If any group in modern music typifies the extremities of this statement, it is The Mars Volta. For a decade now they have taken listeners on journeys through space and time with lead singer Cedric Bixler-Zavala’s cryptically woven tales of tragedy layered upon the dizzying arrangements of guitarist/composer mastermind Omar Rodriguez-Lopez. After 3 years (which is an eternity in the Volta universe) the band returns with Noctourniquet, a radically different body of work that takes the shape-shifting band into yet another new direction while maintaining certain signature elements.
In retrospect, 2008’s Grammy winning album Bedlam In Goliath was a kitchen sink approach to a farewell to classic Mars Volta. It contained everything the band was known for in: complex lyrical themes, long intricate song arrangements and a wall of sound performance from many musicians all at once. Yet amongst all this one could tell they were also toying with a more direct approach, as evidenced on the terse “Wax Simulcra.”
Then came 2009’s Octahedron. It was the cool blue water of calm in comparison to the raging fires of chaos and madness in Bedlam. Few songs reached past the 5 minute mark and there was even a straight forward ballad in album opener “Since We’ve Been Wrong.” Despite be derided eventually by Omar and many of the loyal fanbase as being a lesser album, it actually stands as one of their most concise statements to date, containing some of their most emotionally affecting songwriting. Some hoped for a “return to form” after this, but the band claimed they were taking off in another new direction, labeling their new work as “future punk.”
The Mars Volta’s Zed and Two Naughts
While most of the finished product seems ill-fitting of that description, Noctourniquet is a distinct break from everything that has come before. The complex arrangements of multiple movements are even more absent than on Octa and the whole affair is much more downbeat than any of their previous work. Even the melodic keyboard work of integral member Ikey Owens is gone, replaced with strange, haunting synths and electronic elements. The approach is far more direct than ever before, replacing arrangement complexity with complexity of sound layers—despite the songs being simpler, the soundscapes of each song are lush.
The album begins with the discordant “The Whip Hand,” a song with plenty of menace that explodes into a chorus bristling with Industrial-tinged, woozy synth lines as Cedric shrieks, “that’s when I disconnect from you.” This song typifies what to these untrained ears is a major difference between this and any other release of theirs: musically it’s as if Cedric and Omar’s roles have switched. In previous efforts Cedric was the melodic glue that held together the wild and often times unmelodic musings of Omar’s guitar. This time, Omar has provided a mostly gorgeous melodic backdrop, working in harmony with his guitar like never before, creating beautiful melodies. Now it is Cedric that sounds predominantly in the minor key, singing dissonant notes that at first listen almost threaten to bust apart the consonance concocted. Taken after several listens it is apparent that it is a brilliant counter-point to his partner’s musical choices.
“Aegis” sounds frightened and ominous, especially with the chilling delivery of lines like “where the children are seen not heard.” Two of the subsequent tracks seem like they could be alternative universe latter-day At The Drive-In tracks. In “Dyslexicon” Bixler shouts about humans being “cattle to the prod” and burning a dictionary–one can’t help but think of their previous band’s frenetic delivery. With its bizarre Tom Waits-like stomp and cadence, strange choice for lead single “The Malkin Jewel” finds release in the chorus as again he shouts, this time speaking of a “vermin of steps that’ll take me to you!” If ATDI continued one can almost imagine a middle-aged version of the band doing strange numbers like this that still show vestiges of fist-pumping shouts of old. While it may have seemed like a sin previously to compare their current work to their past band, their brief reformation brings to mind these thoughts and one can’t help but ponder the what-ifs and view some of their work in that context.
The strange and twisted pinnacle of the album, “In Absentia” sports the longest song length by far. It is a mini-epic where the first portion has so many strange effects and loops it feels overwhelming to the point of feeling intoxicating, but then through the fog you hear him lament his stolen love and halfway through the non-traditional song turns on a dime and is suddenly awash in shimmering synths and sweet yet pleading vocals. It’s a complicated song in more ways than one and must be experienced to be understood. “Imago” is catchy and heartfelt in the most wonderful way and “Molochwalker” is a taste of the classic Volta sound with a breakneck pace.
With that jolt of energy out of the way, a morose and helplessness shrouds most of the back half of the album with “Trinkets Pale of Moon” practically being an acoustic ballad and “Vedamalady” lamenting “I’m alone, I’m alone in flight.” Even with its intermittent shouts and jagged guitar licks, title track “Noctourniquet” comes off feeling like a continuation of the bleak feelings of the previous tracks. Then in traditional Volta fashion the album ends with bang. In “Zed and Two Naughts” (a clever way of saying Zoo) the narrator accepts and participates in the horrors of the world he’s in, “hanging wreaths of cancer on every door where children sing.” It’s grim stuff but makes for a powerful close to truly unique listening experience.
It’s no surprise that the album feels so dark and down-tempo—the two main sources of inspiration for the lyrics are the myth of Hyacinth and the tale of Solomon Grundy (no, not the comics villain), both figures who die tragically early. In this regard, death is yet again the inspiration for some of the most potent stories the band has told as they elaborate on how the cycle of abuse perpetuates itself.
Thankfully this review took a while to come to fruition. If it had been written immediately upon the album’s release it would be telling you how the band had finally created a disappointing release. Previous albums, especially the first 4 felt like a wild ride on a runaway mine cart: hurtling towards destruction at high speed, capable of going off the rails at any second. Yet it never did. They always managed to keep things on track and the sense that everything could fall apart any moment was half the fun. Octahedron was like being bucked off the mine cart and wandering through a dark mine of spooky, evocative scenes. Noctourniquet is nothing like this. Fortunately it sunk in: this album starts the listener in space, the origin of this virus of language. Over the course of the album the listener descends through different atmospheres and landscapes, sinking further into an intimidating cavern of despair. The ride may be different and jarring at first, but it’s just as rewarding if given a proper chance. Eventually it will infect you like the aforementioned virus. Give it several listens so that you may take the journey and come one step closer to understanding the beautiful and twisted dyslexicon of The Mars Volta.
Jarad Matula | Senior Writer