Wednesday, August 20, 2008

The Mars Volta: Drifting deeper into unimaginable oblivion with laborious fourth album

By Jon Jacobs

January 28, 2008 | When we were last left wondering what could possibly be going through the minds of The Mars Volta in 2005 with the overlong and schizophrenic Amputechture, it was clear that bandleader Omar Rodriguez Lopez gave no more thought to his previous band, At The Drive In, than he did to Celine Dion.

With near impenetrable structures and endless stretches of disfigured sonic sounds capes, it appeared that the band was more interested in alienating listeners than entertaining them.

In response, fans and critics alike compared the album to the darker, more unpalatable moments of their previous works Frances the Mute and De-loused in the Comatorium; lacking the arrangement and direction the predecessors enlisted to ground the commotion in cogency and logic. Yet, despite this, Amputechture was still an impressive work, whose brightest moments were akin to the most ingenious sections of the band's back catalog.

While few ever questioned their unrivaled proficiency as musicians, many began to question their sanity as songsmiths. In 2008 with the release of their fourth full-length LP, The Bedlam in Goliath, few things have changed.

The way they introduce an album, however, is one of the things that has. Unlike their predecessors, whose opening tracks are comprised of smooth tranquility that builds toward a leap into insanity, Goliath bypasses the dynamics and simply nosedives into it. Six minutes of musical self-indulgence follows: or rather, an hour-and-15 minutes of it.

Like its predecessor, Goliath is a difficult listen, venturing far too often into complete inaccessibility and labeling it progressive. Melodies dart passed at demonic speeds for a few minutes, only to shift in completely opposite directions and leave you wondering where the rhythm is supposed to be in the cacophony of instrumentation and vocals. Nothing a good dose of hard drugs can't fix.

However, unlike both Frances and Amputechture, Goliath seems to have rediscovered the majesty of songs clocking in at less than 10 minutes. Though the average song length is still over five minutes, none of the songs drifts endlessly into oblivion as the previous two albums tended to do. While they are just as bizarre and unapproachable, at least they end before you feel you are going to truly lose your patience and mind in the process.

Lyrically, singer Cedric Bixler-Zavala still chooses to make as little sense as humanly possible, with lines such as "I'll never perish with the albino horns of a thousand young born. Will you drink to the depths of my seed? And your arms will break if you touch this fence. Praise them to this life comes to end." Poetic, perhaps, but nearly impossible to comprehend.

In terms of musical prowess, Goliath does not disappoint. You will still be hard-pressed to find a band with as much mastery of its instruments as The Mars Volta. With guitar solos and incredulous vocal falsetto and harmonies galore, the album is, even if for nothing besides the awe-factor, a breathtaking feat in musical aesthetics. The problem arises when the music simply becomes a juxtaposition of brilliance in instrumentation and production instead of complete album of definitive style and theme.

The Bedlam in Goliath is far from an awful album, in fact it showcases some of The Mars Volta's most stunning ideas, but it is toilsome, and incredibly so. If it could be stripped down to its highlights, it would be the one of the most astute albums in decades. But the decadent use of overproduced noise and the frequent, nearly inane shifts in direction make it nothing more than an escapade in musical showboating.

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