After 10 years away, news of The Mars Volta’s reformation filled many a fan’s heart with giddy anticipation. As the architects of dense prog-punk monoliths such as fiery 2003 debut ‘De-Loused in the Comatorium’ and 2005’s sprawling ‘Frances the Mute’, vocalist Cedric Bixler-Zavala and guitarist Omar Rodríguez-López’s return to The Mars Volta fold rounded out a particularly fraught decade. Personal spats and, most recently, the on-again-off-again resurrection of the pair’s original post-hardcore outfit, At The Drive In, undoubtedly cast a shadow over the prospect of the Volta’s re-sparking. Thankfully, the stars aligned.
The Mars Volta’s self-titled new record, quietly worked on by the reconciled pair since 2019, pulses with an energy that might not be immediately recognisable to those who mainly associate the band with raucous explosions of guitar and swerving, rhythmic shifts. Opening with the pair of singles that heralded the comeback, ‘Blacklight Shine’ and ‘Graveyard Love’, it’s obvious that the band’s aural palette has been significantly stretched. As emphasised by the twin music videos, which celebrate the people of Puerto Rico, The Mars Volta’s undulating Latin and Caribbean rhythms still form the bedrock of their sound, but now exist within a denser soup of laddering synths, trance-like counter-guitar riffs and soul-touching organ.
While anger and hysteria was never far from the surface throughout the band’s earlier work, here gleaming beauty takes precedence. From the sumptuous R&B of ‘Shore Story’, the affecting, haunting lament ‘Tourmaline’ and the album’s high watermark, ‘Palm Full of Crux’, Bixler-Zavala and Rodríguez-López concoct an emotive, hook-soaked listening experience. Those worrying that this shift might signal a dilution of the drama that coursed through their abrasive classics should fear not; Cedric’s streaming words still flow like rivers of magma, though now bristle with the type of mortality-conscious, weathered experience that only age can bring.
There are reminders of the Volta’s more ragged incarnation, from the snarling ‘No Case Gain’ to closer ‘The Requisition’s shift from jangly, New Order-leaning textures into a frenzied after-image of everything the band have ever sounded like. ‘The Mars Volta’ is a record that seizes the attention instantly, peppered as it is with arresting top-lines. But it also demands – and handsomely rewards – repeated listens, by virtue of its meticulously assembled arrangements (just bathe your ears in shining third single ‘Vigil”s luxuriant mix).
This isn’t just a striking return for one of the most individual bands of the last 20 years; it is, musically, an astounding masterpiece. Their finest hour? Quite possibly.
Release date: September 16
Record label: Clouds Hill