I was that asshole at the party who told the frat boy in the Mars Volta T-shirt that Relationship of Command is probably the best thing anyone ever associated with At the Drive-In will ever create, only to brush by their abundant blinks for the snack table. Finally, Omar and Cedric have proven me wrong.
I love De-Loused in the Comatorium. Though the bass is mixed too low and there are a few extended movements of yawning, as a whole the cyclonic rhythms upheld Omar’s birdshot melodies and Cedric’s stratospheric falsettos. And like many of you, I was disappointed with Frances the Mute and Amputechture, to put it politely. The band fell for the seedier elements of progressive rock -- extended, meandering solos that neither built nor released any tension within the song. It all felt so very self-involved. And perhaps that was the point?
But with Bedlam in Goliath, Cedric and Omar have rediscovered how the other half of prog lives -- where bands like Dream Theater, Porcupine Tree, Flower Kings, Tool, so on and so forth, weave their jazz-tinged love of freedom with the underlying fabric of rock music. I know a woman who knits without any instruction and still manages to create something beautiful and wearable -- these bands do the same with guitars, creating something listenable while disposing of any preconceived notions of how rock music should be executed. Finally, the Mars Volta joins them.
Honestly, Omar is not Satriani or Yngwie, but we don’t need him to be. The Mars Volta is a punk rock prog band and in that Omar doesn’t need to reinvent the guitar for the guitar, but for his own self, and with this album he has done that. He not only does his solos and improvisations to the best of his ability, but he fulfills them within the parameters of his ideas, which is where Frances and Amputechture suffered -- in their desire to be something other than what they were. They were records of ideas and abstractions, wandering noise, ultimately unlistenable in their aimlessness.
The song “Goliath” in particular plays brilliantly with these fears of vaporous noodlry; minutes in, it teases at a drop into formless chaos, only to wrench back up like a diver for air, and does this a few more times within as well, knowing us to be the fickle and untrusting audience we are. But dare to believe once again: The Mars Volta has written an album (the concept of which isn’t really necessary to understand to find enjoyable) that is actually comprised of songs. Songs that fucking slay.
Bedlam is not De-loused Part 2; everything between that album and this is condensed and incorporated eloquently, the best parts of their output so far blended beyond reproach, from me at least. I feared the loss of the drummer from that album would finally put this band into the ground, but the new guy takes the voodoo-tribal rhythms of De-loused, the threats of improv from the other two, and makes them supplant the rock, rather than the other way around. The initiation is complete and his place in this band is secure.
The song “Soothsayer” embodies the Mars Volta’s final lesson from their heroes of prog (Floyd, et. al.): improvisation thrives within established structures. It’s as true as music as it is in poetry; the best and most poignant work is often teased out in the rules of a given design. By re-acclimating themselves to rock song structures, their abilities flatter rather than flounder.
If Cedric’s voice didn’t charm you before, prepare to grind your molars. I’ve always appreciated the risks he took with regard to his own abilities and the place of effects with vocals; how come it’s perfectly acceptable to have a thousand guitar pedals but when someone tries to expand the parameters of the vocals, things get personal? I don’t think Cedric has made claims of operatic accomplishment, but accomplish something he has. It is evident throughout the career of the Mars Volta that he has taken his voice as something more than a lyrical delivery device. His style is singular, both listenable and challenging, his lyrics uncompromised and as “progressive,” i.e. formidable, that is, as a band known for experimentation, it would be an insult for Cedric to do any less with his words.
The bottom line is that Mars Volta still doesn’t need your approval or mine, and Bedlam in Goliath doesn’t change that. Tear up their fros in the messageboards, question their sexuality while you apply your eyeliner, take their jokes too seriously and tout a meaningless punk rock ethos while they’re the punkest (riskiest) band around at the moment. The Mars Volta will never give a fuck what you think and be truer artists for it all the while.