The Mars Volta are a sure thing in the world of hard rock. A sure thing if that means album after album of self-aggrandizing, bloated guitar nonsense.
The band had the right idea with their 2003 debut, De-Loused in the Comatorium, recorded by super producer Rick Rubin. It was a collection of mostly tight, creepy-crawly jams that proved to be a hit both commercially and critically. Frances the Mute followed in 2005, a piss-poor attempt at a rock opera that featured endless noodling and assorted jamming that lasted usually in the fifteen minute to half hour range. The following two records, although not consisting of songs nearly as long, were just as boring.
Maybe they finally figured that it doesn’t work. That’s why it’s kind of surprising that Octahedron, the band’s fifth record, is a step in the right direction.
One very small step.
Fans of the band’s previous material will be glad to know that Cedric Bixler-Zavala’s nonsensical lyrics and dog-like yelps are still firmly in place over the disc’s seven tracks.
“Since We’ve Been Wrong” starts off rather subdued, with a nascent Moog line that builds for a minute and a half before acoustic guitar notes come in to sprinkle it. “Do you remember how you wore that dress?/It slipped my sight beneath the eyelids” Bixler Zavala croons. The song continues with Omar Rodriguez-Lopez’s sinewy electric guitar lines combine with splashy drums to create a somewhat-effective power ballad. At seven minutes and twenty one seconds, it’s way too long, though.
The opener is followed by the silly “Teflon” (that’s not a joke), that is nothing more than typical Mars Volta filler - wailing guitars and Bixler-Zavala’s gobbledygook. The equally hilariously titled “Halo of Nembutals” is the same.
The album has one true stop-dead-in-your-tracks moment, though, and that’s the album’s first single, “Cotopaxi”. It’s a three and a half minute blast of bombastic guitar, Robert Plant style vocals and hawkish drumming. It’s a perfect template for the Mars Volta to follow: Kickass riffs, vocal styling that alternates between both authoritative rock-god and balladeer, smashed together by a furious, no-nonsense pace.
The Mars Volta really make no excuses for their laborious style of rock. They’re acutely aware of what their critics think, and it motivates them to make even more complex and difficult compositions. The fact that they do it with such earnestness is completely maddening. What this latest disc represents is the band ceding some ground to their detractors - maybe for more recognition in the music community - or possibly to play even more mind games with those who aren’t fans.
Either way, Octahedron is still an inconsistent disc. Without a producer, this band isn’t really going to break any more ground. They need someone to challenge them and focus unique talents and get them out of the rut that they’re in. Until then, they’ll be saddled with imperfect records that have tiny glimpses of brilliance.