You don’t have to look far beyond the plush headgear of the front sleeve’s two motorists to realise that this is the year’s most predictable album. Predictable, in that The Mars Volta were never going to settle for an effect we might be familiar with. Not an album to be skipped through, Frances the Mute is a 76 minute prog-rock epiphany, touching all corners of the musical spectrum, leaving no boundary un-pushed.
The first movement of Cygnus…Vismund Cygnus: Sarcophagi creeps up on you quietly, before bursting into a heavily-textured tirade of Frank Zappa-style experimental musicianship, with Cedric Bixler Zavala’s distinctive vocals masterfully riding the waves of crescendo-ridden, time-switching trickery supplied by Omar a Rodriguez-Lopez.
Cygnus covers the same ground as previous album De-Loused in the Comatorium, ranging from softly profound breakdowns, to unforgettable melodies at breakneck speed (Bixler’s particular high point here is wailing “who do you trust”) with the added presence of sections sung in Spanish.
Debut single The Widow is likely to be a favourite of anyone who loved Televators from De-Loused. Centring around Bixler’s delicious lyrics “he’s got fasting black lungs made of clove”, it sounds as close as dammit to a conventional song. But what fun would there be in that? The last line rings out to be replaced by drawn out synth notes given a fervent pitch-bending, which lasts a ridiculously long time – you may be afraid to skip on just in case something else happens but in this case, it really just goes on like that.
L’Via L’Viaquez sounds like something I have never encountered before, Spanish funk. Flea and John Frusciante of the Chili Peppers make guest appearances to enforce the latter, while the central line “L’via hija de miranda” gives the song a fantastically upbeat, Latino feel. As if that wasn’t enough, the song drops repeatedly into a dark cabaret section similar to those of Tom Waits, featuring typically eerie lines such as “shark kites got tangled in the moleskin”.
The highlight among highlights comes from Miranda That Ghost Just Isn’t Holy Anymore which is as delightful to listen to as it is to say, and features some truly beautiful, straining vocals from Bixler. Never has anyone made “I’ve always wanted to eat glass with you again” sound so passionate. The use of trumpets and violins in this track is both restrained and sublime, complementing a top-notch vocal melody to great effect, without interfering with some gently picked guitar work.
The ‘last track’ of the album is Cassandra Gemini, fully 30 minutes long and packed to capacity with as many time changes and dynamic shifts as you could shake a big, big stick at. From wild jazz trumpeting to shrieking guitar effects, this sounds like the biggest of big bands having the time of their lives. The very same 30 second section from the album’s beginning is used at its climax, in a way that enhances the sense that you have just heard one long composition, a Rush style rock-opera, if you will.
In a week where NME trouser-rockers Kaiser Chiefs were cited as the ‘next big thing’, presumably for sounding exactly like The Smiths, Frances The Mute could not have come at a better time, to show the non-conformists that they feel our pain, and are here to help.
The last album to show this much diversity spent 591 consecutive weeks in the charts and still sells in droves. Although highly unlikely to come anywhere near that number in today’s society, when all is said and done this album will still be standing, and artists of the future who owe their musical inspiration to works such as this will wonder why anyone would have refrained from feasting on this delight.