Get out some incense, and a ouija board, if you have one... The Mars Volta has a new album out.
The Mars Volta should trim off all their petty prog hindrances and become a straight rock band. At the Drive-In is over and buried, and the longer its two chief members, Cedric Bixler-Zavala and Omar Rodríguez-López, try to protract its shadow over their new outlet, the more The Mars Volta suffers for it. 2006’s Amputechture hit the nadir of this duo’s damaging tendency, a patience-testing nowhere album that just about wrote the band off as a convincing creative entity. That's why The Bedlam in Goliath, their fourth album together, is even more frustrating. Notice there are 12 fleshed-out tracks here, as opposed to a bloated eight or downright endless five, hinting at an accomplished, fully listenable whole beneath its steaming façade. More than anything, though, the songs scream that the band’s heart is in kicking out jams with the best, obvious to everyone but the composers themselves.
As with any Mars Volta product, the concept behind The Bedlam in Goliath precedes it, for which they’ve reliably provided copious piles of detail, but the basis of the story involves a cursed ouija board from Jerusalem that brought ‘bedlam’ on the band. Bixler-Zavala told MTV.com that the ultimate aim of the album is to reverse their perceived bad luck in artistic fashion. In other words, ignore the attention-courting publicity stunt and for goodness’ sake don’t pretend that listening to The Mars Volta has to be an occasion of prophetic spiritual cleansing, and you’ll enjoy it more.
The reason The Bedlam in Goliath is the best record in Omar and Cedric’s catalog since De-Loused in the Comatorium is far less mysterious: new sticksman Thomas Pridgen, who lights a fire under his kit and single-handedly pulls the band together on his shoulders. His omni-present rhythm-hounding begs for something technically daunting and bruisingly fast-paced to show off his devastating skill. And oblige The Mars Volta do, opening up to crackling effect on “Goliath”, “Aberinkula” and lead-off single “Wax Simulacra”, three of the best cuts the group has ever recorded.
Named after a Nigerian drum, “Aberinkula” squeals unapologetically out of the speakers, Pridgen’s spasmodic drum performance underpinning the mighty descending basslines. Bixler-Zavala’s hyena-like snarl is still very much an acquired taste, though he sounds more than ever like Robert Plant in his best-behaved vocal on the disc. Hell, the song even has a chorus, while the restless voodoo pulse and Latin-tinged saxophone bounce off the walls and create sparks. “Goliath” lives up to its name -- taking a while to click in to a groove and get going, but at the four-minute mark, it makes its decision and never looks back. A tense, percussive build boosts crashing dynamics as Cedric wails are inhuman enough to wake Freddie Mercury’s ghost. He’s cut off, though, before he can tip the band over the edge into uninspired wank, and a keyboard segues into furiously brisk cadences which Pridgen pushes unstoppably into hyper-speed. It’s such a powerful punch in the gut, it doesn’t even matter that it carries on an inanely goofy lyric: “Give me that corpse please / The one that don’t like me / I really want it now”. In “I’m starting to feel a miscarriage coming on” we may well have a contender for the worst line of the year.
A muscular, highly compressed workout with the purpose of putting Pridgen’s incredible snare rolls in the spotlight, “Wax Simulacra” captures all the best sides of The Mars Volta in a blinding two and a half minutes. Ikey Owens’ keyboards spice it with the Middle-Eastern flavor The Mars Volta eagerly adhere to, while Juan Alderete’s inventive bass gives it all the motion it needs to reach its climax, a brilliantly colored implosion of flamenco and psychedelia.
It’s quite possible that this is the biggest and most grandiose these art-rockers have ever sounded on disc.
The problem with The Bedlam in Goliath is not its epic breakouts, but rather what lies sandwiched between. The band enjoy picking through a selection of music from the African continent, juggling them through atonal polyrhythms and eight minutes, resulting in firm, worthwhile rockers like “Metatron”, but nothing as spontaneously dazzling as the album’s highlights. Bedlam hits its first patch of trouble when it reaches “Ilyena”, served on a platter of meaningless distortion. Ikey Owens is variously a blessing and a stumbling block for the group, and he is unwisely allowed to hijack two of the disc’s dull later cuts, “Agadez” and “Askepios”. Once again, it’s left to Pridgen to keep the ball rolling by pounding out a monolithic array of time-shifting showmanship.
“Tourniquet Man” is ponderous, uninspired pandering, a stopgap between huge songs, and even when The Mars Volta return to all-out bombast for “Cavalettas”, infused with a brave pop sense, they’re cycling optimistically through half-baked fragments of ideas that don’t gel. There is nothing in the latter to justify it being the longest song on the record; it starts, then stops, then starts, then stops, then starts again, and by the time it’s reached its halfway point, you’ve had to sit through so much silliness you wonder why you should bother. “Soothsayer” brings the aggression and determination that characterizes the rest of The Bedlam in Goliath to a grinding halt, an exotic bellydance running on an extravagant orchestral reel, left bare without Pridgen’s firepower. Only during “Conjugal Burns”, which erupts into an outburst of gibberish, an album ending somehow comically ideal for the Mars Volta, do they regain some of their lost dignity.
Remember that part from School of Rock when one of the children asks Jack Black, “Are we gonna be goofing off like this everyday?”, to which he replies, “We’re not goofing off, we’re creating musical fusion”? A similar scenario exists for The Mars Volta, an undoubtedly talented band who has always found the differences between ‘goofing off’ and ‘creating musical fusion’ blurred. On The Bedlam in Goliath, they don’t even let their affinity for wacky sprawling passages run away with them too much, though they are plagued by unwise decisions how to put their good ideas to execution. With any luck, this can hopefully be the first step for the Californian eight-piece in making those two opposites clear --“Wax Simulacra” proves they have it in them. A decent songwriter wouldn’t go astray, either.