Brice Ezell: Noctourniquet ain’t no Abbey Road, but I would say it’s far from the collection of uneven songs that Jordan finds it to be. Unfortunately, even after managing to successfully hack off the fat of previous albums on the compact Octahedron, the band is back in hour-plus length with this LP—though, to their credit, at 64 minutes it’s still a good ten to 12 minutes less than any other of their stuff. Like The Bedlam in Goliath, there are no particularly long songs here, which signals the same failure as Bedlam: too much spread out over too many tracks. Where Noctourniquet differs, however, is in its greater emphasis on the verse/chorus structure that its predecessor began to flesh out. Bedlam is quite reliant on the labyrinthine, shift-a-minute structure that’s more prevalent in the band’s earlier work. This LP wisely takes the strengths of Octahedron and embellishes them, foregoing the emphasis on ballads and incorporating some harsher genre stylings; the Nine Inch Nails-esque buzzy distortion of opener “The Whip Hand” is a good example of this.
If nothing else, the Mars Volta ended things with the best single they ever put out: the demented rasta lounge of “The Malkin Jewel”, where Bixler-Zavla channels Roger Waters at his most demented in the chorus. “All the traps in the cellar go clickety-clack / ’Cause you know I always set them for you / All the rats in the cellar form a vermin of steps / Yeah, you know they’re gonna take me to you,” he slovenly croons, evoking the image of a late night bar singer four scotches in. Yet for every moment of heaviness or ugliness, the band brings back the beauty of Octahedron, producing some ballads equal in excellence to that album. Jordan wisely singles out “Empty Vessels Make the Loudest Sound”—a lovely title—as a standout track; the dreamy post-rock guitar tone here is a nice touch. Bixler-Zavala’s vocal performance on the one-two power ballad punch of “Vedamalady” and “Noctourniquet” can be counted amongst the most compelling of his work for the Mars Volta.
Put in the simplest way, Noctourniquet is for those who liked the accessibility of Octahedron but wished there were less ballads. Like nearly everything this group put out, it could have done with some cutting here and there; some parts in the middle and late sections drag on, and even though the song lengths here are short, the jam tendency hadn’t completely left the musicians here, resulting in sections of certain tracks that really don’t add much other than more notes on a staff. But, in the end, that’s always the band the Mars Volta was going to be: even as they pumped the brakes on Octahedron, they were never giving up on being the wild and crazy guys who wrote “Cassandra Gemini” and “Day of the Baphomets”. As I mentioned before, part of the appeal of the Mars Volta is their imperfect, ragged sonic, and for that reason, Noctourniquet may not be the perfect LP to end this revered group’s career, but it’s definitely the one they deserve. A strong but imperfect finish for a progressive rock act that’s, well, strong but imperfect.
Jordan Blum: Had the Mars Volta known that their sixth album would be their last, they might’ve put more effort into ensuring that it felt like a heartfelt, proper conclusion to their legacy. In other words, it could’ve been their Abbey Road. Unfortunately, though, Noctourniquet is closer to Let It Be—a series of lackluster tracks (save for a few) with watered down songwriting and production. Rather than a conclusive, grand statement, Noctourniquet feels like a collection B-sides and demos. Even though it has a few worthwhile moments (and an intriguing set of inspirations, including life-affirmation, Solomon Grundy, and Hyacinthus), it’s definitely their weakest release.
To be blunt, the first half of the album consists almost entirely of ugly electronic tones, dull timbres, and uninvolving melodies. Sure, it still sounds like the Mars Volta, but it’s significantly less colorful, distinct, adventurous, hypnotic, and complex; in fact, segments of tracks like “The Whip Hand” and “The Malkin Jewel” (which is far from “the best single they ever put out”, as Brice suggests) are downright irritating. To be fair, “Empty Vessels Make the Loudest Sound” is as poetic musically and lyrically as its title suggests (it would’ve fit well on Octahedron), but it’s really the only saving grace out of the first several songs.
Things pick up with “In Absentia”, which is wonderfully strange and multifaceted. Its evolution is very impressive and innovative, and its final section is outstanding. “Imago” and “Vedamalady”, with their standard forlorn melodies and introspective atmospheres, continues to make the latter portion of Noctourniquet fairly interesting, while the title track is filled with imaginative effects and engrossing dynamics. Finally, “Zed and Two Naughts” provides a biting, engaging finale with its direct chorus and clever build up.
Noctourniquet has its share of pleasing portions, but the majority of it feels relatively amateurish, repetitive, and worst of all, half-assed (for lack of a better term). It’s almost as if the duo just phoned this one in, as it’s considerably less cohesive, melodic, intricate, eccentric, and enjoyable. It’s their most inconsistent as well since the objectionable aspects far outweigh the likeable ones. The Mars Volta had a stellar reputation and track record prior to Noctourniquet, but it’s hard to argue that this one is on the same level. Rather than “strong but imperfect”, the album is weak and imperfect; rather than go out with a bang, the Mars Volta ended their career with a disjointed whimper.