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The Mars Volta

Frances the Mute

(Universal; US: 1 Mar 2005; UK: 21 Feb 2005)

The moment that the Mars Volta’s new album Frances the Mute leaked, listeners began reacting strongly to it. PopMatters writers Justin Cober-Lake and Adrien Begrand responded in polarized ways, and their initial e-mail discussions became the basis for a joint review. After many listens, much thought, and careful discussion, they each think the other one is wrong.

First, I’m struck by how well the Mars Volta assimilate such a variety of styles. While Frances the Mute is essentially a prog album, these guys are pulling in elements of metal, post-punk, Latin (to be vague about it), and never dropping the rock. What’s impressive isn’t so much that they can do all these styles, but that they can merge them into a singular vision.

The band’s talent is jaw-dropping; we all knew that when Relationship of Command came out, and if there’s one band who can restore hope in everything that’s great about progressive rock, it’s The Mars Volta. They pull out all the stops on the new album, and the way the band shifts from style to style is very impressive, but what I find most distressing about the entire album is its complete lack of focus. It seems that in the process of pulling out every audacious musical trick they could come up with, they completely lose track of where they’re going. The technical prowess on the album is undeniable, but the music always seems to meander too much. It feels like Frances was constructed in between bong hits.

From what I know about the band, that last sentence is probably true, but I don’t feel like the songs go nowhere. Instead, I think they develop sensibly, and maybe thinking of them as divided up into mini-songs would make them more palatable. I feel the album as being more ambitious adventure than hazy wandering.

The fact that they call this album a continual suite with five separate movements seems like an excuse to cover the fact that they have a hard time bringing a 12-minute song to a sensible conclusion.

I still disagree, but I’ll concede the point rhetorically.

“L’Via L’Viaquez” is a perfect encapsulation of how frustrating this album can be. It opens with an anbsolutely killer riff by Omar Rodriguez, a combination of discordant flourishes and pure Latin funk (which, quite frankly, is more Bonnaroo than Ozzfest, but that’s beside the point), and the band just grooves on this for a while, Cedric Bixler delivering his usual flawless vocal performance. The jazz-tinged breakdown that follows adds mood effectively, but they return to the primary funk jam shortly after. All’s good so far, including the breakdown midway through, but after that, the song loses steam, as they go back to that lounge piano for an agonizing five minutes. What would have worked better is an extension of that solo breakdown, followed by a triumphant return to that upbeat initial riff, but instead, the song simply withers in a fog of cantina plonking, and dies on the table.

Yeah, definitely more funk and Latin than metal here, but they pull it off, so well. It’s also smart sequencing, coming in with that strong hook right after the gradual death of “The Widow”. It’s not even the hook that makes this track unique so much as the ascending keyboard line that answers it. Those closing five minutes? It’s just Krautrock that’s quieted down and developed out of the dying of funk. It’s like the eye of the storm, you get a chance to reorient yourself and kind of meditate on the frustration and loss in the first few songs before diving back into the (structured) chaos.

You do hear touches of Krautrock, and that lugubrious conclusion to “L’Via L’Viaquez” does morph neatly into the ambient drones of “Miranda That Ghost Just Isn’t Holy Anymore”, but as much as they want to imitate Can, it comes off less experimental than monotonous. It’s not until the final ten minutes of “Cassandra Gemini” that their Krautrock aspirations start to work. This is a band who is much better with the volume turned up, and although “Miranda” does pick up briefly eight minutes in, it just goes back to that somnambulistic pace after less than a minute.

They’re certainly better playing at 11, but they don’t lose it when they dip down. Yes, the last 10 minutes are very good (I’d say incredible), and the closest they come to Can in terms of sound and performance. Still, those other parts—even when they don’t sound exciting on their own—are necessary for the album as a whole. At no point should music from this album be excerpted and viewed as a piece; it’s a single (and singular) entity, with the highs playing off the lows.

I will say that “The Widow” is a fantastic single, reminding us of the promise of At the Drive-In. In less capable hands, such as the ham-fisted Billy Talent, the song would amount ot nothing but a power ballad disguised as a screamo song, but the band’s performance is the most understated on the record, as Bixler is allowed to take this song and run with it. Few singers can sing so powerfully, so operatically, and pull off emotion that sounds sincere, but he does it so effortlessly on this track, and it’s a stunner of a performance.

