Apparently nobody has told The Mars Volta that it isn’t cool to mash words to make album and song titles anymore. But Cedric Bixler-Zavala and Omar Rodríguez-López love portmanteau, and thusly have named the band’s sixth album Noctourniquet. The concept for this album centers on a character based on the mythical Greek figure Hyacinthus and Superman villain Solomon Grundy. Ahhhh, welcome back, boys!
The album is the Volta’s first in three years, easily the band’s longest span between albums. Rodríguez-López thinks all of his ideas are worthy of publication (The man released 19 solo albums from 2007-10… 19.) and this prolific tendency has certainly affected the quality of TMV’s output. Taking three years on a record points toward a more careful craft, but as it turns out, the cause for delay was Bixler-Zavala’s inability to keep up with Rodríguez-López’s pace (Can you blame the guy?). Still, for the first time in a while, it seems The Mars Volta has given an album some time to breathe. Does it show? Not exactly.
Opener “The Whip Hand” sets up a dissonant groove but settles down a little for the verses, which really could have been compelling if Bixler-Zavala tried to write an actual melody. The song ends with him proclaiming, “I am a landmine,” the first catch phrase he’s provided fans since, “25 wives in the lake tonight.” If only it sounded half as cool.
Also, the band seems to be trying to incorporate synthesizers in light of the recent success of electronic music. The synth line is grimey and off-putting. The bizarre thing is that it’s higher up in the mix than anything Ikey Owens had ever done with the group, and this is the first record without him.
Also unexplainably higher in the mix is first-time drummer Deantoni Parks. He often attempts recreating the manic Latin-prog style of Jon Theodore, a facsimile which accurately replicates the style, but leaves out the soul. Other times, as on “Dyslexicon” (again with the portmanteau!), he tries the spastic and pummeling style of Thomas Pridgen, but sounds tame in comparison. Simply put, the keys and drums have the least identity of any Volta record so far; listeners have to wonder why after all this time they are just now getting this sort of attention.
The band sounds most comfortable in the second track, “Aegis,” the closest tune to capture the natural energy of 2003’s De-Loused in the Comatorium. It brings forth some promise, which the team quickly breaks going into the rest of the album. There are good moments throughout, but it’s incredibly spotty and only made worse by the volume of material.
Bixler-Zavala spends so much time trying different styles throughout the record that he forgets that, as a vocalist, he is supposed to carry a tune. It seems like Rodríguez-López had some decent ideas, but Bixler-Zavala didn’t follow through with his parts. His melodies are often lazily constructed and less than memorable. When he’s on, he’s one of the most unique and captivating frontmen in rock, but instead of just being that guy, he tries to be a lot more. It isn’t necessary or beneficial. This is the same guy who said he didn’t want to “hold the listener’s hand” and that “The Widow” was the worst thing the band has ever done, so this behavior doesn’t come as a surprise. It’s just a shame that he doesn’t see how detrimental this mentality has been.
What does Noctourniquet do right? It finds a middle ground between the extremes of The Bedlam in Goliath and Octahedron. There is a balance of bombast and subtlety. The “ballads” are improved, too. While Bixler-Zavala’s abstract lyrics don’t really make for great ballads, at least this time the arrangements don’t give too much space for the vocals to command the tracks. Tracks such as “Empty Vessels Make the Loudest Sound” and “Vedamalady” bear legitimate beauty and strong dynamics.
Since this material has been in the works for years, the recent At the Drive-In reunion really doesn’t invigorate the sound at all. Diehard fans may reject criticism as failure to accept change, but that’s far from the case. The Mars Volta has failed to find natural inspiration and, instead of focusing on its strengths, the band continues to force creativity. The difference isn’t just something you can hear; it’s something you can feel. Hopefully the guys will remember what it’s like to harness raw energy and passion like they did in ATDI and won’t be so numb next time around.
The Mars Volta – Noctourniquet tracklist:
- “The Whip Hand”
- “Empty Vessels Make the Loudest Sound”
- “The Malkin Jewel”
- “In Abesntia”
- “Trinkets Pale of Moon”
- ” Vedamalady”
- “Zed and Two Naughts”