The contrast couldn’t be greater. Previous The Mars Volta album The Bedlam In Goliath started as if the band were looking at their last day on Earth, and continued as a frenzied hour of guitar-led intensity.
Octahedron goes to the other extreme, beginning with an almost inaudible quiet. At least a minute passes before any sound can be properly determined. It’s strangely disconcerting, as nobody gave the band permission to do “quiet”, surely?!
Even more surprising is the music this ominous silence ushers in, the closest thing to a soft rock ballad the Mars Volta will ever do. For a while Cedric Bixler-Zavala sounds just like Rush vocalist Geddy Lee, until the full range of his voice becomes apparent and the melody soars in response.
Yet what The Mars Volta are able to achieve even here is something that a soft rock balladeer could never do, keeping a foreboding atmosphere throughout the album. The underlying feeling is so strong that as the tension grows, so does the impression the band are being physically restrained from rocking out. On Cotopaxi they are released, with a furious outbreak of guitars and stilted funk, featuring prodigious drumming from Thomas Pridgen.
The lyrics are more user friendly, too – but only some of the time. Since We’ve Been Wrong has the closest thing to a quotable couplet, its title repeated in a touching duet, but By Halo of Nembutals it’s all back to normal, as Cedric sings, “When the earth lets you go, when the verdict is vermin, by the fork in my tongue, when you run out of sermon”.
With no saxophone on this album the sound is less jazzy – indeed, this is the record the band’s lynchpin Omar Rodriguez-Lopez terms as their ‘acoustic’ album. With Twilight As My Guide bears him out, a gentle guitar accompaniment chosen for Cedric’s restrained vocals, but this being the Mars Volta there are the necessary moments of rocking out.
In the end, Octahedron – its eight songs carefully calculated theme – opens up more possibilities than we might have thought for the Mars Volta. It shows that for the first time they really can do restraint, without compromising the overall impact of the instances where things are let rip. The next album is already in the bag, which is no surprise given Rodriguez-Lopez’ formidable rates of composition, and it will be interesting to see if it continues their new-found path.