A series of cacophonous collages that'll only appeal to die-hard fans.
Sworn VirginsLabel: Ipecac Recordings
US Release Date: 2016-07-15
UK Release Date: 2016-07-15
As Brice Ezell and I discussed in our 2013 “De-Loused in the Discography” retrospective, the Mars Volta (which was formed in 2001 out of the ashes of At the Drive-In by guitarist/producer Omar Rodríguez-López and vocalist/lyricist Cedric Bixler-Zavala) was easily among the most idiosyncratic, ambitious, complex, experimental, and popular progressive rock bands of its era. As revered as it was, though, the Mars Volta was also highly divisive, with many listeners finding the group’s trademark mixture of hyperactive vocals and abrasive sound loops/effects too disjointed and aimless. While those elements were certainly a major part of their formula, the duo (and their musicians) always balanced them with intricate, engrossing arrangements and hypnotic, often affective melodies to yield a captivating, if also impenetrable, sonic journey.
Unfortunately, the same can’t be said for Rodríguez-López’s latest solo outing, Sworn Virgins. The first of a dozen new albums he plans to release in 2016 (one every two weeks, actually), as well as roughly the 25th solo record he’s made since 2004’s A Manual Dexterity: Soundtrack Volume One, Sworn Virgins finds him working with drummer/keyboardist/sampler Deantoni Parks to create abstract pieces that, while definitely interesting and memorable in spots, ultimately favor abstraction and repetition over coherent songwriting and purposeful compositions. In other words, it’s like a collection of bizarre Mars Volta transitions without any of purposeful songs in-between.
To be honest, the one-two punch of openers “Pineapple Face” and “Not Even Toad Loves You” feels like a lost movement from Noctourniquet, as its monotonous rhythms, manic guitar overdubs, and distorted, rebellious bellows (courtesy of Rodriguez-Lopez, who sounds remarkably similar to Bixler-Zavala) evoke the more straightforward madness of the Mars Volta’s final LP. There’s no doubt that these tracks demonstrate why he's still among the most characteristic players/arrangers in the field, yet they’re also too one-note and grating to enjoy.
Fortunately, the seductive ‘80s synth foundation of “Kill a Chi Chi” makes for a more melodic and inviting experience. The slithering nature of the singing is juxtaposed nicely by relatively warm and reserved percussion and guitarwork. From there, “Trick Harpoon Stare of Baby”, despite being effectively ominous, is little more than a dissonant collage of clashing otherworldly tones, while “High Water Hell” is more alluring texturally but still too rambling and avant-garde to appeal. “Saturine” is similarly meandering without meaning (although its percussion and central guitar riff is a bit intriguing).
“Crow’s Feet” is slightly more focused and accessible because it balances eccentricity with a solid hook and a tighter arrangement. It’s also complemented by “Heart Mistakes”, which is basically a hyperactive continuation of the previous track. Sadly, “Logged into Bliss” is just another hodge-podge of jarring sounds, whereas “Fortuna”, with its brief length and dreamier nature, is a charming interlude before closer “Twice a Plague” ends the sequence on a fairly structured and catchy note. Its pieces fit together more smoothly than those of most of its predecessors, so it’s more mellow, tempting, and listenable.
There’s no doubt that Sworn Virgins will entice a certain sect of Rodriguez-Lopez’s audience, as it consistently captures the experimental and abrasive approach that's a quintessential part of his unique artistry. The problem is that the record is focused almost entirely on that alone, whereas so many of his previous gems (such as the brilliant and infectious The Bedlam in Goliath) peppered these techniques around gripping melodies and dense yet cohesive and enthralling instrumentation. If you’re already a fan of his cacophonous collages, by all means check out Sworn Virgins, but anyone looking for something more tangible and gripping should look elsewhere in his discography (including his highly melodic and amiable follow-up to Sworn Virgins, Corazones).