like “Halo Of Nembutals,” “Copernicus” and “Luciforms" as being the work of Mars Volta (aka the band that re-popularized mathematically measured psychodrama for the first time since 1987), there is more at work here than the usual technical designs. From the opening operatic swoop of “Since We've Been Wrong,” it's abundantly apparent that there's a methodical means to Mars Volta's mathematical machinations as the band plays out a complete miniature vignette in the song's seven-and-a-half-minute run-time and braces audiences for what promises to be a very ambitious production. Then they do it again (produce another fully-formed little vignette, that is) in “Teflon”—and again, and again, and again. In fact, the album is a sprawling series of eight small-scale expositions.
I know what even hardened fans are thinking: Mars Volta doesn't have the personal or collective charisma to pull something like this off—but they do.
The way it's done, in this case, is via Mars Volta's seamless incorporation of a few new sounds that knit the entire record (as well as the movements within each song) together. On tracks like “Teflon,” “Halo Of Nembutals” and "Cotopaxi,” singer Cedric Zavata adopts a vocal presence that's equal parts Geddy Lee and Ronnie James Dio which blows the heads off of listeners even when he's keeping his vocal chords on a leash (on “Copernicus”) but does that after their collective jaw drops – as it will with “Cotopaxi.” In the more up-tempo number (they're really at a premium here), the band also borrows some sonic motifs from Rush as his great big, earth-shattering choruses that could easily fill an arena with sound (“Luciforms” is a great example) are broken by simplistic, driving beats that bludgeon Zavata's souring voice into a locked figure in the minds of anyone within earshot and have them instinctively screaming and reeling with ecstasy in a live setting. Whether math and metal are your things or not, you have to respect something that powerful; whether math and metal are your things or not.
So what does still another glowing endorsement mean for Mars Volta? Probably not very much. The single most awe-inspiring thing about this band is the inevitability that seems to dominate every micro-tone of every song in the band's catalog. While, granted, not everyone will hear the band's new music, those that do will be absolutely flabbergasted by the changes within the band's perception. You'll be shocked too – if you dare to put Octahedron on.