The Mars Volta have positioned themselves against a wall, doing what other bands only wish they could: debut with two brilliant albums. Since then, the fanbase has split from those deeply wanting the band to live in a vacuum in which they only recreate past magic, while others see the inherent talent of those involved and hope for growth and experimentation. The band has straddled that line over the past decade, releasing a few duds and a couple stunners, while still providing one of the best live shows in the world. With Noctourniquet, the microscope is once again resting directly upon the band's ability to produce at a high level.
So, did they do it? Well, actually, yeah, they kinda did.
The album opens with one of the most off-time beats I have ever heard in "The Whip Hand," but includes some fuzzy guitar work and a structure akin to, well, nobody. The initial cohesion is absent, but Cedric Bixler-Zavala remains silky and slimy while dripping his vocals down the microphone. The song would have been a problem half-way into the listening session, but it works as an oddball opener.
"Aegis" gets the album back on track, with the ethereal sound the band writes into so well. Although the song structure fits more of an A/B/A/B style than usual, it's definitely the core of what works within their dichotomy. Beyond the standard vocal effects common on a Mars Volta album, the pace and sheer eeriness of this track makes it stand out above the pack. They were wise to put this one in the top half.
"The days are catching up to me/my unconscious fear unbound/Is it time to tailor fit the notion/that come Sunday I'm in the ground?"
"Connected tracks" is a running theme, as "Dyslexicon" picks up right where "Aegis" left off, with a looping guitar whoosh and an almost child-like prose, nearing the brink of sing-song, almost certainly done intentionally to highlight the themes of youth, innocence, and faith. Of course, if you asked Bixler-Zavala himself he would tell you it's about Taco Bell and crocs, as almost every interview with that chap is a gigantic run-around. Call it enigmatic, or call him an asshole, but he at least lets the music speak for itself.
My personal favorite is the 7-minute "In Absentia," a slow-churning number that is almost split into two tracks, an ethereal spacejam that turns into a brilliant piece of guitar picking/harmonics/who knows what from Omar Rodriguez-Lopez. This track splits the album right in half and gives the listener motivation to see the whole project through, and they should, as the experimental sound machine kicks into higher gear with the next tracks, "Imago" and "Molochwalker."
The revolving door of drummers has blatantly hurt this band, as Jon Abraham's fierce tempo or Thomas Pridgen's sheer speed would have elevated this album from "memorable" to "mesmerizing." Add in the loss of keyboard master Ikey Owens and long-time gap created by Jeremy Michael Ward's death in 2003, and you have a radically different band then the one that debuted with one of the best albums of this century in De-Loused in the Comatorium. The flip side is that the vocals and guitar feel more cohesive than ever before, as the two sustaining and original members are beyond familiar with one another, they are nearly symbiotic. These songs seemed primed and ready for live performance, the opposite plan for most TMV songs, as they tend to jam on-stage and bring those impromptu rhythms to their next recording session. I would not recommend this album for those unfamiliar with The Mars Volta, but for any fan that lost faith after Frances the Mute, this would be the perfect intro back into a decidedly different, but unquestionably dazzling musical force.
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