Read my reviews of albums by The Mars Volta, the prog rock band formed by two members of At the Drive-In:
2003: De-Loused in the Comatorium (9/10)
2005: Frances the Mute (9/10)
The more I listen to the Mars Volta the more I become convinced that they are pretty much the only mainstream band keeping the spirit – if not the sound – of progressive rock alive. They manage to combine relatively adventurous ideas – whereas early prog rock usually borrowed from Romantic music or mainstream jazz, they borrow from free jazz and funk – with the volume that only a few select prog rock bands from back in the day actually managed.
Too many of the revivalist neo-prog bands don’t are about the “rock” part of progressive rock but these guys do. And as a fan of the original prog rock movement, I certainly don’t have trouble with multi part suites or extended compositions, and frankly don’t understand why the world has become so prejudiced against them. As long as they are done well – and these are done well – extended rock compositions are as legitimate as short, two verses, two choruses songs.
My #2 album of 2005. Read my reviews of music from 2005.
2006: Amputechture (/10)
2008: The Bedlam in Goliath (9/10)
The first album of theirs I’ve heard. It’s growing on me constantly. I like how they use vocal effects in an original way (which is very rare). They know what they’re doing: when they want to get abstract they maintain some semblance of rhythm, or when they want to drastically shift the tempo, they maintain some sense of melody. It’s expertly put together. They have become virtually an instant favourite of mine. It’s also great to hear a band that has no interest in what is trendy, but plays by its own drum.
My #3 album of 2008. Read my reviews of albums released in 2008.
2009: Octahedron (7/10)
I read an interview with them where they described this as an acoustic album. It’s a funny time we live in when an acoustic album features digital programming.
Nitpicking aside, this is a decent, albeit softer, effort. However, something about it feels slight. The Bedlam in Goliath was such a tough act to follow it’s easy to understand how they couldn’t really follow it up. Everything about this one is less interesting. And by focusing mostly on ballads and atmosphere they have almost completely removed the punch of their previous efforts. At least it’s different, though.
2012: Nocturniquet (8/10)
If it’s possible for a group as progressive as the Mars Volta to record a pop album, well, this is it. There are significantly more ballads – at least I think there are – and they, for the most part, less difficult than in the past – or they are mixed differently so the weirdness is subservient to the hook. And the rock songs often contain hooks that one might find in contemporary indie rock – for example the lead-off track has a hook that feels stolen from electro clash or something.
And this is a refreshing change of direction, even if it’s a little less impressive than some of their earlier opuses. Their previous record to this was supposed to be their “acoustic” record, but felt instead almost like the “chill out” version of the band. I wasn’t the biggest fan. So it’s nice to hear they got their muscle back a bit, even if that muscle is more accessible than its ever been.
2022: The Mars Volta (5/10)
When I was younger, a thing that really impressed me was a massive stylistic change from a band. It still does impress me, but not as much. And I was always less into stylistic changes that I didn’t like, i.e. into genres I didn’t like. I admire The Mars Volta for trying something different. But if you’re going to say this is your Style Council moment, it’s important to remember Paul Weller changed the name of the band. Instead, The Mars Volta doubled down on the name of their band when they became their own version of The Style Council.
The opening track sometimes reminds me of Ween circa Quebec or La Cucaracha, only without the humour. That’s not indicative of the sound of the rest of the record, just of the sea change. (The opening of “Collapsible Shoulders” reminds me of poppier 21st century Scott Walker before Cedric starts singing…) This is a band that only sounds like the Mars Volta because Cedric is singing and because the odd moment is reminiscent of the poppiest moments on Noctourniquet, but only the odd moment. I called that album their pop album, so…
If I liked this style of music more, I’d probably be really into the change, though I’d still mourn the death of the old band. But, unfortunately, I don’t particularly like this kind of music. Someone described it as 21st century sophistipop and that’s not far off the vibe.
I feel for what Cedric’s wife has gone through. It does make the whole thing feel like his most personal record, for whatever that’s worth. But, as with so many other records where the lyrics might connect with me if I only enjoyed the music…I don’t particularly enjoy the music.
Still, it’s a fairly bold left turn, especially in the context of a reunion. I’m happy to report that the tour was mostly nostalgia, however.
2023: 5 feels quite harsh but I downgraded the rating to this once I heard the next record. Maybe in a few years I’ll up it a bit.
2023: Que Dios te maldiga mi corazon (6/10)
I remember ahead of either Octahedron or Noctourniquet, Cedric or Omar said their upcoming album would be acoustic, and then of course it wasn’t, it was just softer than the past. Well, they finally made their acoustic album, only it’s just a remake of their reunion left-turn album. And, listening to it, I imagine that this version of that self-titled album would have been much better received than the actual album, both because it feels even more like a radical left turn and because it just feels like these arrangements are more appropriate to the songs.
And maybe that’s because I, like so many other fans, was put off by the sophistipop vibe of the previous record. That vibe is mostly gone. The album is still not raw enough for my liking, but it still feels more “organic” or, anyway, closer to how the songs could sound without such affectation.
I still don’t love this, compared to how I loved the original version of the band. If this really is their Style Council to the original’s Jam, I do think they should have changed their name. (Most of us would be less judgey if they had.) Having finally seen them live, I’m wondering if the sole reason not to change their name is so that they can still “play the hits” live. If this will continue to be the direction they are going, I think I’m going to check out pretty soon.
I still do like this significantly more than the previous record and I think I need to downgrade my charitable grade of the previous album, because I feel I like this, you know, fine. And if this is fine, then that previous album isn’t quite.
Maybe I will change how I feel with more listens. I think one reason why this stuff is so jarring is because of how proggy they were initially. Even when they moderated their tendencies on their albums in the teens, they still were clearly a prog rock band. Now they’re not (at least in studio) and maybe that’s something I just need to get over. This album does make me like this new sound at least a little better, so maybe I need more time. That being said, I still don’t think I’ll be continuing to check out each subsequent album if they continue on this path. Just not my thing.