Thursday, April 24, 2008
The Mars Volta: The Bedlam in Goliath
Year: 2008 Click here for the artist's site
The Mars Volta seems like a band that you either get or you don't. There's not a lot of middle ground with a band as marginalized (and marginalizing), eclectic, and strange as they are.
That's not to say there's not a lot to like about them - there most certainly is. Their debut LP, De-Loused in the Comatorium, is one of my "Ten Best Albums of All Time" without a doubt. It's a frenetically paced record, full of jazzy riffs, soaring, high vocals, and aimlessly wonderful guitar solos. It was such a strikingly original album that it's hard not to fall in love with it. But with each subsequent release, they've become even more eclectic and hard to define, from the heavy Latin-music influences of Frances the Mute to the directionless mess of Amputechture.
Never ones to be content to tread worn ground, the newest record by The Mars Volta is their hardest to get into - but consequently, very rewarding. It combines the styles that have defined TMV up to this point - heavy progressive/drug rock, jazz stylings, Latin beats, and adds new influences, from the decidedly Eastern qualities of the new melodies to the inconsistent half-rhythms of Arabic music. Almost every moment of the disc is filled past capacity with notes, a pulsating romp through new musical territories that most artists only dream of achieving.
But at times it feels a little too overwhelming. It's definitely a step up from Amputechture (which, while still good, just disappointed me), but it's not quite up to Frances stature, much less touching the heights of their first album. Part of it may be the truncated songs - while I wouldn't call the long-winded musical wankery of TMV epic, it's thick and engaging when their tracks go for ten to fifteen minutes (never mind the forty minutes of "Cassandra Gemini"). The Bedlam in Goliath lacks any of those stand-out tracks, ones that demand your attention and respect. It's a solid, dense disc, but it's not got those shining moments.
Don't take that to mean that there isn't moments of absolute brilliance on this album - there are, and there are a lot of them. For once, TMV has decided to leap from the starting gates - whereas all other releases had a bit of buildup before erupting into musical chaos, Bedlam begins heavy, fast, and thick, keeping you off your toes with strange, almost impossible to follow rhythms, and guitarist Omar Rodriguez-Lopez's ever present weird melodies. Singer Cedric Bixler-Zavala seems to soar to new heights with his already disconcertingly high voice, and there's often 8 or 9 vocal tracks going in different directions all at once.
Lyrically, this album is an incomprehensible as any other Mars Volta release. It's based around the stories told by a strange ouija-type diviner board that the band owned at one time, dubbed "The Soothsayer", which supposedly haunted the band until its burial in an undisclosed location by Bixler-Zavala. It's full of strange, meaningless lyrics, permeated by a sense of chaos and misunderstanding, and supposedly haunted. You can't get much weirder than that.
Tracks to catch: "Aberinkula", the opener, has an infectious blend of melodies and rhythms that gets inside your head. It's in "Soothsayer" where the Eastern influences are the thickest and most rewarding. "Goliath" is really the strongest point on the album, a loud, bangy song, full of a classic, early TMV sound.
The Bedlam in Goliath is a pretty great release from The Mars Volta, and well worth my time and listening. However, it's the exact last place to start listening to this band, being far too dense and esoteric to serve as a decent introduction. It's a wonderful addition and a natural (if unexpected) evolution of TMV's sound, but it's too much in a lot of places and in a lot of ways. If you want to check out The Mars Volta, start with De-Loused and, when you're feeling especially brave, give Bedlam a try.