erasing clouds

The Mars Volta, Frances the Mute

reviewed by matthew webber

Seldom have I cared less about lyrics than I do on the new The Mars Volta album.

The progressive (as in prog rock) half of disbanded post-rock heroes At The Drive In, The Mars Volta's two main authors, guitarist Omar Rodriguez-Lopez and singer Cedric Bixler Zavala, have crafted a Pink Floyd-style concept album about disconnected humanity. I think. The five suites on Frances the Mute, with names like "Cygnus... Vismund Cygnus" and "Miranda That Ghost Just Isn't Holy Anymore," are comprised of shorter musical sections, themselves with names like "Umbilical Syllables" and "Multiple Spouse Wounds," that are alternatingly mute and deafness-inducing.

This is the music Radiohead should make, and also the music they shouldn't, not with that band's infrequently used gift of songcraft. The Mars Volta hasn't written anything as beautiful as "Fake Plastic Trees" yet, but it has managed to successfully compose a soundtrack to everything loud, discordant, and violent, complete with ambient segues. Even when the transitions meander a bit, which they sometimes do (just like Radiohead), it's worth the wait for the payoff. The brashest bits on this record are the stuff of escapist fantasies, practically demanding volume-knob twisting and steering-wheel drumming, and that's completely ignoring the vocals.

Even the modern rock hit, "The Widow," the album's shortest song, contains lines about "fasting black lungs made of clove splintered shardes [sic]/they're the kind that will talk through a wheezing of coughs," which can't mean anything much other than this song is awesome! Zavala shrieks like Heart's Ann Wilson, while Rodriguez-Lopez shreds like Nancy Wilson at her "Barracuda" best; not that Heart has more than two other good songs or is otherwise similar or relevant to anything The Mars Volta is doing or that the "25 wives in the lake tonight ... 25 snakes pour out your eyes" as sung about in "Cassandra Gemini" wouldn't eat a barracuda, but I digress.

The suites, titles, and cryptic cover artwork draw obvious comparisons to other conceptual bands, most of whom The Mars Volta lays to waste within the album's first five minutes. The problem with most concept albums is the corny narrative that takes attention away from the sometimes-awesome music - at least in the case of Rush, whose idea of "progressive" was a temple-dwelling sect of priests living in a time just seven years from today - and, as far as I care to tell, The Mars Volta resists this temptation by issuing no discernible messages to overpower their spooky imagery. Their words, the ones I catch over the caterwauling, anyway, seem to be bilingual free associations about, I don't know, dead people. In fact, I don't know what anything on the album means, a fact that probably negates their hard work, but I AM COMPLETELY OKAY WITH THIS.

Every time a feedback drone explodes into something shocking, I accept it. The Mars Volta doesn't waste words, and I shouldn't either. Suffice it to say, had this album come out when I was 13, I may not have needed Dark Side of the Moon. I actually would have cared to decipher every song. I would have read the band's lyrics as poetry. I probably would have entered at least one different entry in my aforementioned favorite-artists list. Then, as now, I would let my mind get blown.

That beat, my friend, is correct.

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