The Mars Volta Throw Away Their Own Rulebook on Self-Titled Album
Published Sep 12, 2022Cedric Bixler-Zavala and Omar Rodriguez-Lopez have always been iconoclasts. From the antipathy that imploded At the Drive-In, to the apathy that led to the disillusion of the Mars Volta, the one thing you could depend on from the duo was a lack of reverence for their own much-loved work.
So while the Mars Volta's return after a decade away might've felt inevitable, the musical form it's taken did not. "Blacklight Shine," the album's first single, opens things not with the spacey ambiance nor the sonic freak-outs the band are best known for, but with latin percussion and a surprisingly humble melody from Bixler-Zavala. Even more shocking: the whole thing is over in less than three minutes, the kind of concision in songwriting that once felt anathema to the group.
Maybe there were clues in one of the more than two-dozen records Rodriguez-Lopez has released in the last 10 years, but Santana meets Tame Impala probably wasn't on many folks' bingo cards for the band's new sonic template.
While these songs are smooth, they are, mercifully, not "Smooth." This is still the band who made an album inspired by a ouija board, after all. But the record is certainly Bixler-Zavala and Rodriquez-Lopez at their most earth-bound since their days in At the Drive-In's original run. The Mars Volta's world was always a hermetic one; the idea that there might be music beyond what the group were playing felt unlikely. On The Mars Volta they're opening a window into a wider musical world — final track "The Requisition" finds Bixler-Zavala (purposefully or not) interpolating "Careless Whisper," of all things.
But even for all the newfound sheen, there's nothing on this new self-titled album that necessarily feels out of step with what's come before. Rodriguez-Lopez, who is Puerto Rican, has nodded to his latin roots throughout his career. Working with the help of his brother Marcel, Eva Gardner on bass and Willy Rodriguez Quiñones on drums, they bring those flavours — and other flashes of sounds we've heard in the past — to the fore. Anchoring the songs to drum and bass grooves and keyboard loops gives Bixler-Zavala more space to flex his voice; once little more than a high-pitched rebel yell, it's now capable of delivering a rainbow of emotions. "Vigil" and "Cerulea" are honest-to-god ballads, the kind that soundtrack teen romances. Rodriguez-Lopez, who once again serves as producer, minimizes his often prodigious playing more to texture and accents, riffs replaced by glassy synths.
Enjoyment of The Mars Volta ultimately comes down to what the listener feels is the group's purpose. Is it to continue honing and refining the post-hardcore prog-rock sound that defined the Mars Volta Phase 1.0? Or is it a vehicle for artistic expression, able to encompass whatever might be on the minds and in the ears of its members in the here and now? Fans of the former will likely leave this album disappointed, though I'm sure the reunion tour shows will be stellar. Fans of the latter, though, will be pleased to discover the group firing on all cylinders, even if those cylinders are serving the smoothest ride of their career. (Clouds Hill)