[13 September 2006]
There’s not a rock band making music today that requires of its listeners the sort of patience that The Mars Volta does. Via prog leanings, extended ambient passages, and lyrics that are in languages unfamiliar to the band’s listeners half the time (and even when the words can be understood, the meanings remain elusive), this is a band that has always required commitment from its fans, a willingness do dig through the intentionally nigh-impenetrable shrouds that The Mars Volta constantly clothes its music in. This tendency came to a head with last year’s Frances the Mute, a 77-minute suite broken up into five (or twelve, depending on who you ask) tracks that confounded (and, about half the time, thrilled) fans and critics alike, putting all of the band’s influences, from krautrock to salsa to, of course, prog-metal, into a soup that didn’t always blend and didn’t always satisfy, but at least generated a number of great talking points.
Of course, such a mammoth effort always comes accompanied by the inevitable question: How in the hell can The Mars Volta possibly follow it up?
The answer has arrived in far shorter order than pretty much anyone could have imagined, a mere year-and-a-half after Frances the Mute first (legitimately) graced our ears. It is called Amputechture, and despite wielding another total running time between 76 and 77 minutes, despite featuring a song (“Tetragrammaton”) that passes the 16-minute mark and two more that top 11, and despite the number of musical styles and influences being pretty much equal to those of Frances the Mute, Amputechture is the album for those myriad listeners who had cited irreconcilable differences and given up on The Mars Volta. Amputechture is the album where The Mars Volta proves that old, ancient adage: It’s not about the size, it’s about how you use it.
Rather than utilize the type of album-wide story arc that was used on Frances the Mute and The Mars Volta’s debut full-length De-Loused in the Comatorium, Amputechture‘s songs are self-contained. Sure, there’s an overriding theme (that being the abuse and fear of religion), but every song on Amputechture has its own themes, its own styles, and its own overall feel, this last of which being what makes Amputechture such an eminently satisfying listen—it’s as if you’re listening to the band’s short stories, rather than another novel, and you can dissect those stories irrespective of the other entries in the collection. Sure, there are overlapping themes and lyrical motifs, but those will reveal themselves over time and repeated listens, and until then, the satisfaction of unraveling the individual tracks is enough to keep the attentive listener coming back to learn and listen once more.
And to rock out. Did I mention the rocking out?
I’m not sure how to quantify it, exactly, but the guitar sound on Amputechture is a bit less abstract than that of The Mars Volta’s previous efforts, and this may have something to do with the fact that it is none other than John Frusciante playing most of the guitar parts (parts that, granted, were still written by Omar Rodriguez-Lopez). Even as this is a Mars Volta album, and even though Frusciante didn’t exactly come up with the guitar bits himself, it’s impossible to believe that his presence isn’t contributing to a far more listenable incarnation of the band he is guest-shredding for. Not that the guitars even play the most important role in most of the songs anyway; pseudo-title track “Meccamputechture” is dominated by (now former) drummer Jon Theodore’s 6/8 interpolation of John Bonham’s breaking levee that, remarkably, only changes in very subtle ways over the course of that song’s 11 minutes, and “Day of the Baphomets” is dominated almost entirely by the bass line it sports, even in the time after the tremendous bass solo (performed by now-regular bassist Juan Alderete). Where the guitars do get to shine, they seem to have almost as much to do with ‘80s cock-rock as they do with ‘70s prog, taking an almost melodramatic approach to subject matter that could, at worst, seem awfully academic.
Fortunately, Cedric Bixler-Zavala is rarely reduced to the sort of rote complaining about Christianity that most musical attacks on religion fall into. For every slightly cringe-inducing passage like “Your convalescent thorns are but a crown of maggots”, Bixler-Zavala has 10 more evocative passages, using imagery and juxtaposition to make their points rather than direct attacks. “Gathered by the cholera / Rinse the burns in cauldrons / Help the palm we see a lens / My hands secrete a monument,” he sings with no small amount of venom in “Day of the Baphomets”, words that could surely be analyzed any number of ways, though taking into account that Baphomet was a name applied to a pagan idol, it’s no small stretch to see lyrics that see little difference between worshipping idols, demons, or gods, Christian or otherwise. Stretches like this are all over Amputechture.
All of the players, for their part, maintain their respective traditions of tight, almost too-calculatedly perfect playing and singing, with Bixler-Zavala’s voice reaching heights on a regular basis that it has hinted at in the past but never explored to this degree. Still, again, subtlety is the order of the day, as the changing keys and just-noticeable shifts in tempo that mark the Spanish-language acoustic ballad “Asilos Magdalena” are at least as affecting as the multiple, far more jarring transitions that happen in a beast like “Tetragrammaton”. This attention to detail is the mark of a band continuing to develop, even as it was assumed that their sound had been taken nearly as far as it could go. It’s a wonderful sound.
Throw a couple of potential singles into the mix (it was at one point assumed that the four-minute, “The Widow”-like “Vermicide” would be the lead single, though a far more rock radio-ready version of the scathing “Viscera Eyes” showed up on MySpace for a little while before the band just decided to stream the whole album), and what we have is a complete, near-perfect expression of everything the Mars Volta currently stands for, with an emphasis on actual songcraft—direction where once there was aimlessness. Ultimately, Amputechture is the most complete, most listenable, and most accomplished album from the band to date. Give it the patience it deserves.