Jordan Blum: Released a mere year and a half after Frances the Mute, the Mars Volta’s third album is their first without a unifying narrative. Rather than continue to work with revered artist Storm Thorgerson (whom they used for their previous two LPs), this release introduces Jeff Jordan as the artist for the band’s covers and booklet (making it appear somewhat like the initial entry in a trilogy). Musically, Amputechture feels like a warmer, more consistent and confident synthesis of its predecessors; on the other hand (and in contrast to Brice’s take), it isn’t as exciting or daring as either De-Loused in the Comatorium or Frances the Mute, which makes the record both a step forward and a step backward.
Amputechture begins with “Vicarious Atonement”, a bluesy, psychedelic song filled with regret. It evolves nicely thanks to its colorful timbres, such as dissonant horns, keyboard drones, and soundscapes. It shifts into the much busier “Tetragrammaton” without pause. At roughly 16 minutes in length, it’s easily the album’s most versatile offering. Refreshingly complicated segments provide the transitions between its various hectic and introspective, soothing moments. An abundance of engaging melodies and luminous construction help it stand out as one of the band’s best pieces.
Elsewhere, “Vermicide” is an impenitently gripping throwback to ‘70s hard rock, while “Meccamputechture” moves with relentless momentum as it draws listeners in. The way it establishes a central motif, strays from it wildly, and recalls again near the end is ingenious. “Asilos Magdalena” is a haunting acoustic track in which Bixler-Zavala speaks ominously in Spanish, whereas “Viscera Eyes”, with its biting riffs and hooks, is highly invigorating. Finally, “Day of the Baphomets” is arguably the most out of control sector on Amputechture, which is a nice contrast to the abstract calmness of closer “El Ciervo Vulnerado”. Utilizing a strong Middle Eastern influence, it’s probably the most otherworldly thing the Mars Volta has ever done.
Even though it does a lot of things marvelously, Amputechture ultimately suffers a bit from its slightly safe and complacent approach. It’s still packed with unusual behavior, masterful musicianship, and striking vocals, but it doesn’t feel sufficiently risky or farsighted. Don’t me get wrong—Amputechture is a thoroughly fantastic affair, but it’s not quite as remarkable as its predecessors or two immediate successors.
Brice Ezell: Released only a year after Frances the Mute, Amputechture is in some senses as dense—at 76 minutes, the band still hadn’t found in a way to cut away at their overflowing excess—but it has a much more sensible ambition than Frances. There are no thirty minute epics here, though three of the tracks run over ten minutes, with the classic rock-inspired “Tetragrammaton” topping the list at sixteen. A greater emphasis on hooks and catchiness is also present, with the groovy chorus of lead single “Viscera Eyes” standing out amongst an overall strong collection of songs. Amputechture is a leaps-and-bounds improvement over Frances the Mute and even De-Loused in the Comatorium for these reasons, among many others. Given that the latter part of the Mars Volta’s career involved trading in zany progisms for comparatively concise, verse/chorus songwriting (especially on Octahedron), it’s the go-to album for anyone looking to find the group at their most convincingly apeshit. This LP still has the roughness around the edges that in many ways defines the style of the band’s songwriting—there is something appealing about their imperfections—but the balance of ambition with sensibility that’s present here is unlike any other of their works. Jordan is right when he says that it is a step back ambition-wise for the group, but for those not able to handle language-melding, hyper-kinetic 30-minute epics—such as myself—it’s exactly the right move to make. For any other band this would be the point where they’d stop advancing their sound and instead begin refining it (see Dream Theater post-Octavarium), which is often viewed as a moment of weakness. In this case, it’s what makes Amputechture such a well-rounded experience.
Case in point: “Day of the Baphomets ”, undoubtedly the defining off-the-wall jam these nutty musicians ever wrote. Especially in the chaotic live version performed on Henry Rollins’s program, the song makes one forget for a moment that these are the guys who struggled to keep “Cassandra Gemini” afloat. Juan Alderete kicks things off with the best bass playing in the Volta discography, laying down a positively wicked solo that hints at many of the themes that will recur later in the track. The interplay between Alderete and guitarists Rodríguez-López and John Frusciante (of the Red Hot Chili Peppers fame) is as technically impressive as this band ever got; after the opening solo, where the guitar repeats a single picked note to establish the rhythm, the bass and guitars trade off solo and rhythm duties, with a seamlessness of a jazz trio. On its own, “Day of the Baphomets” outdoes anything on Frances the Mute.
Fortunately, the rest of the tracks are largely up to par with the quality of “Baphomets”. The equally windy but less intense “Tetragrammaton” is a showcase for the guitar techniques of the Mars Volta, with Frusciante and Rodríguez-López demonstrating their chops both in tone and playing ability. And, continuing in the tradition of excellent balladry, there’s “Asilos Madgalena”, sung entirely in Spanish in one of Bixler-Zavala’s most haunting vocal performances. There is an extremely veiled (read: impenetrable) critique of religion that runs throughout the lyric sheet of Amputechture, and “Asilos Magdalena” (“Asylum Mary Magdalene”) is where the lyrics reach some level of understandable criticism. Aside from having the best line Bixler-Zavala ever wrote—“Y ya no estoy enamorado con tus mentiras” (“I am no longer in love with your lies”)—the narrative here, a Mary Magdalene revenge tale that sounds ripped out of an obscure black metal album somewhere, is intriguing both in concept alone and its pseudo-literary proclivities. On paper “Asilos Magdalena” is utterly ridiculous, but if you haven’t bought into ridiculousness at this point in listening to the Mars Volta, then you’re likely completely lost.