De-ranged in the Soundtrackarium
Between dissolving At the Drive-In and reforming as the superior Mars Volta, Omar A. Rodriguez-Lopez (guitarist and co-songwriter for both bands) began work on a series of adventurous studio sessions to accompany the film-in-progress A Manual Dexterity. Rodriguez-Lopez has bypassed the film’s indefinite delay by releasing the first half of the mostly instrumental soundtrack, appropriately titled A Manual Dexterity—Soundtrack Volume 1, on his own Gold Standard Laboratories label. The film’s music (performed by what the press release calls a “comparable” lineup of the players on the Mars Volta’s De-loused in the Comatorium) represents a definite stop-gap between Rodriguez-Lopez’s two bands, a palette-cleanser of sorts amidst his transition from histrionic punker to labyrinthian progger. It’s a project that seems to neglect all invocations of the mainstream, opting to beat its own atypical drum loudly.
A Manual Dexterity is a lot like finding your way through the dark, hands extended in helpless surrender. Sounds jump out of the tempestuous infrastructure, timbres and textures melt and fry. It’s the kind of bi-polar frazzle suggested by De-loused‘s more avant-garde moments. Rodriguez-Lopez works with molecular structures on A Manual Dexterity, the mark more of a minimalist than the mad scientist team that fused De-loused‘s brilliant puzzle. The soundtrack focuses on manipulating sonic expectations, contesting and challenging concepts of sound over stark, one- or two-chord progressions (notably devoid of melodies). A song’s path doesn’t twitch and convulse like those in the Mars Volta’s catalog; instead, the environment expands and recedes while the form remains constant.
It’s important to be reminded that A Manual Dexterity is ultimately a companion piece to the incomplete film. You can’t help but wonder if the film’s images will help to further assist in understanding Rodriguez-Lopez’s creation. The majority of the record is challenging—almost confrontational—and not exactly something that will garner heavy rotation on the home stereo. “Dyna Sark Arches” is easily the most immediately accessible track: its funky robot groove, courtesy of a rhythm section wound elastic-tight, is matched by wah-wah guitars twisting around the set-up. “Around Knuckle White Tile” builds from a collage of free-form curiosities into a minor-key throb-drone, led by Rodriguez-Lopez’s piercing, Jimmy-Page-on-Jack-Daniels electric guitar.
But moments of clarity are merely fleeting, as A Manual Dexterity‘s thumbprint is full of experimental eccentricities. “Sensory Decay Part II” is Vangelis held to a hotplate: synthesizers boil and bubble, skidding sound manipulations scatter about like shrapnel in the unsteady atmosphere. “Of Blood Blue Blisters” is a Zappa freak-out in space, built entirely on jarring dissonance and shrieking lurches of beastly tones. Plaintive guitars arpeggio at a labored pace in “Here the Tame Go By”, which keeps suggesting that it will descend somewhere dark, finally making good on the promise by intrusive electronics that are slowly bled to death. “Dramatic Theme” taunts breaking points of tolerance with chattering, swooning, and horrifically squealing layers of guitars.
Rodriguez-Lopez throws rapid-fire curveballs throughout Volume 1‘s hour, from celebratory Latin excursions (“Deus Ex Machina”) to gargling undercurrents of musique concrète (“Dream Sequence”). The record’s most jarring moment could be its most conventional: the closer “The Palpitations Form a Limit” is a relatively straight-ahead rock thumper with vocals from Cedric Zavala (Rodriguez-Lopez’s songwriting partner and fellow Mars Voltan). While his ambitions and risks are laudable, they’re also very prickly and perturbed. The most devoted of Mars Volta fans will undoubtedly find his excursion into soundtrack impressionism a bit too impenetrable and not susceptible to revisiting. Easy listening notwithstanding, A Manual Dexterity continues to make the case for Rodriguez-Lopez’s restless drive to create, even if it functions more as a footnote than a definitive entry in his catalog.