It is a pretty unusual time to be coming back with a new Mars Volta record, just as vocalist Cedric Bixler- Zavala and guitarist Omar Rodriguez-Lopez prep their warmly-remembered post-hardcore band At The Drive-In for two shows at next month’s Coachella after 11 years fallow. “There’s been an offer of money every year,” Rodriguez-Lopez told NME last month of the group’s reformation. “You’d be a fool and a politician to pretend that wasn’t part of it.”
There is something a little depressing about seeing a band as doggedly principled as ATD-I back for the bucks – but there’s something understandable about it, too, considering that ever since, Bixler and Rodriguez-Lopez have doggedly walked the path of most resistance. Oh, sure, The Mars Volta have been successful enough, but you don’t, let’s face it, make big bucks or rock stardom out of nine-minute prog-rock/jazz fusion squalls, rock operas about the deranged visions of a man in a morphine-and-rat-poison-induced coma (2003’s ‘De-Loused In The Comatorium’) or songs called things like ‘Meccamputechture’. It raises that perennial question of survival in an age of dwindling record label advances and rapacious file-sharing: is selling out really selling out, when it’s done to keep on doing the thing you love?
And this – The Mars Volta - is the thing they love. ‘Notourniquet’ has, apparently, been a few years in the making; Rodriguez-Lopez recorded the bulk of the music back in 2009, shortly after the release of ‘Octahedron’, with Bixler-Zavala taking a couple of years to complete his parts. The band call this “a simplified version of what we've done before", but as we will see, this must be placed in context. Because ‘Notourniquet’, in line with The Mars Volta’s past work, can be very odd indeed.
It begins with a fuzz of abrasive guitars and drums moving in a strange step, Cedric’s voice twisted by electronics as he croons eerily of “flies in the Vaseline”. Queer, hallucinogenic verses give way to a grinding, Numanoid chorus powered by an imperious squall of keyboards. A difficult beginning, probably by design, the track’s most thrilling moment comes towards the close when everything drops away save a taut drum step and Cedric shrieks “I’m a landmine/I’m a landmine/So don’t step on me!” Probably an effective tactic, should one be extremely small and concerned about being stepped on.
We begin here in territory not dissimilar to mid-period Radiohead (‘Hail To The Thief’, or thereabouts) – rolling, tricksy drum patterns, decorative minor-key guitar, and neatly integrated electronic flourishes. Cedric swings between a sad falsetto and a bit of cod-operatic storytelling (something about obelisks, a debt collector and some lost children – make something of that, if you can, Dan Brown). It builds to a nicely athletic chorus, though, all hammering drums, spiky guitars and a feeling of being carried along on cosmic winds.
A classic prog-rock title – take two clever-clogs words, make a pun of them – waves in the record’s first properly great track. Marcellus Rodriguez-Lopez’s morse-code drumming cuts through a kaleidoscope of effects, Omar’s guitar spits fiery guitar lines reminiscent of ‘70s jazz-fusioneers Mahvishnu Orchestra, and Cedric booms out apocalyptic visions of futuristic police states (“In the time of the sixth sense/We are cattle to the prod!”) At least I think that’s what he’s on about.
A change of pace, as ‘Empty Vessels…’ unfurls as a sort of sombre Chili Peppers ballad, close to seven minutes of dreamy John Frusciante-style guitar and yearning chord changes. Shame they feel the need to scuzz it up with some superfluous guitar noise, really, but even with a bit of intrusive sonic trickery, it’s the sound of The Mars Volta at their most touching and direct.
Another change of pace, ‘The Malkin Jewel’ is a bluesy lurch with stabs of slide guitar and a quaver-voiced Cedric coming on like Tom Waits or a deranged Jack White as he rants and raves about killing rats in his cellar. After a bit, this disintegrates, before seguing into a new movement, which slowly builds from distressed guitar and simmering electronics into a throw-everything-at-the-wall squall of spazzy percussion and strobing guitar. You leave it feeling a bit seasick. This one’s the single, natch.
“How long must I wait? How long must I wait? Until the mountains of avarice turn blue?” Erm, sorry mate, think you’ve got the wrong number. With its frantic hi-hat action, bubbling electronics, and backward beats, 'Laopchka' has some strange ingredients, but again, this is pretty on the map by The Mars Volta’s standards – alien-sounding, perhaps, but operating to its own twisted logic.
The effects rather get the better of them on this seven-minute outing, a mix of chaotic rocking and torch-song lamentations that seemingly drift to us through thick fog. Indeed, they seem to tire of it themselves, as around the five minute mark the mist clears and the song briefly emerges in all its eerie beauty. “I am alpha and omega,” croons Cedric, and a dotty synth line gives things a curious synth-pop feel.
Pared back to fingerpicked acoustic guitar and freaky Radiophonic electronics, ‘Imago’ pushes Cedric’s vocals way into the foreground. In this case, he’s singing something about a “parasitic psychic statue”. As you do.
Another prog-punk rager, not dissimilar to ‘Dyslexicon’ in its blend of athletic rocking and mind-boggling instrumental feats. “When you walk the plank/Tell me what you see/Moloch in the time of mutiny” pleads Cedric, over violent drum salvos and freaky-deaky guitar splurge. In terms of structure, though, it’s pretty straightforward verse-chorus-verse, and in its sustained, savage rage, about as close as TMV get these days to the post-hardcore attack of At The Drive-In.
Over what sounds like a field recording from some bustling Arabian marketplace, Cedric picks out a curious acoustic lament every bit as nocturnal as its title. After a promising start, electronic drums and some rather hammy vocals spoil the mood somewhat. A reminder that, yeah, this might be The Mars Volta’s accessible record, but they’re still not out to make it easy for you.
From a vortex of analogue electronics sails some soothing fingerplucked Spanish guitar, and hey presto: The Mars Volta are the avant-rock Santana. A windswept swoon of a song, it is gently beautiful, while suggesting the band are trying to wind this record down in style… although we wouldn’t put it past them to be secreting a few fireworks up their sleeves.
Finally, the title track. Rodríguez-López picks languorous guitar lines over Lars Stalfors’ chattering electronics, as bassist Juan Alderete plucks out a slow, dubby strut.
And just when you think fatigue is setting in, here’s the frenetic closer. Cedric invokes St Christopher, patron saint of travelers, over a dazzling eruption of wheedling synth, pulsing kickdrum and rapid-fire snare spills.
At 64 minutes, The Mars Volta’s sixth album is quite a meal, and it would be a fib and a half to say that they were really out to make something accessible. Yet here, it feels like they’re reaching outside their hardcore audience to the casual fans that might be tempted back to the fold by the At The Drive-In reunion – and in ‘Dyslexicon’, ‘Molochwalker’ and ‘Empty Vessels Make The Loudest Sound’, they’re making some of the best music of their career.