De-Loused in the Discography: A Look Back at the Mars Volta

Jordan Blum and Brice Ezell

With their culturally tied blend of eccentricity, intricacy, conceptuality, power, and catchiness, the Mars Volta left an indelible mark on the music industry with its six-album legacy.

<i>Frances the Mute</i> (2005)

Brice Ezell: While De-Loused in the Comatorium is still hailed as a considerable achievement today, no other album in the Mars Volta’s discography gets as much adoration as Frances the Mute. It contains the group’s longest song -- the portentous “Cassandra Gemini", clocking in at a whopping 32:32 -- as well as the most distinct incorporation of Latin American music in their sonic. The Bond-referencing, 13-minute opener “Cygnus… Vismund Cygnus” introduces this almost instantly, with its demented tango rhythm serving as a tantalizing background to Bixler-Zavala’s alternated Spanish/English vocals. All of this occurs at a whirlwind pace, with the only significant break being the lead single “The Widow", probably the most well known of the group’s songs to the mainstream audience -- at least, the mainstream audience that managed to stick around after sitting through all of “Cassandra Gemini". In terms of ambition, Frances the Mute sees and raises De-Loused in a huge way. Anyone who at the time thought Rodríguez-López and Bixler-Zavala couldn’t go any further likely found his jaw dropping in unfazed disbelief. This is the sound of prog’s id, unchained.

Frances the Mute

Now, for those who aren’t drawn to prog -- the type of folks who wouldn’t be drawn to the Mars Volta in the first place -- this description of Frances the Mute will make it sound like a nightmare of a listen. Truth be told, they aren’t far off, and it’s an album that can prove nightmarish not just for those who get squeamish at the thought of a five-minute, freestyle lounge piano solo (the end of “L’Via L’Viaquez”), but even for fans of prog. For while there are career highlights on this LP, “The Widow” and “L’Via Viaquez” especially, much of it constitutes the sound of a creative ego completely untethered to coherence. This can be seen in the bizarre sequencing of the songs on Frances the Mute’s CD release. Though the record consists of only five tracks (totaling a whopping 76 minutes), the CD will show 12 tracks: the first four are individual songs and “Cassandra Gemini” is split into eight individual pieces. It looks absolutely wonky when put into iTunes or any other digital media player, and to some extent it reflects the ADHD spastics with which Rodriguez-Lopes and Bixler-Zavala crafted this track. A generous take on this piece would see it as overly zealous; a cynical one would hold it as nonsense. The latter is a more compelling view than the former; it’s easy to credit the band for being gutsy, but hard to excuse them for their everything-goes approach. The song isn’t pure babble, but it’s far from the structured epic that’s held up as the archetypal form in much of contemporary prog. A track like “L’Via Viaquez", while not entirely shooting for the stars as many might like it to, is a much more feasible format for this band to write in. Hell, sometimes even eleven minutes is too much for these guys.

I, however, am acutely aware that I am -- amongst people who count themselves as fans of this band, which I still do -- largely alone in this opinion. Jordan’s view that this marks their career peak is a fairly common one, and in many respects it could be because I don’t have as much a taste for adventure as those people do. Even those who enjoy “Cassandra Gemini” have to admit is a laborious track to get through. Few, I imagine, make it all the way through in one sitting the first time around.

Still, despite whatever criticisms are lobbed at Frances the Mute, it will for the foreseeable future remain the ubiquitous Mars Volta LP, and in some ways it’s really the truest lens through which to analyze its music. Nearly every aspect of its style is contained in this work, and for all of the follies of its ambition, it’s not difficult to see that at least they were genuine in their genre-spanning approach. In a way it’s incredible to see how Frances the Mute has attained the status it has given that it’s probably the most difficult work by this most difficult of progressive rock outfits.

Jordan Blum: With its preference for perplexing lyrics, repetitious sequences, bizarre sounds, staggering technicality, and involving arrangements, the Mars Volta’s sophomore effort is easily their most polarizing (as well as their most overtly ethnic). This time around, the plot draws from a diary that late member Jeremy Ward found. The text concerned author’s search for his biological parents. The group utilizes a wider palette of timbres, a more adventurous approach, a fascinatingly symbolic cover, and a brilliant display of conceptual continuity to tell the tale. Like Gentle Giant’s second album, Acquiring the Taste, decades prior, Frances the Mute is the Mars Volta’s most inaccessible and multifaceted release.

Opener “Cygnus… Vismund Cygnus” begins quietly with an exceptional chord progression and prophetic poetry. It isn’t long, however, before the track erupts into a level of insanity that De-Loused never reached. A schizophrenic display of shifting melodies, dizzying counterpoints, aggressive declarations, and unexpected derailments converge as each instrument seems poised for dominance. Its final minutes contain a collage of cars, people speaking, and other sounds, which showcases the first of several drawn out moments on Frances.

“The Widow” is definitely an unofficial homage to Led Zeppelin. It’s relatively succinct and vintage, with Bixler-Zavala and Rodríguez-López doing their best to capture the spirit of Plant and Page, respectively, while still incorporating plenty of quirks. Meanwhile, “L'Via L'Viaquez” features a strong cultural influence in both lyrics and technique. Like “Cygnus", the track goes through several movements that alternate between tranquility and tension. Subsequently, the first and final third of “Miranda That Ghost Just Isn’t Holy Anymore” are essentially just ambience. Conversely, the middle section features mournful horns that fade into mournful guitar arpeggios filtered through psychedelic effects. Also, Bixler-Zavala sings with one of the Mars Volta’s best melodies with great fragility and pain.

Despite what Brice says about its pompous nature and “everything goes” approach (which I agree with somewhat), it’s hard to argue that the highlight of the band’s entire career is “Cassandra Gemini,” an eight-part, 32-minute masterpiece. It begins with a bang as hyperactive guitar lines juxtapose hostile percussion and impassioned vocals. With its complex drum patterns, magnetic melodies, and extravagant production, the first few segments culminate in the most addicting section of progressive rock I’ve ever heard. The concluding third is essentially a free form jazz experiment that ultimately leads into a reprisal of both the suite’s opening moments and the opening of the album itself. Throughout the journey, the Mars Volta implements plenty of strangeness too, making the piece overwhelmingly catchy, catastrophic, and cosmic. It’s absolutely incredible.

As obscure and odd as it is mesmerizing and infectious, Frances the Mute is arguably 20% waste and 80% genius. In any case, it’s likely the group’s best record.

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