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Friday, February 27, 2015

The Mars Volta -- Amputechture

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A Score of 7/10 When the First and Last Songs Are Included, a Score of 9/10 When They Are Removed, Divided by Two, Giving a Composite Score of:
8/10


Most Mars Volta Lyric: I've got a prayer that'll make you theirs now/Beneath sepulchres/Raise your entrails as an offer

My Backstory: In the fall of 2006, I was a bit uncomfortable...to put it mildly. I was actually very uncomfortable. I was getting married in a couple of months, living in a new Baton Rouge apartment after leaving my country sanctuary, and fearful and uncertain about life in general. I picked up the new Mars Volta, and low and behold, those jerks changed things up and I couldn't even find any comfort from their album. I wasn't the only one. Amputechture received far lower review scores than its two predecessors. How could a band who released two albums that meant so much to me put out something that I disliked so much? Worst of all, I lived less than three minutes from work. How are you supposed to digest a 76-minute album in three-minute increments?! Ugh.
Cut to the spring of 2008, 18 months later. I was happily married and living a pretty relaxed existence. I worked full time at the library and part time for my old man in his crawfish ponds, listening to lots of music on my long drives back home to our tiny, but lovable new apartment. Life was brilliant. I pulled my dusty copy of Amputechture off the shelf and gave it another go. Lo and behold, I found I enjoyed it...if I listened to it a certain way.

The Album Concept: In contrast with The Mars Volta's first two albums, Cedric Bixler-Zavala didn't come up with any kind of concept for Amputechture. Without one, these are some of the most cryptic lyrics Bixler-Zavala has ever penned...and that's really saying something. He takes a few clear potshots at organized religion, but beyond that, your guess is as good as mine. Going back to my opening paragraph, in a time of uncertainty, I wanted clarity, but there is absolutely no clarity to be found in this collection of lyrics.

The Music: Sixteen minutes of Amputechture is completely useless. Seven minutes and nineteen seconds of this 16 minutes comes at the beginning of the album, in the form of "Vicarious Atonement." Eight minutes and fifty seconds comes at the end, in the form of "El Ciervo Vulnerado." They are both essentially the same song, with Omar Rodríguez-López noodling atonally while Bixler Zavala rambles menacingly on and on, and with little backup. These two overly-sedated songs sound nothing like the rest of Amputechture, and they don't match its tone, either. It is my suspicion that the opening non-salvo of "Vicarious Atonement" discouraged Mars Volta fans so much, myself included, that they could not even get into the rest of the album. Generally, Volta's albums begin with a brief quiet intro before exploding with energy. Amputechture begins in a coma. Technology is so cool, though. You can just hit "skip" on your CD player, or "delete" on whatever MP3 program you use, and "Vicarious Atonement" is gone. I did, and suddenly a world of magic opened up to me.
Amputechture is now opened by "Tetragrammaton," a sixteen minute masterpiece of continuous build-and-release, with virtuoso performances on every instrument. From this point on, Amputechture reveals itself as the most relaxed album in The Mars Volta's catalogue, with "Vermicide" slowly rolling through the desert like a tumbleweed on a breeze. "Desert" actually sums up the aura of this album to a tee.
While both De-Loused in the Comatorium and Frances the Mute feature a sort of South American (particularly Brazillian, sometimes Brazillian rainforest) vibe at times, Amputechture ups the Latin music influences to the highest degree of The Mars Volta's career. While some songs feature verses sung in Spanish like Mars Volta's previous work, Amputechture also features a song sung entirely in Spanish. The Latin influence in the percussion is also higher than ever. This time, though, the vibe of the album is that of a lazy town in dusty, Central Mexico. "Meccamputechture" makes this feeling more explicit, starting of frenzied, then suddenly falling into a groove of thick, sandy molasses, winding on for eleven glorious minutes. "Asilos Magdalena" is the previously mentioned Spanish-only song, mostly just an acoustic Spanish guitar and Cedric's plaintive vocals...quite relaxing, while still featuring a satisfying conclusion. I may have not felt comfort in Amputechture nine years ago, but this song settles on me now like a pair of well-worn shoes.
"Viscera Eyes," perhaps Amputechture's most immediate track, follows. "Viscera Eyes" continues in the slower vein, but still contains a heavy, lockstep groove--in a way, it's the rhythm of the entire album. The song features an awesome breakdown halfway in, before coming together in a sweet jam session and finish. At this point, I should mention Omar's guitar tone, unique to this album, but consistent throughout: it's like a strange, watery alarm bell, but watery in the way of sand when you've dumped a glass of water in it. The guitar tone is another reason Amputechture becomes such a comfortable aural hideout after one has listened enough to be well-acquainted with it.
"Day of the Baphomets" closes things out with a bang, the aural equivalent of an Aztec sacrifice before a towering Mesoamerican pyramid. "Day of the Baphomets"' gnarly percussion breakdown 3/4 of the way through practically draws the dancing figures clothed in blue feathers for you. The song's final notes are quite conclusive...but then "El Ciervo Vulnerado" shows its unwelcome face. SKIP!
I must say, I'm torn. The stretch of Amputechture's tracks two through seven is my favorite of any Mars Volta album...but tracks one and eight are so disconcerting. I can't just discount 16-minutes of music, even though in this case, I'd rather refer to it as "music." That "music" exists, though, and it exists on Amputechture, thus the conflicting scores above. Amputechture is a unique and worthy entry in The Mars Volta catalogue, but it also includes the band's two most regrettable moments. In the end, if I'm not inhabiting my usual rigid cataloguer persona, I can say that my favorite album by The Mars Volta is their glorious, six song, 60-minute Amputechture.

