Flawed, fascinating and ambitious
This summer, a new generation of fans will discover the visceral scissor-jab to the senses of a reformed At The Drive-In at a brief series of shows, 11 years after their original implosion. When they call it quits (again), many of those fans will probably be curious as to what Omar Rodríguez-López and Cedric Bixler-Zavala deemed important enough to twice break up the greatest post-hardcore band in history for. Thus, the cycle shall begin anew, and The Mars Volta will confound, delight, infuriate and exasperate a fresh crop of ATD-I initiates. There’s a marvellous Ouroboros-esque symbolism to it all.
[a]The Mars Volta[/a] make music the same way a dog humps a table leg: instinctively and for self-gratification. Some people are appalled at the sight of it; others find it immensely entertaining. Either way, they’re pretty oblivious. That’s not to belittle the band, or to slander their fans as the sort of people who break out in hysterics when they see dogs humping inanimate objects (they’re so, so not), but simply to illustrate why the Volta are so user-unfriendly: because the user never enters into the equation. Omar and Cedric’s desire to self-indulge was a key factor in ATD-I’s demise, and frankly, what other people think of them is low on their list of concerns.
The last couple of albums have, however, seen a shift from user-unfriendliness to mere user-indifference. 2009’s ‘Octahedron’ was a narrative-free work which amounted to the ‘easiest’ album of their career. ‘Noctourniquet’ (kind of) continues in that vein; its 13 tracks are largely concise and self-contained, with multiple-minute wig-outs notable by their absence. There is a story here – something to do with the myth of Hyacinthus, the 19th-century nursery rhyme of Solomon Grundy, and obscure ’80s alt.rockers The Godfathers – but calling it ‘open to interpretation’ is like saying the Bible contains a few grey areas. As always with The Mars Volta, you don’t necessarily have to understand what’s going on to enjoy it.
Musically, ‘Noctourniquet’ is dense; neutron star dense. On first listen, ‘The Whip Hand’ is so busy with flatulent synths, rogue rhythm sections, strangled guitars and shrieked warnings of “[i]I am a landmine![/i]”, you initially fear their method/madness ratio is way out of whack. Elsewhere, some of the more straight-ahead moments, like ‘Molochwalker’ or ‘Dyslexicon’, are layered with enough electronic frippery and sonic noodling that, even by Volta standards, it’s close to overkill.
But ‘Noctourniquet’’s greatest strength – or, to hardcore prog-trolls, its unforgivable weakness – lies with its melodies. Despite what sounds like an Indian bazaar going on in the background, the ghostly ‘Trinkets Pale Of Moon’ makes for some seriously beautiful gibberish. ‘Empty Vessels Make The Loudest Sound’ boasts the album’s most memorable chorus (“[i]I am a mountain/Of cavernous people/Searching for a lighthouse in the fog[/i]”) and is an epic, alluring marriage of Omar’s more-is-more philosophy with Cedric’s mystical syntax. Mad as it is, even ‘The Malkin Jewel’, with its Tom Waits-y vaudeville streak and horrorshow imagery of “[i]Rats in the cellar forming a vermin of steps[/i]”, makes a demented sort of sense as lead single.
A section of the Volta’s audience will loathe ‘Noctourniquet’. The shortened song-lengths, the straightforwardness of ‘Aegis’ or the lovely, plaintive ‘Lapochka’… for them, it simply won’t be challenging enough. For the rest of us, though, it serves as a timely reminder that, while At The Drive-In is a closed book we’re looking forward to revisiting this summer, The Mars Volta remain rock’s most flawed, most fascinating and most ambitious work in progress.