Saturday, June 21st 2008
Retro: The Mars Volta
Editor’s note: Yeah, another new feature. Retro Reviews. Just like you, we often stumble upon great albums weeks, months, even years after they were first released. And of course there are plenty of albums we’re still in love (or hate) with that came out before we launched Antiquiet. So here’s something Johnny wrote about the Mars Volta record that came out in January. It holds up.
The Mars Volta have taken the art of the concept album to a new level.
The sixth-dimension latin-funk math rockers, founded by vocalist/lyricist Cedric Bixler-Zavala and guitarist/composer Omar Rodríguez-López, returned from the ether earlier this year with The Bedlam In Goliath: a relentless, uncompromising juggernaut of an album that, as they put it, “didn’t want to be born.”
The pace of Bedlam is relentless, the mid-song changes orgasmically surprising, and the overall feeling is that these guys have harnessed the best parts of what they do and stepped it up a good four or five notches, despite recent lineup changes and supernatural resistance. The Mars Volta have been hit with some pretty strong hardships over the past two years, most notably the departure of drummer and percussive wizard Jon Theodore, as well as his replacement Deantoni Parks. Furthermore, Volta’s progress in writing and recording Bedlam were greatly hindered by certain supernatural occurrences in Rodríguez-López’s home studio in Brooklyn- most notably, random disappearances of recorded tracks and even a flood, which wiped out a considerable amount of gear. The band believes their unfortunate turn of luck was the result of their interaction with The Soothsayer, a ouija-like talking board that Rodríguez-López bought as a gift for Bixler-Zavala while vacationing in Jerusalem.
Despite the supernatural treachery and misfortune, The Mars Volta have risen from the turmoil and delivered a crushing, funk-driven concept album centered on the mysterious board, relying less on their tried-and-true latin influences than breathless grooves and breakneck, jaw-dropping prog arrangements, assisted in no small part by their new drummer, 24 year old Thomas Pridgen, tearing up the backbeats like a dreadlocked Animal from the Muppets. Bixler-Zavala’s lyrics are directly inspired by the messages delivered by the troublesome ouija, although the design seems pretty much par for the course for the king of cryptic wordcraft.
From the very first screaming seconds of relentlessly funktastic Aberinkula, the album’s opener, Bedlam grabs you by the throat and shoves you down the rabbit hole. Middle-eastern harmonies at the end of the track segue directly into Metatron, where we’re introduced to the true mood of the album. Cedric’s frantically swaying, polysyllabic verse delivery, coupled with Pridgen’s otherworldly fills and stop-starts going into the chorus are only supplemented by Juan Alderete’s stunning basswork and Rodríguez-López’s wah-wah wizardry. You’d think the song is over once the dreamy mid-song breakdown ceases, giving way to silence, but you’d be wrong; without warning, the song crashes back to life with a blindingly frantic pace.
I dare you to try and keep from thrashing wildly about when Ilyena kicks into gear around the one-minute mark. Meanwhile, the frantic, epic tornado that is Wax Simulacra seems a strong contender for a radio single, being one of only two tracks to clock in at under five minutes.
Not enough praise can be given to the album’s fifth track, Goliath, a fantastically reworked and amped-up version of Rapid Fire Tollbooth from Omar Rodríguez-López’s solo album, Se Dice Bisonte, No Bufalo. The song, a fast-paced tripping nightmare with jagged beats and otherworldly, haunted, Zeppelinesque grooves is Volta at their very finest, confidently channeling the collective prowess of each member into a blinding light of goodness. Check out a hilariously awesome driveway performance of Goliath here.
From the funk harmonies on Agadez (not to mention Ikey Owen’s inimitable keyboard mastery), to the King Crimson/Yes vibes of Cavalettas (yes, boys and girls, we have a flute solo), the band is all over the place, but for once, that’s a good thing. The squealing demon solos of “Askepios” are perfect counterparts to the grinding bassline and Cedric’s soulful, hallucinatory sexfunk wail. This transitions into the rapid-fire delivery of Ouroborous, where Pridgen truly shines with a percussive arrangement that sounds like three drummers in one. Until the chorus, we’re not offered even a millisecond of downtime. The only song that could be called filler on Bedlam is Tourniquet Man, but at a comparatively paltry two and a half minutes, it’s an excusable, if not necessary mid-album break in the speed-demon pace, allowing the listener to finally catch their breath.
With The Bedlam in Goliath, The Mars Volta have risen above the inspired but murky noise of their last two albums – this is clearly not a collection of music you can put on and zone out to; it demands your full attention. Once you grant it that, you’ll undoubtedly agree: this album can only be called a masterpiece.
The Bedlam In Goliath
Released January 29, 2008
Universal Motown Records
4. Wax Simulacra
6. Tourniquet Man
12. Conjugal Burns