Since We've Been Wrong
Halo of Nembutals
With Twilight as My Guide
Low-key pop Voltas
Hit and miss as prog rockers Mars Volta tone things down on their most commercial release to date.
In an interview with Drowned in Sound, Mars Volta vocalist Cedric Bixler Zavala described Octahedron thus: "all along we've threatened people that we'd make a pop record, and now we have".
The "threat" of making a pop album makes it sound as if the band's fifth studio release is a musical turnaround compared to their previous releases. Although Octahedron is no doubt their most commercial, Mars Volta have always offered catchy hooks and hummable melodies in-between their unconventional time signatures and heavy drum-guitar raucous - The Widow off Frances The Mute is one example, De-Loused In The Crematorium's Eriatarka another. Introducing pop as a change of path that will, as Bixler Zavala followed up, "get rid of one audience to gain another", is therefore misleading. But Octahedron does differ from previous albums in its prog/pop ratio, emphasis being on the latter.
The band's previous release, 2008's The Bedlam in Goliath, was born out of an Ouija board that the band played with while on tour with the Red Hot Chili Peppers. The story goes that the spirit board introduced Mars Volta to the split-personality and titular Goliath who allegedly provided Bixler Zavala with lyrics for the album. In the wake of the Ouija board the band's engineer had a nervous breakdown, recordings vanished and guitarist Omar Rodriguez-Lopez's house was flooded. Bedlam's underlying occultism left its mark on the music, and the album's violent opening of rolling drums, wrenched guitars and twisted vocals set the standard for what has been called their hitherto loudest release.
So it makes sense that after the storm, the band needed a calm.
Octahedron opens with a single prolonged note, the suspense being similar to the intro of Strauss' Also Sprach from Zarathustra, the motif from Kubrick's Space Odyssey. But instead of the explosion of guitar gymnastics and drum attacks one might expect, Since We've Been Wrong turns out to be a sorrowful ballad with Bixler Zavala singing in melancholic thirds against a backdrop of quiet guitars. The track sets the standard for an album dominated by low-key power tunes with only a drizzle of strained cries and pulsating prog rock rhythms.
Nods to the California scene and LA rockers Red Hot Chili Peppers and Jane's Addiction are prevalent. Appearing on all Mars Volta releases is Chili Pepper John Frusciante. Rodriguez-Lopez might be the Volta's musical director, but guitar melodies have that distinctive and delicate Frusciante sound which we've come to know through RHCP and his solo releases. Latin-tinged balladry is represented by With Twilight As My Guide, the band dip into nu-metal on Teflon and there's a brief electronica fling on pop-ballade Copernicus with drum programming looming in the background.
Octahedron is very much a hit and miss affair. There are plenty of nuggets, but seldom do they appear all in one song. Desperate Graves has a killer chorus, but the verse is an anonymous offering that even Bixler Zavala's bleak emo observations about "wrists I have cut" and feasting "upon the carcass of your mother" can't shake to life. Luciforms falls prey to the same imbalance - the chorus with its funky guitar hook is brilliantly addictive, while verses feel more like fillers standing between you and frantic head-nodding bliss.
There's no point in discussing the talents of The Mars Volta. Rodriguez-Lopez and Bixler Zavala proved themselves once and for all when they first hit the news with De-Loused In The Crematorium, their 2003 debut that will forever have their backs covered as far as credibility goes. In comparison, Octahedron is inconsistent and short on experimental excitement.
And Bixler Zavala's pop stamp sounds more like a selling point. Because, really, The Mars Volta aren't serving up anything we haven't heard from them before.