But then again, a good, three minute song isn’t good enough for these guys anymore, as the track continues for another three minutes of nothing but ambient keyboards and white noise. That gimmick grew old 30 years ago, guys.


I’ll grant you this one—it’s probably the lone mistake on the album. It’s a mediocre idea poorly executed. At three minutes, the outro (or second half?) needed to do something, and the MV should have looked toward minimalist composers or maybe even microhouse to get something up here. What this section lacks is the subtle shifts that make minimalist compositions pull out emotions and focus attention even among the ambient. On the other hand, if they wanted to go for a kind of vacant fuzz after the emotional body of the song, they could have done it shorter. You’re right that it’s no longer innovative, but that wouldn’t be bad if it was at least effective. Still, I’m willing to grant them three minutes of blah when its surrounded by so much energy (and maybe that’s their misguided point).

It’s been two months since I first heard the closing half-hour prog extravaganza “Cassandra Gemini”, and if there’s one track that’s grown on me the most over that period, it’s this one, a balls-out psychedelic Latin jazz fusion prog rock freakout. It’s a gigantic mess, as movements sound like they’re thrown in arbitrarily, but despite the song’s flaws, the sheer spectacle of the band’s pretentiousness is oddly captivating. On the aforementioned final section, especially, Rodriguez’s guitar prowess is showcased in an extended piece of soloing and atmospheric effects, before concluding with a free-form saxophone solo that owes a lot to Ornette Coleman’s funk-fueled experiments from the mid-‘70s.

The drumming on here is phenomenal. It’s been a long time since I’ve heard percussion this consistently exciting throughout an album. Jon Theodore’s at his finest when he’s all over the kit as fast as he can go, but even when he shows restraint, as on “The Widow”, he’s creative and spot-on. He rarely grooves, but he pounds out unexpected but perfectly constructed rhythms.

I can’t argue with that. With a record as crazed as this one, you need a percussionist who can hold the fort while the rest of the band goes flying off on dozens of self-indulgent tangents, and Theodore pulls it off with great flair, and yeah, surprising restraint at times.

I want to talk about the lyrics just briefly. I’ll keep it short, in part, because so much of the disc is in Spanish, and I barely speak enough of that language to get the Bumblebee Man jokes on The Simpsons.

I think the MV does something very difficult with their lyrics. They write abstract phrases, yet they never lose the sense of meaning and emotion that they want to convey. While they never quite say what they’re saying, they always make sure you feel it. As obscure as the album gets at times, it does reward close reading.

One thing I’ve always admired is Bixler’s lyrical style. As a longtime William Burroughs fan, to see Bixler use a writing style so similar to Burroughs’s cut-up experiments (a feat often attempted in rock music, but rarely done well at all), and manage to do so successfully, is particularly impressive. Mind you, it takes a few runs through the album to even begin to decipher what he means, as seemingly random images flash continually before your mind’s eye, but like Burroughs’s The Soft Machine, that’s half the fun.

“The abortion that survived” in “Cygnus” returns in the album’s swan song when we learn that “This never happened”. The disc closes by raising questions about the reality of the experience, in which loss is tied to birth and ambivalent conception, but laced with resolve and protection (and that protection then turns around to be both safe and wounding, alternately in “Cassandra Gemini” and “The Widow”). For a mute, Frances‘s lyrics are quite complex, and well-matched to the music the accompany and—somewhat obliquely—elucidate.

In the end, I’m just one of those people who prefers it when The Mars Volta tightens things up, and keeps songs in the five to eight minute range. Fans of the band will be discussing which album is better, De-Loused in the Comatorium or Frances the Mute, much like Can enthusiasts debate whether they prefer Tago Mago or Ege Bamyasi. There’s a lot to like about the album (“Cygnus… Vismund Cygnus” is another standout), but for me, Frances is too unhinged to fully recommend. Discipline is a crucial factor in good progressive rock, and despite Theodore’s brilliant drumming, Rodriguez’s flashy guitar, and Bixler’s lyrical skill, there’s very little of that discipline here. It’s prog rock by and for people with ADD.

Well, maybe that speaks to me, given that I’m not typically much of a prog fan (and, for the record, didn’t much care for De-Loused). I have less concern with the group’s discipline and more interest in the way they express themselves, and, in this instance, I find the lack of tight structure exciting and moving. It’s a cathartic experience to get through an album this tough, but I find it extremely enjoyable, too.

Tagged as: the mars volta
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