Following the early 2000s breakup of indie-punk cult faves At the Drive-In, guitarist Omar Rodriguez-Lopez and vocalist Cedric Bixler-Zavala went on to form the Mars Volta. The band was a hugely ambitious sonic stew comprising everything from highly technical heavy metal to folk balladry to various Latin-infused styles to extended ambient jams. They released six studio albums over a decade before going dormant in 2012.
It was an ensemble that always seemed on the verge of musical chaos. Sometimes this produced incredibly exciting, highly compelling music, but sometimes it produced meandering improvisations that took 30 minutes to go nowhere. It was also a highly volatile collection of personalities. Rodriguez-Lopez and Bixler-Zavala were always careful to refer to themselves as the Mars Volta, while the various members that rotated in and out over the decade were “The Mars Volta Group”; essentially the hands hired to bring the musical vision to life.
Considering how much these musicians brought to the group, that description might not seem quite fair. However, if the Mars Volta were simply the founding duo, then they could get back together whenever Rodriguez-Lopez and Bixler-Zavala felt inspired. After a decade’s worth of other musical projects, including At the Drive-In reunion shows and a massive, independent vinyl release of the Mars Volta’s entire discography (plus bonus material), the Mars Volta have returned with a new album.
The Mars Volta is the quietest, most focused record of their career. Gone are the extended musical explorations and the expansive, eight to ten-piece band. In its place are songs that get right to the point, often with recognizable verses and choruses. The group, besides Rodriguez-Lopez and Bixler-Zavala, is bare bones. Bassist Eva Gardner, drummer Willy Rodriguez Quiñones, and keyboard player Marcel Rodríguez-López are essentially it. The record sounds intimate as if it was recorded in the deadest room possible. There are no booming drums or crashing guitar chords to be found here.
The opening track, “Blacklight Shine”, sets the tone. Bongos, shakers, and handclaps start the song while Rodriguez-Lopez’s wah-wah guitar peeks in and out from the background. Bixler-Zavala sings, in typically cryptic fashion, “You would be gone / If it weren’t for what I know / Help me out / Of this God-forsaken cure.” At this point, the beat stays steady, but the vocal melody and guitar line both shift significantly as Bixler-Zavala pleads, “If that rain don’t fall any sooner / I’m going to wash up on the shore / If that train don’t run any sooner / I’m going to waste away / Into lantern jaws.”
Retroactively it’s apparent that this bit serves as the song’s chorus, as it’s repeated a couple more times later. At first, though, the next part, sung in Spanish as the song hits its musical peak, seems like it’s going to be the refrain. Even in more or less traditional pop music songwriting mode, the Mars Volta are already including surprises.
The outro of “Blacklight Shine” slides right into the second track, “Graveyard Love”, where a tense pulsing synth tone and quietly squalling guitar set a very different mood. Bixler-Zavala’s voice is filled with longing and regret as he sings, frequently returning to the line, “You better walk behind me.” The song seems poised to explode into a loud, freakout jam, and in the past, it might have. Here, though, the Mars Volta seem intent on sitting inside the tension and uncertainty, which is an evocative place.
Throughout these 14 tracks, the Mars Volta create a whole library’s worth of moods without changing all that much sonically from song to song. “Vigil” essentially functions as a power ballad. Bixler-Zavala’s vocals are warm and inviting, and the band follows along with gently rolling drums, flute-like synths, and simple melodic guitar lines. The group lets Bixler-Zavala create the ebbs and flows, though, eschewing the typical power ballad guitar solo that would usually be the climax of the song.
“Que Dios Te Maldiga Mi Carazon” bops along at mid-tempo with distinctive Latin percussion and piano. They switch the feel and push forward in the middle of the song, hitting perhaps the album’s most rocking point. “Equus 3” and closer “The Requisition”, at 4:10 and 4:13, respectively, represent the album’s longest songs. “Equus” rolls menacingly on Gardner’s bassline, while Bixler-Zavala deploys his soaring falsetto on the chorus, singing “Pain in my heart / Go away!” The track also features some of Rodriguez-Lopez’s gnarliest guitar tones on the album, buzzing and crunching all over the place. Marcel Rodríguez-Lopez also gets the chance to go wild on the keys here, fingers blazing over the full keyboard, but always in the background to the song’s main groove.
“The Requisition” opens with light and airy jamming but coalesces into a more traditional structure in less than 30 seconds. The first verse retains the uncharacteristically bright feel, but then the song gets steadily darker sounding, eventually morphing into a menacing funk-rock feel. As much as the band is playing around with poppier, more traditional song structures, the best they can do is feint at a truly upbeat sound before sinking back into the darkness.
There are a couple of other songs where the Mars Volta flirt with brighter sounds. The relaxed “Shore Story” feels like a languid day at home, all slow guitar notes, and easygoing electric piano chords. Lyrically, though, Bixler-Zavala is singing about being unable to relax due to the paranoia of being observed. “Cerulea” puts Bixler-Zavala’s vocals up front, nearly a cappella at first, aside from keyboard tinkles. The intensity increases as it goes, though. First, there’s a simple acoustic guitar accompaniment with just a kick drum. Then there’s humming electric guitar, steady bass thumps, and active snare drumming. The track never quite sheds its pleasant opening feel, though, and Rodriguez-Lopez even puts in a melodic, almost bright guitar line over the song’s final minute.
There are other places where the group shows off some range. “Tourmaline” opens with a folky, faux classical acoustic guitar that wouldn’t be out of place on an Opeth record. The song then goes into full ’70s prog-rock ballad style, something Bixler-Zavala is perfectly suited to as a vocalist. Then there’s “Collapsible Shoulders”, a weird hybrid track. It has maybe the poppiest refrain on the album, but it’s also cut through with spoken word bits that intentionally recall moments from At the Drive-In.
The Mars Volta becomes more rewarding with repetition. Despite the outwardly more accessible style, the group has stuffed the record full of interesting musical choices. Many of these choices are readily apparent, especially when it involves Bixler-Zavala’s melodies and Rodriguez-Lopez’s guitars. With the remaining trio of musicians, listening through headphones reveals many more fascinating performance details that aren’t as obvious at first. Once longtime fans have adjusted their expectations, there’s a lot of great material to dig into on this record.