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The Mac Weekly

The Student News Site of Macalester College

The Mac Weekly

The Student News Site of Macalester College

The Mac Weekly

Mars Voltaƒ?TMs Amputechture: Review

By Jeffrey Gustafson

Attempting to categorize the Mars Volta is an excruciating process. Musicologists (read: people with too much time) seem to have settled on something like post-hardcore-progressive-acid-emo-salsa-psychedelic-jazz-metal, which is enough to make any reasonable person reach for the aspirin. Still, vocalist/lyricist Cedric Bixler-Zaval, along with composer/producer/guitarist Omar Rodriguez-Lopez’s band has shown that it is equally adept at creating both aural bliss and a sound that embodies all the worst caricatures of those genres.

Fortunately, with their latest release, our afro-clad friends have largely avoided the bong-water deluges of aimless jamming that plagued the otherwise brilliant Frances the Mute (Universal, 2005), showing discipline to go along with their sometimes overwrought desire to shock and awe. If you weren’t a fan of the Mars Volta before, Amputechture (Universal, 2006) won’t convert you, but if you’re a new listener this provides an excellent window into their magical world of guitar anarchy, hernia-defying vocals, and the sound effects from all your worst nightmares.

“Vermicide,” at just over four minutes, is the shortest track the Mars Volta has ever written, and the stellar musicianship doesn’t change the fact that it seems like an intermission. Then comes “Meccamputechture,” a marriage of despairing guitar and horn melodies set to a monolithic beat. Cedric’s repeated shouting of the phrase “humans as ornaments” is harrowing. Things quiet down on “Asilos Magdalena,” a lovely Spanish-lyric acoustic ballad that is the closest thing on the album to sanity. “Viscera Eyes” lacks the innovation of some of the other tracks, but the pounding rhythm guitar and eerie horns make it compelling.

“Day of the Baphomets” is the standout number, and perhaps the Mars Volta’s best. A killer bass solo opens, followed by a frenetic rhythm change replete with dread-inducing sax and keyboards teetering on the brink of madness. The upbeat chorus and final section recall the energy of Cedric and Omar’s former band At the Drive-In, while the dueling guitar and sax passages bring fond memories of King Crimson. And just when you think they’re done, Omar’s little brother Marcel kicks in with a show-stopping percussion solo, followed by some of Cedric’s most deranged hollering to date. The album’s only dud occurs in the closer, “El Ciervo Vulnerado,” which maintains an eerie mood for awhile but devolves into formless guitar noodling.

Unlike the Mars Volta’s previous two full-lengths, there is no unifying narrative to Amputechture. While the deaths of close friends provided the impetus for both Frances and Deloused in the Comatorium, more general themes pervade the ranks here. Religion is big (vicarious atonement is the doctrine that the death of Christ was sufficient to save humanity; Tetragrammaton refers to the Hebrew God), and Cedric has stated in interviews that the lyrics were inspired by anything from the L.A. immigrant marches to stories of a murdered Romanian nun thought to be possessed. Gleaning this from the lyrics themselves is impossible. It’s never clear what Cedric is singing about, either because of vocal modulation or the fact that the lyrics seem written in a style best termed “acidhead-who-reads-medical-journals.” Credit him for having one of the most evocative voices in modern music, but when he belts out lines like “The kiosk in my temporal lobe / is shaped like Rosalynn Carter,” you wonder just how seriously he takes himself.

The music, of course, is what matters, and for this Omar is almost entirely responsible. He has cheated a bit, bringing in Red Hot Chili Peppers maestro John Frusciante to play the bulk of the guitar parts, but all instrumentation is the result of his vision. And most of that vision involves lots and lots of guitar. Omar has always excelled at short spurts of robots-have-taken-over atonality, but his solos lack both restraint and consistency, and it is here that Frusciante’s help is most welcome. The guitar lines are for the most part thrilling and unpredictable, giving in to soulless virtuosity only occasionally.
Contrary to much popular music today, the Mars Volta don’t go for the ironic, antiheroic approach. They aim to blow your mind, and they won’t hesitate to give you a concussion in the process. Their audacity, passion, and even pretentiousness work in their favor in ways that the most tedious list of labels could not summarize.

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