Just seven months after the Mars Volta released their self-titled album and the first in a decade, they return with another record. Que Dios Te Maldiga De Corazon has the same tracklisting as The Mars Volta but presents acoustic arrangements of each song. In the press materials, songwriter Omar Rodriguez-Lopez mentions wanting to do an acoustic project for years. He also says the band’s Latin heritage, specifically Puerto Rico, is the primary touchpoint for these arrangements.
It’s worth noting that The Mars Volta is the first Mars Volta LP that could credibly be reimagined in this way. Their prog-rock, jam-oriented, and chaotic initial six-album run would have necessitated completely rewriting the songs to find a way to do them acoustically. Their self-titled record, by contrast, features tight, compact compositions with strong vocal melodies from Cedric Bixler-Zavala. Those melodies allow Rodriguez-Lopez to adjust, sometimes radically, the tracks’ instrumental portions without losing the songs’ core.
Rodriguez-Lopez immediately establishes his priorities on “Blacklight Shine”, the opener. Rather than recreating his active electric guitar part on an acoustic guitar, he plays a skeletal accompaniment. Simple, individual guitar notes are plucked underneath Bixler-Zavala’s vocals. Meanwhile, the thick sounds of an upright bass can be heard, as can a low, steady flute accompaniment. The most striking change is in the percussion. No drum set can be found here or anywhere on this album. Instead, hand drums, shakers, finger cymbals, cowbells, and tambourines give the song a lively, upbeat feel, despite the track’s generally dark vibe.
That’s how it goes for much of the record. Bixler-Zavala’s vocals are mostly the same, although any harmonies that popped up on The Mars Volta have been removed, so it’s just one voice at all times. Rodriguez-Lopez keeps the guitar extremely simple, rarely even strumming chords. The robust percussion and sometimes a piano provide most of the momentum, and it’s usually enough to keep the songs moving.
This change is especially apparent in Que Dios Te Maldiga De Corazon‘s ballads. On The Mars Volta, the handful of slow songs drifts along, allowing Bixler-Zavala’s vocals to do most of the work while the group lies back. “Shore Story”, in particular, had this feeling. On the acoustic version, active percussion and a particularly lively piano give the song much more pace, even though the tempo is technically the same. The original “Cerulea” has a great pop melody and a prominent acoustic guitar part. This is one of the few times Rodriguez-Lopez recreates that guitar part and the lovely melody still carries the track. The percussion and the particularly prominent bass part greatly change the song’s feel.
“Palm Full of Crux” uses subtle woodwinds to fill out its arrangement on The Mars Volta. So for the acoustic version, it’s just Bixler-Zavala singing and Rodriguez-Lopez on guitar. The track opens in the back half, but the lack of percussion makes it a fascinating, attention-grabbing outlier on Que Dios Te Maldiga De Corazon. In contrast, the new arrangement of “Blank Condolences” uses bongos, guiro, vibraphone, and flute to give the song some intriguing ear candy that The Mars Volta version doesn’t have.
As for songs that work equally well on both records, the de facto title track is a standout. On The Mars Volta, “Que Dios Te Maldiga Mi Corazon” begins as an upbeat, Latin-flavored song, then threatens to break into one of the LP’s few real rockers. Instead, it ends shortly before the two-minute mark. The acoustic version is about ten seconds longer, opening with about 15 seconds of piano and bass noodling before locking into the same Latin groove. Here, the piano sticks around for the entire track, effectively replacing the distorted guitars of the original.
“Vigil” and “Collapsible Shoulders” had some of the strongest vocal performances and biggest hooks on The Mars Volta, which is also the case here. Rodriguez-Lopez doesn’t mess with success on these songs, keeping the chord structure and underlying accompaniments similar. Hearing Bixler-Zavala howl, “Don’t let your tongue slit your throat / That’s what they always said,” has the same kick here. Similarly, the chorus of “Collapsible Shoulders”, “I’m living on the edge of ruin / And never did I hear you say ‘Leave no man behind”, is still a great big sing-along.
Rodriguez-Lopez’s work is excellent across Que Dios Te Maldiga De Corazon, making exciting and rewarding arrangement choices. It’s not like The Mars Volta needed freshening up only seven months later, but it’s a worthwhile project. He deserves credit for not just pulling out the acoustic guitars and calling it a day.