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Rock in Total Retrograde! 

How do you solve a problem like the Mars Volta?

Thursday, Feb 24 2005
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You’ve got to give it to the Mars Volta. It is unusually difficult to decide whether their new record, Frances the Mute, is amazing, or whether it is the worst fucking thing you have ever heard in your entire fucking life.

In a way, an hour spent with the record is like an afternoon with your best friend’s older brother, Burt, the guy who never quite moved out of the bedroom he’d set up in his stepfather’s garage after getting kicked out of UC Santa Cruz. Here are the insect chirps and traffic noise of those bong-water-stained Environments records everybody used to have; the nervous-knee drum solos; the acoustic intros serving as chordal Cliffs Notes to the 35-minute sword-and-sorcery epics that follow; the drowsy, fuzzy guitar lines that hang sweetly as puffs of sinsemilla smoke in the air.

The singer, Cedric Bixler-Zavala, sounds like some weird, unholy cross between Chris Cornell and Rush’s helium-happy Geddy Lee, so that you have the power and the sense of line, sure, but also the overenunciated lyrics that make every song sound as if it’s about elves instead of about, I don’t know, fasting black lungs made of clove-splintered shards, and you sense that Bixler-Zavala is tragically, congenitally unable to climb down out of the upper reaches of the treble clef. Can you understand his lyrics? No, you cannot, which is okay because what you think you’re hearing in your head is probably more evocative than the words actually on the CD — post-stoner gibberings about gizzards soft as manes of needles, scratching itchy teeth, and a bunch of other stuff that Bixler-Zavala has the good sense to sing in Spanish. The Spanish lyrics probably cover more or less the same ground as the others, but they sound almost as cool and profound as Café Tacuba.

Among guitar junkies, cyberpunk freaks and the lovers of the 12-sided die, there may have been no album more anticipated this year than Frances the Mute, the second full-length album from Bixler-Zavala and his guitar-playing compadre Omar Rodriguez-Lopez. Both used to play in the overachieving El Paso emo band At the Drive-In before splitting to form the Mars Volta, whose sprawling, 200,000-selling, Rick Rubin–produced debut blew young minds worldwide a couple of years ago. In the war against the pop tarts, the nü-metälers and the overemotional moptops, Rodriguez-Lopez and Bixler-Zavala are the shock troops flinging their young bodies in the trenches for rock.

There is no part of the Rodriguez-Lopez-produced Frances the Mute that would have sounded out of place back in 1973: not the bleep-blop synthesizer sounds, not the poor man’s attempt at a whole-album arch form, ending the album exactly the way it begins (which makes the opus seem a little bit more like genius when the CD hits the autorepeat in your car). Although future generations of musicologists may be able to date Frances to 2005 as easily as they can now understand why Badfinger sounds different from the Beatles, there seem to be no audible allusions here to punk, Kraftwerk, house, emo, thrash or even Metallica, who pushed the boundaries of the prog-rock thing pretty far themselves on Master of Puppets. This is the music that punk rock was invented to erase.

I like to think I am sympathetic to whatever it is the Mars Volta is doing here. I peaked on acid during an Edgar Froese solo at a Tangerine Dream concert once, and spent a weekend in jail for scalping tickets outside an Emerson, Lake and Palmer concert. I owned every Rick Wakeman solo album. On the jazzier end of things, I used to adore Billy Cobham, Mahavishnu Orchestra, post–Bitches Brew Miles, Tony Williams Lifetime, all that crap, and my copy of the first Funkadelics album is worn smooth as a Botoxed brow.

It must be said, the Mars Volta is good at this stuff. Rodriguez-Lopez is an Itzhak Perlman of the effects pedal — nobody this side of Tom Morello wrings more sounds from a guitar — and the rest of the band is almost scarily adept. The album is through-written with a dexterity nobody but Trent Reznor seems able to pull off anymore. And the idea of co-opting the melodic line of Madonna’s “La Isla Bonita” for the climax of a Spanish-language song might be almost Nabokovian in its complexity.

But taken strictly on its merits, Frances the Mute is as indigestible as last year’s fruitcake — although I have a sneaking suspicion that the joke may be sailing over my head. I just know I’d like to stick drummer Jon Theodore on an ice floe someplace where his overplaying won’t ever bother anybody ever again, and I’m pretty sure Rodriguez-Lopez can’t shape a guitar solo to save his life, which on an album that is 65 percent guitar solos is kind of a problem.

And Frances the Mute is the kind of album that inspires theories, lots of theories. A case could be made for it as the ultimate anti-iPod album, the album that destroys the download-and-shuffle paradigm in the way that Led Zeppelin’s first did the three-minute pop single. You could say that it is the post-emo response to prog rock in the way that Primus is the post-punk response — which is to say, Primus without the humor. These guys seem to be as obsessed with magical realism as any post-collegiate Borges freaks, and it’s not easy to tell whether the diary that the album’s narrative is based on, supposedly found in a car by a recently deceased band mate, is an actual document or a useful fiction.

OCD rock, even the smart stuff, can get to you like that sometimes.

THE MARS VOLTA | FRANCES THE MUTE | (GSL/Strummer/Universal)


POP QUIZ

Test your Mars Voltatude by guessing which of the following are actual Mars Volta titles and which are pathetic loser imitations. Hint: Half are imposters. Send in your own fake song titles to music@laweekly.com and the best one will win a fabulous prize! (Okay, it’ll probably be an L.A. Weekly T-shirt.)


1. “Cassandra Gemini”

2. “Et Tu, Sybil”

3. “Cygnus . . . Vismund Cygnus”

4. “Umbillical Syllables”

5. “. . . So That All Shall Not Fall to Entropics”

6. “Corpus Fantasma (Ether . . . Esther)”



Answers: 1, 3, 4 are real.

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