Friday, October 9, 2009

The Mars Volta - Octahedron (June 23, 2009)

What's this? The prestigious Mars Volta, releasing a low key, partially acoustic, synthesizer-ridden album with no saxophone? This is madness!
Well, it certainly isn't Sparta.

Its backstory time.
The Mars Volta was formed in 2001 by Cedric Bixler-Zavala and Omar Rodríguez-López, both previously of the post-hardcore group At the Drive-In (the other half of which went on to form Sparta, which is why that last joke is funny. Get it? Hilarious, right? Awesome.) Needless to say, the group was founded with more ambitious goals in mind than anything the two had previously created.

The Mars Volta actually is actually two bands, centered around the partnership of Cedric and Omar. The group who record their albums (referred to as 'The Mars Volta Group') consists of a wide array of musicians, including the esteemed and ever-musically ambitious John Frusciante. All music is written by Omar, and all lyrics by Cedric. Omar records Volta albums using a technique pioneered by jazz legend Miles Davis, in which each musician is given only their parts of a song without knowing the musical context or how important their part is. This way, they put as much of their talent into recording that standalone piece as possible, so it is even more effective when plugged into the whole again. The touring band is a more minimalist, five-piece set without members (such as Johnny Fru) who obviously can't attend a tour.

Previous to its release, Cedric claimed that he considered Octahedron to be their "acoustic" album, which perplexed nearly their entire fanbase. The band is less of a stranger to softer music than most people would think (see The Widow off of Frances the Mute) and to my delight, just because Cedric considered this to be an acoustic album doesn't mean that its actually entirely acoustic. Instead of focusing on the heavily layered loud-and-resounding sound of previous Volta songs, Octahedron aims for a more atmospheric, resonating feel that is definitely a very fresh style for them.
John Frusciante's influence is very evident on this release. At 6:50 into the first track, you can even hear his signature guitar sign-off he used on nearly every song on Stadium Arcadium (Red Hot Chili Peppers, 2006). More importantly, the ambient, textured feel closely mimics the style he adopted for his most recent solo album, The Empyrean.

The first track (as well as the first single in the Americas,) Since We've Been Wrong, is very much indicative of the rest of the album, and was one of the sons that debuted at the band's legendary acoustic performance on December 31st, 2007 at the Bill Graham Civic Auditorium in San Francisco. It begins slowly, drawing the listener in with a fade into a combination of static and tone for a whole minute and a half before beginning to reveal itself. A soft, acoustic guitar arpeggio ushers in the true start of the song, complimented by modulated frontmost guitarwork, and haunting, soaring background guitar. The chorus features Cedric harmonizing with himself in a surprisingly effective manner with some powerful guitarwork by John Frusciante floating over it, growing louder and louder until dipping back into silence, and the next verse. As the second chorus drifts in, it brings with it something truly special; as Cedric's vocals slowly become more and more mournful, the instrumentals deviate into something sadder and the first instance of any drums in the song accentuate the shift in tone perfectly. From here forwards, more and more instrumental parts find their way into the piece, until finally all dissipating into the static from which it all came. This is a powerful piece. I never could have imagined The Mars Volta creating something that evokes such a mournful feel and pulling it off so well until now, but they've proved themselves once again. Its actually truly hard to believe that this is the same band who brought us Wax Simulacra.

Teflon begins with an aggressive percussive bit before being layered with a soaring slide guitar part, modulated to sound almost as if the instrument is choking. Halo of Nembutals beings in the outro static to Teflon (the same that began Since We've Been Wrong) and is mainly driven by synthesizers and heavily modulated guitars. Cedric is absolutely in top form here as well, and showcasing the full breadth of his vocal ability. Some excellent and strangely poignant pianowork aids its outro, and direct flow into the next song, With Twilight As My Guide.

Twilight is a terrible movie. With Twilight As My Guide, however, is another acoustic guitar driven song, layered with deep, soaring Pink Floyd-reminiscent electric guitar work. Cedric once again shows off how well he can sing softly yet again. Its notable that any percussion at all is entirely missing from this song, and its rhythm is entirely based on the acoustic guitar arpeggios. The song's dissipates into a fantastic outro, driven by deep feedback roars and haunting slide guitar and devastating that is about the closest thing to Floyd I've heard a modern band accomplish.

Cotopaxi, the next song, is a bit more of a traditional hard rock track driven by a devastatingly strong guitar riff and an absolute knock-out performance by drummer Thomas Pridgen. Not only is it a departure from the rest of the album, but it also feels even more traditional than most Volta songs. This is okay though, because its still a fantastic piece. The transition from Twilight's slow, simmering outro directly into the this is about the most shocking moment on the album, and is very effective. Frusciante is prominent here as well, as his signature wah sound permeates the bridge. Cotopaxi is apparently actually a volcano in Ecuador, and this piece definitely lives up to its namesake with absolutely explosive riffs, smashing percussion, and grating synthesizers. 

Desperate Graves begins with shimmering electric guitarwork and what seems to be a wind chime, before diving deep into a heavily modulated guitar-based verse, and terse, heavy chorus. Copernicus is almost entirely vocally driven, and by far the softest song on the album. As if to break your last holding perception of the band, its also almost entirely un-embellished, except for a minor bout with a synthesizer mid-song and a little grand piano in the second half. Luciforms makes use of the same type of layering and dominating guitarwork normally indicative of the Volta, but is based around a much slower tempo.

This is an excellent album, and definitely one of my personal favorites from this past year. The Mars Volta have always aimed high in all their musical ambitions, so even when they push further out of their usual style than ever before, they've still succeed in creating something absolutely stunning. Although previous Volta fans may be initially turned off by the different approach this in this album, I'd advise you to remain open minded. Those unacquainted with TMV should absolutely check this one out, as it is slightly more accessible than the grandiose Bedlam in Goliath (or any of their previous releases, really) and could introduce you to a whole new world of fantastic music. However, I should probably warn you to remain even more open minded. This is The Mars Volta, after all.

Track Listing:
  1. Since We've Been Wrong - 7:21
  2. Teflon - 5:04
  3. Halo Of Nembutals - 5:31
  4. With Twilight As My Guide - 7:52
  5. Cotopaxi - 3:38
  6. Desperate Graves - 4:57
  7. Copernicus - 7:23
  8. Luciforms - 8:22
Highlights: Cotopaxi, Since We've Been Wrong, Teflon, Desperate Graves
Overall: ★★★★½

1 comment:

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