How to make the paranormal work for you

By Jeff Gustafson

In attempting to make their unique mélange of everything from punk to progressive rock accessible to a generation that likes to think it has heard everything, the Mars Volta have attracted zealous devotees and chronic detractors in about equal measure. I was among the former until around the release of “Amputechture,” which deepens a lot of the nascent problems from earlier albums. I figured “The Bedlam in Goliath,” their fourth full-length, would continue the trend. I even had a pithy heading ready for this review: “Goliath loses again.” Oh, that would have been sweet.Even the album’s backstory seems calculated to turn off the otherwise interested. “Bedlam” is a concept album in the same vein as their masterful LPs “Deloused in the Comatorium” and “Frances the Mute,” but instead of being devoted to fallen comrades as with those, “Bedlam” is about . a Ouija board. The story is difficult to swallow regardless of one’s views on the paranormal. Guitarist/composer Omar Rodriguez-Lopez picked up a Ouija board in Jerusalem which he gave to vocalist/lyricist Cedric Bixler-Zavala. Initially a harmless novelty, it soon began to wreak havoc. The studio was flooded, tracks disappeared and equipment was ruined. Bixler-Zavala’s lyrics were supposedly dictated by it. Because the Mars Volta have the tragic quality of always taking themselves dead fucking seriously, the chances of this being an elaborate set-up for self-contained fiction are low – they seem to really think all these things occurred by way of the board. The rationalist despairs.

But my despair was at least diminished when I discovered that half of “Bedlam” rocks frighteningly hard. The first track “Aberinkula” is nearly perfect – a no-bullshit intro, shrewdly placed metal and funk riffs, ubiquitous overdubs that thrill without overwhelming, and convincingly screamed lyrics that occasionally make sense. “Metatron” continues the rocking for another eight minutes, with only three seconds devoted to the pointless electronics twiddling that characterize too many of their songs. “Goliath” is another consistently engaging long track, though it’s difficult to imagine many metal signs flashing at the bark of “I’m starting to feel a miscarriage coming on!” It has a bit of a classic rock feel, in the best possible way – passion without clichés, complicated riffs that don’t pander. In fact, the only dud in the first six songs is the brief “Tourniquet Man,” which sounds like a parody of The Who’s “Behind Blue Eyes.”

Alas, not much of the rock seeps into the second half. “Cavalettas,” the longest at 9:32, also stands out as the most annoying. Rare is the Mars Volta song that doesn’t have at least one seismic shift in tone and/or rhythm, but the number of times this one fizzles out entirely suggests that they’re trying to score points by containing three or four songs on one track listing, of which two are good. This, also, is unfortunately quite common, and their bloated song arithmetic remains one of their biggest problems. It’s a shame, because the lyrics are kind of awesome: “You better not talk / if you came here for semantics / it’s only a matter of folding in time and space / before I become your epidemic.”

“Soothsayer,” the album’s conceptual center, is also disappointing. It’s by far the mellowest song, with strings playing a maudlin riff throughout and Bixler-Zavala’s voice barely rising above croon. There’s a nice guitar solo, but when the song devolves into ambient chatter in its last two minutes it feels too inconsequential to be either impressive or frustrating.

The tight, satisfying first half and wanky, unfocused second are both the products of outsanding musicianship. Rodriguez-Lopez is clearly getting more comfortable with guitar, which he has claimed to hate on more than one occasion, and his considerable flaws are mostly under control by virtue of restlessness, lots of overdubbing, and enough effects pedals to start a war. Accomplished new drummer Thomas Pridgeon (their third in three albums – this plus their novice occultism invites comparisons to Spinal Tap) makes a fine addition, and the rest of the band is adept as ever. It is Bixler-Zavala that wastes the most potential by filtering too many of his vocals through cartoonish effects. His voice is already more emotive than most mainstream bands, something he’s surely figured out by now. To his credit, he seems to have put a lot of effort into ensuring that the lyrics reflect the belligerent Ouija board concept, though his characteristic gibberish and non-sequiturs are still plentiful.

As with all the Mars Volta albums, some combination of awe-inspiring, moving, and maddening is the final result. “Bedlam” is half of an excellent album and half that could be good with some development. They have never lacked ideas, but too many of them end up muddled fragments that can’t survive on their own. Maybe on their next project they can spend more time on the drawing board and less with the Ouija.