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
OCD rock, even the smart stuff, can get to you like that sometimes.
THE MARS VOLTA | FRANCES THE MUTE | (GSL/Strummer/Universal)
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 email@example.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.