Omar Rodríguez-López and Cedric Bixler-Zavala reunite for their most revolutionary album yet, comprising dense progressive workouts, straight ahead pop, Latin-American rhythms and dance figures
The self-titled album can be a double-edged sword. It can be an emphatic statement of identity, a musical act confirming what they have always stood for, or it can be a last resort when the well of inspiration has run dry. Those worried that the latter might be the case with The Mars Volta, releasing their seventh long player after ten years away, can rest easy – for this is a surprising and affirming piece of work, packed full of surprises.
It is also a chance for the two remaining founder members, Omar Rodríguez-López and Cedric Bixler-Zavala, to mark their reconciliation. They dissolved the band ten years ago, citing religious rather than musical differences, as Bixler-Zavala took up a concentrated stint with the Church of Scientology. The resultant clash of views was too intense for the band to maintain, but Bixler-Zavala and his wife, Chrissie Carnell, had a deeply painful experience with the church, with legal recriminations continuing to this day.
With differences ironed out, The Mars Volta have set about their most revolutionary album yet, pivoting from dense progressive workouts to straight ahead pop. ‘Straight ahead pop’ for The Mars Volta, you will have surely guessed, still involves a great deal of music, and each song is packed with notes and incident.
That said, in musical terms, the band have clearly been working out. Gone is the excess padding and the bloated edges of some of their previous albums. Now their musical form is trim, straight to the point and unexpectedly funky. Lyrically, too, they are less oblique and straight to the point. Musically, the influence of the Style Council – and more specifically how that project evolved from The Jam – and Peter Gabriel’s So have been cited during interviews.
Yet right at the front of the mix we find Latin-American rhythms and dance figures, Rodríguez-López and Bixler-Zavala drawing on their Puerto Rican and Mexican heritage more explicitly than ever before. Bixler-Zavala‘s vocals are quieter, presented through something of a haze, but if anything the straighter approach heightens their intensity.
So does the lyrical directness. The troubled experiences of the last few years are addressed, as are intense feeling of loss. Palm Full Of Crux has a softly devastating chorus, singing, “As far as I could tell, it was you waving in that window, as far as I could tell, it’s me waving back at you”. Blank Condolences has a sonorous flute and probing blues guitar, supporting the vocalist’s conviction – possibly about referring to Chrissie – that “she will rise again”.
Graveyard Love cuts deeply, stripped back to its bare essentials as Bixler-Zavala sings of “delusion in the air”, before percussive forces gather with a surprising lightness of touch. Shore Story is something of a ballad, taking a low-slung R&B groove. Equus 3 has the strongest resolve, its dark bass matched to a distracted piano and powerful vocal. The Peter Gabriel influence surfaces most prominently in Cerulea, its unexpected parallels to the song Don’t Give Up typifying the underlying sadness running through the album.
The Mars Volta, then, open a new chapter for the band, where less is most definitely more. The self-titled album proves their most emotive to date, marking a rebirth that promises a great deal more in the future.