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Mars Volta defies genres, deviates from usual style

Ryan Raffin | Wednesday, March 12, 2008

The Mars Volta wants to blow your mind. Since its inception in 2001 from the ashes of the late, great, “At the Drive-In,” the California group has never ceased pushing musical boundaries.

Defying genre classification as well as traditional song structure, the closest term that could be used to describe its music is simply “forward-thinking.” There are hints of punk, salsa, metal and jazz sprinkled throughout each of its four albums. The partnership central to the group, vocalist Cedric Bixler-Zavala and guitarist Omar A. Rodriguez-Lopez, must have the most diverse collection of music on their iPods the world has ever seen.

The group’s most recent album, “The Bedlam in Goliath,” is a definite step up from its previous effort, 2006’s meandering “Amputecthture.” It is almost as linear and straightforward an album as the band’s 2003 debut “Deloused in the Comatorium.” Of course, words like “linear” and “straightforward” are relative, in this case being code words for “no songs over 10 minutes in length.” Gone are the half hour multi-movement excursions of yesteryear. Instead, we get the furious two-and-a-half minute burst of “Wax Simulacra.”

There are 12 songs, and increase from previous efforts, and despite the album’s overarching concept, these are the least prog-rock songs the Mars Volta has written in years. Which isn’t to say it’s become Maroon 5; this record is still more esoteric and flat-out bizarre than nearly anything else out today. The fact of the matter is that when compared to Mars Volta previous body of work, which sounds like it was written 100 years in the future by aliens who sing in Spanish, English and made-up words, the melodic hooks of “Bedlam” seem fairly tame.

At the same time, this is the Mars Volta’s heaviest and loudest offering yet. Complexity and length were dialed back, if only slightly, in exchange for brute force. The band is rocking harder than it ever has. Songs like “Goliath”, “Metatron” and opener “Aberinkula” leave an impact right away, with Bixler-Zavala’s voice complementing Rodriguez-Lopez’s wailing guitars and Thomas Pridgen’s pounding drums. The extended ambient intros are gone, a common feature from its previous albums. After the snooze-fest that was “Amputechture,” it’s relieving to see the group become more concise in its playing, yet maintain its experimental nature.

The other short song, “Tourniquet Man”, is a head turner. Far and away the softest and slowest song of the dozen, it is a brief respite from the fury heard on every other song. Minimal guitars and keyboard effects back up the vocals on this bizarre love song.

For all the strides made in streamlining its music, the Mars Volta still have not matched the genius of its second album “Frances the Mute.” While that album was gloriously excessive, it still seemed like every second was essential, something that can’t be said for “Bedlam.” The 76-minute runtime is far too long – at least two of the songs on the second half of “Goliath” should have been cut out, as they all sound basically the same. Shorter songs don’t count for much when the back half album is loaded with sound-a-likes. Filler is filler, no matter the song length.

The Mars Volta should be commended for its new approach, but the group still has something to learn about restraint. After pushing its sound to the absolute limit, it realized that sometimes a slightly more head-on approach works just as well. The problem lies in not going far enough from what it knows. Maybe the band should try making a record less than 70 minutes long. There are some very strong songs on “The Bedlam in Goliath,” and the good stuff far outweighs the bad. It just so happens that the best songs are the shortest and most different from its normal style. Funny how that works.

Contact Ryan Raffin at [email protected]