Wednesday, August 5, 2015

The Mars Volta: Frances the Mute

Virtuosic guitar, dexterous drumming, classic organ, high-pitched rock screaming, usually- incomprehensible lyrics, sometimes in Spanish--these and other aspects made The Mars Volta one of the most interesting groups of the 2000s and one of the few rock bands this blogger has listened to over the last twenty-five years.

It is a mash up of instruments, styles, and sounds that could easily be judged as excessive, chaotic, strange and confounding--but that can all be said in a good way.  The ambition of the group's leaders, guitarist Omar Rodriguez-Lopez and lyricist and vocalist Cedric Bixler-Zavala, is such that, even if some of the pieces are lengthy, the experimental sounds bizarre, and the lyrics strangely impressionistic, their ability to create a fascinating melange of sonic experiences is without question. And, there are times when this band is so tight, powerful, propulsive and precise that their peak moments are sheer exhilaration.

The band's second album Frances the Mute is, in some ways, an expansion of the sonic palette develolped on the debut De-Loused in the Comatorium.  Suites, electronic interludes, abrupt shifts in time signatures, quiet passages exploding into intense and rapid sections, squalling guitar solos, and Bixler-Zavala's keening singing and visceral wordplay are all given greater expression.  Latin rhythms and percussion, mournful trumpet solos, multi-tracking vocal harmony, and other effects broaden and deepen the rich stew of sounds that abound on the album.

The lyrics are printed on the multiple panels of the insert with striking photos that defy explanation, so it may or may not be helpful to be able to sing along with words that aren't really understandable (same for the titles and subtitles), though bits of meaning might be teased out.

It's really the melange of sounds that are something to behold and this is where Rodriguez-Lopez comes off as a Svengali with a pretty rare gift for pulling directly from punk, metal, Latin music and other styles but in a highly-personalized fashion.

The band including drummer Jon Theodore, bassist Juan Alderete de la Peña, keyboardist Isaiah Ikey Owens and percussionist and keyboardist Marcel Rodriguez-Lopez is top-notch and they were joined by a host of guests including John Frusciante of Red Hot Chili Peppers tearing off some great guitar solos of "L'Via L'Viaquez", his bandmate Flea performing on his original instrument, the trumpet (rather than the bass that he is known for), and a slew of violinists, trumpeters, horn players and other musicians.

De-Loused was exciting because it was new and heralded the arrival of a duo and band with tremendous talent.  Frances may be excessive, but spectacularly so and the conception seems more assured and tied together.  While the rest of The Mars Volta's catalog features a lot of higlights, this album is, to this listener, the peak.  But, the remainder of the group's output will be covered here, because it was all interesting, if not quite at the level of the amazing (and confounding) Frances the Mute.

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