Apart from their resemblance to Mos and Richmond from The IT Crowd (Errr, what? – obviously-not-blind Ed), everything about The Mars Volta is very serious.
They have a wonderful sense of the fantastical, and are able to convincingly use fanciful stories from their own lives as an influence, both on their lyrics and music and as an exciting melodramatic backdrop to their already bombastic progressive rock albums. Take last effort ‘The Bedlam in Goliath’ for example: its recording was riddled with disasters and weird tomb-of-Tutankhamun-esque happenings, all attributed to a ouija board the band picked up in Jerusalem. Whether the stories are true or not is unimportant, as they add a vital element of gravitas and mysticism to the music that the band seems to be constantly looking for.
While there’s no amusing back-story, the same is definitely evident in ‘Octahedron’ – a title that brings to mind mystic cults, or Kenneth Anger films. Speaking about the release in an interview last year, Cedric Bixler-Zavala said: “It’s more mellow. It’s a little more of what we consider our ‘acoustic’ side.” And it does seem to be as close as the band will ever get to acoustic – while ‘…Goliath’ opened with the face-melting ‘Aberinkula’, ‘Octahedron’ opens with several seconds of silence, slowly building with weeping guitars and fiery vocals, which, perhaps as always with prog-rock, run a fine line between passionate and laughable.
Things run in a similar vein through the first handful of songs, with some menacing lyrics carrying most of the weight over some pretty standard compositions from the usually experimental outfit, with the creeping, cosmic introduction to ‘Halo of Nembutals’ providing the only real highlight. Fifth track ‘Cotopaxi’ kicks out the jams with a characteristically leaden riff; at the one-minute-thirty mark, just as the song seems about to explode into a solo, comes a fantastic switch around of reverb and guitar wash.
Unfortunately things don’t really hold at this high point, and while ‘Octahedron’ as a whole is passably interesting, it just doesn’t reach a level of experimentation that we’ve come to expect from the band. It’s certainly admirable to take things in a different, musically ‘mellower’ direction, but The Mars Volta simply haven’t dragged themselves far enough down their chosen path.
Words: Steven Garrard