The Mars Volta

Octahedron

by Chris Conaton

21 June 2009

This isn't the Mars Volta's "acoustic" record, but the usual indie-prog craziness is toned down to highlight slower, calmer material.
 
cover art

The Mars Volta

Octahedron

(Warner Bros.)
US: 23 Jun 2009
UK: 22 Jun 2009

Has it been 18 months already? Then it must be time for another album from the Mars Volta. Interestingly, though, Omar Rodriguez-Lopez, Cedric Bixler-Zavala, and their cohorts have decided to do something different this time out. Octahedron is almost exactly the inverse of the formula the band has been following since they started. Instead of an album full of crazy prog-rock jams broken up by the occasional slow song, this album is dominated by slow ballads and mid-tempo rock songs and broken up by a couple of crazy, fast pieces. As a listener who has often wished that the band would just focus themselves and rein in their tendency for extended jams and long stretches of boring ambiance, Octahedron at first blush seems like a dream come true.

But upon further examination, it seems that the Mars Volta reining themselves in and concentrating at least a bit more on songwriting has resulted in an album that teeters dangerously close to being quite dull at times. Be careful what you wish for, right? Octahedron announces its intentions right from the start, as “Since We’ve Been Wrong” begins with 90 seconds of near-silence before the song actually gets in gear. And when it does it’s a tender, regretful ballad with a pretty acoustic guitar line and really nice singing from Bixler-Zavala. A tasteful lead electric guitar complements the vocals excellently, and the song finishes up before it wears out its welcome. This leads nicely into “Teflon”, a straightforward mid-tempo rocker with plenty of noisy guitar effects swirling around Bixler-Zavala’s vocals. It even has a catchy chorus “Let the wheels burn / let the wheels burn / stack the tires to the neck / with the body inside.” After this pair of understated songs, you’d expect the band to be ready to rock out, but “Halo of Nembutals” does not. It also begins softly, with quiet noises for 30 seconds before opening up into a power ballad. Drummer Thomas Pridgen deserves most of the credit for keeping this song from becoming boring. His drum performance is intense and interesting, and his raw power keeps the song moving. Bixler-Zavala’s vocals are uncharacteristically snotty-sounding here, and it sounds, oddly enough, like he’s imitating My Chemical Romance frontman Gerard Way for much of the song.

“With Twilight as My Guide” is nearly eight minutes long, but mines similar acoustic-electric territory as “Since We’ve Been Wrong”. This is where Octahedron really begins to wear out its welcome. It doesn’t help that the last two-and-a-half minutes of the song is an outro dominated by single-note guitar noodling, soft organ chords, and somebody having way too much fun playing wind chimes. Finally, though, five songs in, the hard-rock side of the Mars Volta emerges. “Cotopaxi” is a concise, three-and-a-half minute rocker that grooves along on an odd time signature driven by Rodriguez-Lopez’s guitar and Pridgen’s drums. Bixler-Zavala hits the high notes on this one and it breaks up the rest of the album nicely, even though it comes a couple of songs too late. But it’s the only hint of hard-and-heavy here; there’s no seven-minute “Goliath” or 16-minute “Tetragrammaton” to wade through on this album. Next up, “Desperate Graves” resembles “Teflon” as another mid-tempo song with a catchy vocal performance. But Octahedron comes to a close with the quiet, seven-minutes-plus of “Copernicus” and the eight-minute “Luciforms”. The former is not particularly noteworthy or interesting. The latter starts off slow, but eventually grows into the sort of apocalyptic closing jam that is right in the Mars Volta’s wheelhouse.

As a fan of prog-rock and concept albums in general, this is the point where I’d usually take apart the concept and story a bit. But I’ve long since stopped trying to decipher the Mars Volta’s lyrics. Every album they release is a concept album, but even when the band discusses the story ad nauseum (Hello, The Bedlam in Goliath!), it’s still nearly impossible to suss out a narrative from the cracked, stream-of-consciousness lyrics. Octahedron‘s lyrics are a little more together than usual, but still a degree of obtuseness remains. On the other hand, it’s interesting to note that “The Mars Volta Group”, which is what Rodriguez-Lopez calls the band (The Mars Volta is technically just him and Bixler-Zavala) seems to have shrunk by two members on this record. Gone is the saxophone of Adrián Terrazas-González, which had become a major part of the band’s sound, while guitarist/sound manipulator Paul Hinojos is nowhere to be found in the album’s credits, either. Neither are particularly missed in these songs, but it seems odd that two full-time members wouldn’t be invited to record at all this time out.

In the end, Octahedron is a solid album that probably has two slow songs too many. While previous albums tended to lean too far towards indie-prog insanity, this one leans too far in the other direction. But the band is still doing basically the same things they always have. They aren’t trying anything particularly new or adventurous here, they’ve just changed their ratio of slow-to-fast on its head. The result is that curious newcomers might feel more welcome listening to Octahedron, but they probably shouldn’t be fooled into thinking that this album is what the band is all about. However, existing fans of the band will find a lot to like about the album even with the usual craziness toned down a bit.

Octahedron

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