The Mars Volta : Frances The Mute

...a flawed masterpiece...

There’s a lot of nonsense gets spouted about prog rock at the moment, not least because nobody seems sure what it actually is. Usually, they mean something else entirely, namely ‘that which is neither garage nor art rock but isn’t metal either’. Included in this category are modernist rock bands such as Muse, Coheed And Cambria, Cave In or Oceansize, who recognise that adventure and invention are a necessary part of the rock band’s job description. The funny thing is, though, that most of those bands actually have a ban on guitar solos so as to eliminate any risk of turning into actual ‘prog’, which is to say the bands from the ’70s whose songs were a load of guitar solos one after the other, the occasional jazz odysseys and nonsensical concepts; the things that the punk wars were fought to destroy.

Before we say anything else we should say that ‘Frances The Mute’ is a staggeringly accomplished work, both as a multi-dimensional of music and narrative, one that would reward both serious academic study and being listened to under the influence of hallucinogens. If it were judged purely on scale and ambition it’d be the album of the year.

We say that because there’s no getting away from the fact that ‘Frances The Mute’ is a load of guitar solos one after the other, culminating in one massive jazz odyssey tied into a nonsensical concept. And it’s not The Mars Volta’s fault that you may as well be a sex offender as make prog music these days but, on the other hand, Cedric and Omar don’t do themselves any favours either. What we get is five ‘suites’, some but not all of which are divided into further movements (plus, like heathens, they have sliced the CD up into 12 song-shaped segments) – although one of the suites, ‘The Widow’, has come out song-shaped so as to give the record company a single. As an album, it re-imagines, to music, the tale behind a diary found by late bandmate Jeremy Ward, detailing an adopted lost soul’s search to find his parents – his doomed mother being the title character.

Within this impressive, ambitious, often stupid whole, are moments of melting human beauty: the roaring crescendo to schizophrenic opener ‘Cygnus… Vismund Cygnus’ (thankfully, its just the titles that are in Latin), the barren desolation of ‘The Widow’ itself and the curious stroll down the Barrio that is ‘L’Via L’Viaquez’ – not to mention that song’s hilarious closing underwater sequence. The whole thing is fucking exceptional, a fact we keep having to reiterate because, too often, ‘Frances The Mute’ has the air of an overzealous drama teacher (“now be a giraffe!”). The difference between this and ‘De-Loused In The Comatorium’ is that while their debut dragged their ideas into astonishing new directions, it did it with microscopic precision. Everything seemed to be happening for a reason. Here, Cedric and Omar let every kinetic impulse and idea run and permeate in every direction of its limits. Which must do wonders for their inner child but, unless you’ve got the time and inclination to go all the way with this record every single time you listen to it, that’s always going to be at the expense of the listener.

Remember, again, that the thing is brilliant. But it’s wrong to suggest – as The Mars Volta might even believe themselves – that this is a new benchmark for what rock music, and sound itself, can do. The uncomfortable truth is that ‘Frances The Mute’ doesn’t do a huge amount that Yes, Emerson Lake & Palmer and even Led Zep didn’t already achieve in the ’70s. The irony is that it’s The Mars Volta’s very conservatism that causes them to stumble at the final hurdle marked ‘proper genius’. So, while infinitely better than its debut in many ways, it’s a flawed masterpiece that, overall, just isn’t as good.

Daniel Martin