I hold a fairly different view of the Mars Volta’s career than most. Fans of the group and the progressive rock community as a whole are generally of the opinion that the band’s first two releases, De-Loused in the Comatorium (2003) and Frances the Mute (2005), are their best ones. The album that gets the least love is their stripped-down 2009 release Octahedron. While I am a fan of the Mars Volta’s off-the-rails creativity and complexity, I find their songwriting to be at its strongest on Octahedron. Their first two albums are good, but they fall prey to prog rock’s unfortunate tendency to go on for too damn long. The group’s Latin-infused brand of prog is entrancing, but it can wear out its welcome. This was very much the case with Frances the Mute’s 30-minute epic “Cassandra Gemini”. Challenging as it is, after about 15 minutes I began obsessively checking how much time was left. The concise songwriting that was present on De-Loused in the Comatorium largely faded after Frances. The following two releases were equally long, coming to a bloated conclusion in The Bedlam in Goliath.
Octahedron did two things that, for me, make it the Mars Volta’s best work. First, it emphasized ballads, an overlooked song type in progressive rock. “Televators” and “Asilos Magdalena” remain two of my favorite songs by the band, and they’re notable departures from the crazed, time signature testing cuts like “Cassandra Gemini”. Many complained about Octahedron’s prominent balladry, but I found it to play to a strength that many forget the Mars Volta have. Second, it tightened up the over-the-top songwriting that burdened records like The Bedlam in Goliath, and it did so without sacrificing the crazed songwriting that has given Omar Rodriguez-Lopez and Cedric Bixler-Zavala their name. Like “Wax Simulacra” before it, “Cotopaxi” proved that it doesn’t take upwards of 10 minutes to perform an excellent display of tempo-shifting prog rock. With this newfound focus, I hoped that there would be a continued interest in writing cohesive songs that nevertheless retain the requisite prog pyrotechnics.
Fortunately, Noctourniquet does just that. For those put off by Octahedron’s ballad-heavy track list, they’ll enjoy that much of the band’s signature prog rock is on full display here, with some new stylistics thrown in for good measure. The longest track here is “In Absentia”, and at seven and a half minutes it doesn’t outstay its welcome. Overall, Noctourniquet is the most balanced, enjoyable and accessible recording by the Mars Volta yet. It may not feature the portentous epics that dominated the first half of the band’s career, but it still retains the wholly unique sound that they’ve pioneered over the course of 10 years.
Noctourniquet is in large part comprised of songs with straightforward structures. There aren’t any multi-tiered, labyrinthine tracks, but since this is the Mars Volta, this is still pretty weird stuff. “The Malkin Jewel”, a strange choice for the lead single given the more accessible tracks present here, on paper doesn’t sound like it would work out. The song mixes Pink Floyd, reggae and electronic noodling in its five-minute runtime. It’s both one of the album’s standout cuts as well as its most challenging, which is a balance that is struck quite well throughout. “Aegis” and “Dyslexicon” are emblematic of the straightforward material, though it’s clear that what counts as “straightforward” for the Mars Volta would be batshit for anyone else. The ballads here are just as beautiful as they’ve been on past records, especially the dreamy “Empty Vessels Make the Loudest Sound”.
One stylistic emphasis that makes Noctourniquet unique among the band’s oeuvre is a heavier inclusion of electronics. Album opener “The Whip Hand” features a Nine Inch Nails-esque distorted riff, which blends in well with the overall sonic. The bridge of the title track is memorable for its use of a synth texture that sounds like a mix of Muse and retro video game scores. Realistically speaking, the Mars Volta are no stranger to any genre of music, but Noctourniquet is a plainly unique release, a considerable achievement given the wide-reaching genre spanning they’ve done.
And then there’s the lyrics. Bixler-Zavala’s writing on past Mars Volta outings has ranged from semi-poignant to absolutely incomprehensible, but overall it hasn’t usually detracted from the listening experience. On Noctourniquet, however, there’s actually some particularly memorable lines. “The Malkin Jewel” features what might go down as one of Bixler-Zavala’s best choruses yet: “All the traps in the cellar go clickety-clack / ‘Cause you know I always set them for you / And all the rats in the cellar form a vermin of steps / Yeah, you know they’re gonna take me to you.” Does it clearly make sense? Not really. But they’re delivered with a convincing menace, and in comparison with some of his weirder lyrics this is practically normal conversation. One lyric likely to become a killer sing-along at live shows is the bridge stanza to “The Whip Hand”: “I am a landmine / I am a landmine / So don’t just step on me / So don’t just step on me.” Most of the time the lyrics are Bixler-Zavala’s usual stream-of-consciousness, but Noctourniquet actually finds him moving toward coherence.
The one notable flaw with Noctourniquet is while it’s relatively concise for The Mars Volta, it still does run a little longer than it should. If tracks like “Lapochka” and “Zed and Two Naughts” were cut, the runtime would have been closer to Octahedron’s, which was fittingly concise. (Plus, “Vedamalady” and the title track should have been the songs to conclude the album, which would have given it a strong finish.) Still, given the excesses displayed on The Bedlam in Goliath, which ran 15 minutes longer than Noctourniquet, this is a warm welcome. Some will likely bemoan the lack of epics here, but that misses the skill of the Mars Volta. Prog isn’t just about writing the longest and most intricate track possible; prog began in the typical format of rock music. (Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band is commonly cited as the proto-concept album.) Noctourniquet has everything that makes the Mars Volta one of prog’s most important acts, and more importantly it cuts away much of the dead weight that dragged prior releases down. If this is any indication, the Mars Volta are likely to get better from here, as they’ve finally come to the place where they can display their musical chops without going on for too long. This marks an upward trajectory for the band, as well as what will likely be one of 2012’s best prog releases.