Fans of the bespectacled Omar of At The Drive-In/Mars Volta fame will already have an idea of how this record will sound thanks to Rodriguez-Lopez's creative and original guitar work in both bands. More notably in The Mars Volta (where Rodriguez wrote most of the songs) his passion for synths, drum machines, strange vocals and heavily effect-laden guitars was documented in the hour-long epic that was their latest album.
A Manual Dexterity: Soundtrack Volume 1 was created, as the title suggests, to coincide with Rodriguez's movie project of the same name. For this reason, only 2 of the 10 tracks here have vocals. The opener, "Around Knuckle White Tile," begins with almost three full minutes of bizarre white noise, fuzz, reversed synths and atmospheric background noise. Once again, those familiar with The Mars Volta will be used to the band's love of inserting random noises in intervals between (and occasionally during) songs. When the song begins properly, some frenetic guitar work with a hint of jazz, and yet completely unbound by any musical theory or style, spurts out over the acoustic accompaniment.
The second track credits Red Hot Chili Peppers guitarist John Frusciante on mini moog synth, and again, this track has an over-long synth intro. When the drums kick in, a guitar line not too far removed from The Mars Volta begins, making the listener half-expect to hear Cedric Bixler's guttural wail emerge from the speakers. A rich texture of guitars overlapping and gently tussling with one another surges through the track, until it anti-climaxes and slowly fades out with trembling synths.
"Here The Tame Go By" was ruined for me by the bizarre inclusion of a noise I can only liken to the sound you get, briefly, when you plug your guitar into a particularly overdriven amp. It made me cringe each time it happened, and did nothing for what was otherwise a classically-inspired acoustic tune. Gradually, sweeping guitar lines are drawn in beneath a layer of enchanting synthesizer parts, which conjure up images of autumn and love and loss. The song takes a darker turn and seeps into a drum machine-led dirge-like melody.
"Deus Ex Machina" features vocals and lyrics by Omar's own father, and is a weird union of electronica with salsa that works well. It creates a vivid image of Omar's roots and heritage, and at the end segues into a sound not too far removed from the kind of sounds typically found at the end of tracks on At The Drive-In's final record, with backward drums and fading sound montages.
"Dramatic Theme" is more of the same, also with annoying guitar-plug noises that continue to deny the listener a fully plugged in guitar for several minutes.
"A Dressing Failure" is a textured ballad between the instruments of guitar and, uh.. typewriter. A heavy wave of guitar noise washes overhead, as the typewriter plods on below it like a walker against the storm.
A couple more synth/guitar tracks pass, until we reach my least favourite track, "Of Blood Blue Blisters." This track features the vocal talents of the now-departed Jeremy Michael Ward, ex-sound engineer for The Mars Volta. His contribution is listed in the credits as "yelling," and essentially the track is a guitar/piano ballad with randomly placed moments of off-kilter melody, and bizarre high-pitched yelling and shouting, which quite frankly scared the shit out of this reviewer on his initial late night listen. Although it's cool that the man got a chance to be on the record, the vocals (or whatever) do nothing for me.
Finally, we're greeted by the arrival of Cedric Bixler, and if you don't know who this man is, you probably aren't reading this. His vocals on the track are very Cedric, and yet original and interesting. He sings with more of an accent, affected or not, and a more loose and laid back style than his usual work. This track could almost be a Mars Volta track, were it not for the chorus and its repeated "We all have these disasters/They let you know they run/She'll never stay any longer/As long as you still run."
This record makes for great chilled nighttime listening, and it's also good driving music. Clearly it has been written with intent to accompany a movie, and it is easy to visualize scenes and locations through the journey the songs take. Becoming immersed in Rodriguez's world is not instantly simple nor accessible but is immensely rich and rewarding in sounds once you break through.
8.5 / 10
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