The Mars Volta remains the most interesting major label act, an informal title they’ve held since their debut album in 2003. Nothing about their work is simple even when it is, nor is it straightforward. Their new album, Noctourniquet, is no exception.
I’ve been living with this album for two weeks now, literally playing it at every opportunity: on walks; at my desk; over lunch; lying in bed. My favorite place to test-drive a new album is on an actual drive. My fire-breathing, tire burning, evil bastard of a mid-life crisis car is the definitive mobile music laboratory, with its megawatt sound system and rocket acceleration waiting for me to get caught up in the beat. Sorry, officer, working on a review.
Mars Volta albums are exercises in sensory overload. De-Loused In The Comatorium’s “Intertiatic ESP,” for example, is the sonic equivalent of standing in the middle of a stampede. Much of the credit for that frenzy belongs to songwriter and virtuoso guitarist Omar Rodriguez-Lopez, who never played one note when seventeen would do.
This is such a signature of the band’s sound that my initial thought on my first pass through Noctourniquet was “Where’s Omar?” He’s there, though — just not where you expect him. Apparently early in the writing process for this album Rodriguez-Lopez limited himself to four notes per song, a convention that he later abandoned but that still left its mark on the record. “Aegis,” for example, is built around a very simple guitar figure, as is the stunning “Trinkets Pale Of Moon.”
Rodriguez-Lopez didn’t do away with the busy-ness, however. He simply moved it elsewhere — the keyboards, the drums, the studio itself. The album is a phenomenal sound collage composed of often dissonant and conflicting elements that collide and embrace and blend into a cohesive whole. Theremin, Native American songs, the bleeps and bloops of electronica, acoustic guitar, backward loops — the band plays with a remarkably broad and unconventional palette.
Perhaps there’s no element more unconventional than new drummer Deantoni Parks’s syncopation. The guy might be percussionally insane. His rhythms are brilliant, staggering, unpredictable, epileptic. The sensation is less freight train and more “falling uncontrollably down a staircase,” and it is one of the things that keeps me coming back. The overwhelming majority of rhythms in pop music are two piece jigsaw puzzles: not exactly challenging and you pretty much have it figured out before you’ve opened the box. Parks’s work is more akin to working a five thousand piece 3-D puzzle while on acid. And without depth perception.
Vocalist Cedric Bixler-Zavala’s lyrics are allegedly inspired by the nursery rhyme “Solomon Grundy” and the Greek myth of Hyacinth. Elements of both certainly show up (“Sunday I’m in the ground” — “Aegis,” “If I trust in the wind she’ll pave me a different road” — “Empty Vessels Make The Loudest Sound”), but what story the album is telling is lost on me. Maybe with a couple hundred listens I’ll unlock its secrets, but maybe not. I still don’t know what Frances The Mute was all about, but I love that album.
What Bixler-Zavala does very well is create a verbal atmosphere that perfectly complements the aural texture of the album. He has an eye for clever wordplay (“Dyslexicon,” “Noctourniquet”), an ear for straightforward grabbers (“I’m a land mine / so don’t you step on me” —“The Whip Hand”), and the obtuse poetics of his prog forefathers (“The avulsion whims its spurs in the pinches of my earth / The dust I kick of animus shatters” — “Lapochka”).
Occasionally a lyric pops up that sounds critical of Rodriguez-Lopez’s dictatorial style, which delayed Noctourniquet over two years after the songwriting partners had a falling out over lack of collaboration. Bixler-Zavala allegedly felt rushed and undervalued, and that anger seems present. I could be reading into things, though — that’s the risk of doing one’s homework rather than letting the music speak for itself.
If you’re looking for some new music to get you through Zumba class Noctourniquet isn’t for you. The marketplace is flooded with background music in 4/4 time about girls and summer and whatever. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with that — a little mindless music in the background keeps us company and helps to pass the time. But Noctourniquet is for people who listen to music. It demands your attention. It is immersive. One must be present, must participate. As a listener one must be curious and alert else the world that The Mars Volta have created here — whatever it may be — will pass you by.
If you fit that description pick up Noctourniquet immediately, load it into your own mobile music testing laboratory, and crank it. Just be sure to watch out for the highway patrol while playing “Molochwalker.”