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Review: The Mars Volta’s Octahedron Rises Above The Bedlam in Goliath

June 22, 2009

What The Mars Volta have achieved as a band in roughly seven years, five studio albums, one live recording and an EP has been to create a body of work of significant magnitude.  To do so before either Omar Rodríguez-López or front man Cedric Bixler-Zavala thirty-fifth year of age, is nothing short of remarkable, especially in an era of manufactured musicianship and a world of ill-informed listenership.  In all seriousness, how much of contemporary and popular music has a point of reference going farther back than The Beatles?

June 23rd, 2009 marks the U.S. release of The Mars Volta’s fifth studio release, Octahedron, an album which lead guitarist and album producer, Omar Rodríguez-López has called the band’s “acoustic album”.  Every serious TMV fan should know to take these words with a certain grain of salt, as just about everything the band does is not what it seems.

The sense that this is the band’s most accessible album since the band’s definitive album Frances the Mute, is not without merit.  Many fans over the years have been divided over the artistic success of Amputechture as an album.  While a significant amount of their fans stand by the album as one of their masterworks, few will argue that appreciation of its Zappa-esque and heavily Jazz-inspired riffs take some work to appreciate.  Its follow-up, 2008’s The Bedlam in Goliath is likely to stir even more controversy amongst listeners.  Hardcore fans alike will call it everything from garbage to genius.  In my opinion, Bedlam lacks a cohesion certainly over Frances, but even the at times disparate  Amputechture.  Bedlam is much more academic in nature.  It’s the album you put on realizing that you should, and upon re-listening you rediscover why you should listen to it.

Octahedron comes in at an economical 50 minutes, and one might complain it does so in short bursts averaging in five minute lengths.  It does so however, with an artistic cohesion much more akin to the all-around brilliant Frances. While songs like “With Twilight as My Guide” and “Copernicus” are amongst the album’s most mellow, songs such as “Halo of Nembutals” bridge the divide nicely to create an overall engaging song-scape.

Perhaps more than any other band, The Mars Volta are a band that records different albums certainly when they are in the studio, but as anyone who is familiar with their live repertoire, performances of even their most signature of songs can vary greatly.  From album to album, lead singer Cedric Bixler-Zavala uses his voice differently, often having more in common with a shredding guitar or percussion instrument (very much to his credit), than a finely honed vocal instrument.  Octohedron presents in Cedric’s voice, an instrument of greater precision and for some, accessibility.  Just as much as this album deserves a certain level of attention to really pick up on it’s finest moments, it’s also most likely to be the album easiest to play in the background.

Lead guitarist and once again producer, Omar Rodríguez-López offers up a rock solid foundation of guitar work and dense production value.  The production value, and to a certain extent the contemporary taste for digital clarity and compression, leaves me wishing that I could hear an analog master.  If I had any complaint about the sound of this album, it’s a lack of warmth and space even within the most wide open sounding of pieces.  Despite that, there continues to be a level of melodiousness that can be found in the most chaotic cuts such as Cotopaxi and Teflon.

Octahedron, nor TMV are not likely to start show up in the easy listening bin, nor have they started to put out offerings which diverge from their sound, or worse yet, feel like they are selling out.  And while continuing to chart their own territory, listeners will find sounds and themes reminiscent of bands such as Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd or even the guitar work of Mike Oldfield.

The music and work of The Mars Volta will likely continue to challenge it’s most ardent fans, or confound it’s biggest critics, but the most serious of music listeners will continue to find a level of musicianship well above average, leaning into flashes of genius.  The Mars Volta to their credit, still have better albums in them.  What is often most promising about them as musicians and performers is that they don’t simply go in to the studio to record the next album, but instead to focus on the next piece of a larger body of work.  It’s for that reason that I defy deriding any of their work even when it has been less satisfying; their least successful work is still better than the average mainstream release today.  There are albums which are more successful than others, some more accessible to an audience unaccustomed to listening beyond a superficial level.  And as polarizing as their work and sound can be, they continue to produce work that matters.

Octahedron feels to me like work on the verge of something bigger, and even more epic.  Not just the next Frances the Mute, but an even more challenging and thrilling level of sound and performance.  This is what defines them as one of the few truly progressive bands to be called “Progressive Rock”.

The lion’s share of bands carrying the “Prog” label continue to be of a singular sound which has not progressed one iota in thirty years.  Staid, safe and exceedingly similar.  This is largely due to TMV playing well-outside the genre, and venturing well into the realms of progressive forms of Jazz, Psychedelic Rock and Latin music.  They expand the genre by shattering it.  The day that they come to record an album that fans will expect, is the day that their music becomes safe and the thought of “selling out” becomes a possibility.

Cedric Bixler-Zavala has said in reference to the album: “We know how people can be so linear in their way of thinking, so when they hear the new album, they’re going to say, ‘This is not an acoustic album! There’s electricity throughout it!’ But it’s our version. That’s what our band does — celebrate mutations. It’s our version of what we consider an acoustic album’.”  It’s those mutations of genre expectations, sounds and performance landscape that listeners to continue to expect.  I don’t pretend to imagine that all fans of The Mars Volta will like Octahedron, but perhaps it will introduce new listeners to the band.  And as long as the band continues to push themselves and their listeners, they will have ardent fans, and the fans will have something to look forward to.

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