Have The Mars Volta finally become predictable? Were they already? Are they still churning out jaw-droppingly unexpected music? Did they ever? All these questions and more probably won't be answered in this review.
Amputechture, the fairly quickly-released third full-length from the El Paso, Texas group, is in some ways a sequel to 2005's Frances the Mute, but still retains some of its own persona. The emergence of guitarist, producer and all-round visionary Omar Rodriguez-Lopez as the captain of the band's flailing ship has been one that built on his frustrations and desires during the band's career so far, and his influence here is strong. Many elements of the songs on Amputechture borrow ideas from Rodriguez-Lopez' two solo efforts, particularly his use of guitar effects and tones.
Cedric Bixler-Zavala, the first mate to Omar's captain, has stated in interviews that the theme of the record is a commentary about the "fear of God." With track names that reference Hebrew names for the Messiah, references to Mary, idolatry, Christ's atonement and Mecca, it's clear that once more the band have produced a record with a concept, although not a concept record.
Kicking off with the low-key "Vicarious Atonement," The Mars Volta borrows from Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd to make a swirling call-and-repeat offering that stretches to seven minutes. A cursory glance at the lyrics sheet for the song reveals a surprise: few words, few syllables, and that rare thing on a Mars Volta record; comprehensible lyrics. It's almost odd to hear Cedric Bixler-Zavala sing a line like "I regret / Not killing you while I had the chance" when viewed alongside his past lyrical offerings like "Transient jet lag / Ecto mimed bison." The track soon breaks down into a jazz-fusion mass of trumpets before swiftly segueing into "Tetragrammaton."
"Tetragrammaton" features some interesting backwards-looped drums and guitar before completely shifting into what sounds like a brand new track, making me wonder if the CD just skipped. The effect is disconcerting, not really in a good way, but soon the song's Latin-tinged riffs lull you back into a confused contemplation. Of course, midway through the 16-minute epic, everything disappears besides a sparse guitar and a distant vocal, and you're left wondering just when the pounding drums of the now-departed Jon Theodore are going to liven things up. Predictably, everything fades out and then a rousing guitar solo brings it all back, alongside some tremolo vocal effects from Bixler-Zavala.
"Meccamputecture" starts with an exciting vocal hook that almost sounds, well, rock 'n roll. Somewhat disappointingly, the song turns into a slow marauding beat that just sounds like more of the same. Another ten minute plus song, it does feature some impressive falsetto vocals, even for Cedric, but it doesn't stand out enough. A track that does is "Asilos Magdelena", the only track on Amputechture not to feature the talents of band friend John Frusciante on guitar. It's an interesting acoustic tune, with lyrics solely in Spanish. The guitar is gentle and lulling but features a teasing hook that makes the six-minute length bearable. Mid-placed on the record, it helps break the feeling of monotony somewhat.
Next up is "Viscera Eyes", the first single, cut down to half the nine-minute length present on the album so that radio stations won't laugh. Apparently it was written as a possible At the Drive-In song, although to me it doesn't sound much like that band. It's the most "obvious" song on the record, if such a word can be applied to The Mars Volta, with a very "rock" sounding riff. More harmonized Spanish vocals and falsetto swoops are of course, omnipresent. The more interesting part of the song is the closing few minutes, where a Juan Alderete bassline keeps things moving. The band resist the urge to flow back into the powerful chorus one last time, finally showing a little restraint, and the song slowly segues into...
..."Day of the Baphomets" (see what I did there?). Featuring a wah-wah bassline that Flea would be proud of, it starts off promisingly and just gets better. When The Mars Volta comes out with all guns blazing (or in this case, an orchestra of saxophones and trumpets), it's an impressive sound and begs to be heard live. Some "clever" time signature trickery later and the final song, "El Ciervo Vulnerado" is ushered in, with Indian vibes reminiscent of Omar's last solo record. The track fails to go anywhere and serves to end the record as it began; understated and low-key. The track itself ends completely unexpectedly, mid-note, and I'm still not sure if that shows creativity and originality, or just a poor decision.
When viewed alongside the liner notes stating "Omar Rodriguez-Lopez (who directs the group)", it's not really surprising that powerhouse drummer Jon Theodore chose to depart the band not long after recording was completed on Amputechture. Over the course of the band's output, Omar has established himself as the creative controller of the group, often writing all musical parts without scope for improvisation on behalf of the other "personnel." This ever-expanding group of musicians now counts At the Drive-In alumnus Paul Hinojos (now credited as Pablo Hinojos-Gonsalez; evidently his name was not Latin enough) amongst its members, making this writer wonder why Omar didn't just recruit Tony Hajjar from Sparta and have done with it.
Amputechture works well as a companion to Frances the Mute, although does not attempt to return to the sounds of 2003's Deloused in the Comatorium, a record whose experimental nature and atmospheric songwriting has not been revisited by the band to date. While The Mars Volta are clearly happy playing their brand of Latin-tinged modern "prog," some listeners are beginning to wonder how far the band can take both this sound and this method of production before the "personnel" become session musicians.
7.2 / 10
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