ONE FINAL NOTE: I'd like to leave you with this metacritic.com user review by one, "TedJ," posted on Sep. 15, 2006.
"Amputechture 8/10
good album with great moments. live, it's even better. pitchfork bugs the fuck out of me. phrases like "piss-soaked indulgence," "hodgepodge of ADD prog trope noodles," "wavy gravy," "heady hand drums," "weirdo Crimson King corn-dogging," "'Been Caught Stealin'-on-DXM shower ballad"... wow. such writing embodies the very excesses and self-satisfied inanity that writer Brandon Stosuy TRIES to decry within the cloying verbiage of his review. Like many Pitchfork reviews, the writer panders to the pretentious philistines, attempting to impress us and deflect any potential rebuttal by stuffing his review with as many SAT vocabulary words and "oh-look-at-how-much-i-know-about-music" references as possible. over it.
"
Awesome, TedJ. I'm over it, too.
.
2006 Gold Standard Laboratories/Universal Records
1. Vicarious Atonement 7:19
2. Tetragrammaton 16:41
3. Vermicide 4:16
4. Meccamputechture 11:03
5. Asilos Magdalena 6:34
6. Viscera Eyes 9:23
7. Day of the Baphomets 11:57
8. El Ciervo Vulnerado 8:50

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

The Mars Volta -- Frances the Mute

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10/10

Most Mars Volta Lyric: TIE! Between: She can bat a broken eyelid/Raining maggots from its sty and the always effective She was a mink handjob in sarcophagus heels

My Backstory: In March of 2005, I had graduated college, traveled the foreign wonderscape of Germany, was spending my mornings crawfishing, and my evenings watching art films, playing Resident Evil IV, and wandering around the wilds of southern Louisiana with my parents' house as home base, wondering if I'd ever get a real job. It was brilliant and unsustainable, but what a great year, with some trials that were surmounted satisfyingly. Also, I blogged like the whole time. As not stated in the first four words of this rambling mess, The Mars Volta's second full-length offering, Frances the Mute, was released in March of 2005. My initial impression was, "Woah, this is awesome...wait, what is this?!" I just didn't know what to make of it. Some parts were immediately great, but others took the whole year to sink in, and even by December 31st, when I made my favorite albums of the year list, I still didn't completely get it. I do now. When I made that list, I also cared about popular opinion...I don't now.

The Album Concept: Frances the Mute is Mars Volta's second attempt at a concept album. According to vocalist, Cedric Bixler-Zavala, band member, Jeremy Ward, who died of a heroin overdose shortly after the recording of The Mars Volta's debut, found a diary in the backseat of a car. That diary supposedly detailed the journey of a man searching for his biological parents, mentioning several names of people this man met on his search. Reportedly, each song on Frances the Mute is named after one of these people, but I think that's most likely a load of crap, as no one ever finds anything that cool in the backseat of a random old car...the coolest thing I ever found was ant poison...er...moving right along. If one knows that the album is supposed to be about this, though, one can draw a pretty disturbing progenation story from Bixler-Zavala's nightmarish, nearly obtuse lyrics. From what I get, the dude's mom was some kind of stripper, and that dad was a rapist...but maybe they are both monsters...I don't know...as usual with The Mars Volta, it is abstract feeling over concrete meaning, but when it is done on this insanely grand a scale, every word fits perfectly with the music beneath, on top, and running through it.

The Music:
Apparently, guitarist, music writer, and band-leader, Omar Rodríguez-López, decided that an hour-long album featuring a 12-minute song was not epic enough. I have often wished I'd have come of age in the 70's, lying in a cool, dimly-lit attic, jamming to progressive rock albums. De-Loused in the Comatorium gave me that feeling a little, but Frances the Mute takes me there. Frances the Mute is what one of those 70's albums from my imagination would sound like in 2005...I say that, but this album, in all its unique glory, is timeless. Frances the Mute consists of five songs, totaling 77-minutes of music. The final track is 32 minutes and 32 seconds long. This isn't your ordinary album. This is one of the most epic albums ever made. Too big for my younger ears, in fact.
At the time of Frances the Mute's release, most reviewers matched my mixed sentiments. A lot of awesomeness, but just too much, and too overindulgent. Thankfully, time isn't just a marauding force that ages everything into ruin. The more one listens to Frances the Mute, the more every rambling passage becomes a marvel at which to wonder.
The music takes up where De-Loused in the Comatorium left off. Omar Rodríguez-López's nimble, shifty, mind-blowing guitar-work. Jon Theodore's polyrythmic to a point of superhuman drum-playing. Bass playing by Juan Alderete de la Peña that makes one forget that Flea isn't even playing on this one. Isaiah "Ikey" Owens trippy, prodigiously skilled keyboard-playing. Marcel Rodríguez-López's Latin-flavored percussion work. Speaking of Latin-flavored, Frances the Mute takes that influence up a notch from Mars Volta's debut. Cedric even sings some verses in Spanish, and track three, "L'Via L'Viaquez," is at its core, a twelve-minute salsa song. The music, coupled with the lyrics, conjures such vivid imagery: vast rainforests, strangely-lit alleyways, hurtling through the stars, a dark, nightmarish carnival. Flea trumpet solos. Yes, Flea does return, and now instead of bass, he's playing trumpet. There are plenty of strings, and Latin-flavored horns. Is there a Latin-flavored ice cream? Is that racist? Also, there is that glorious woodwind of 70's prog infamy: the notorious flute! Is that racist?
Of course, the standout track among standout tracks is the mind-bending 32-minute closer, "Cassandra Gemini." "Cassandra Gemini" is split across eight tracks on the CD, though the reason for this is disputed--some blame the record label, which could be true, though I guess the song is more digestible when one can skip around it easier. I've never skipped around "Cassandra Gemini, though...start to finish every time. In this day and age of soundbytes as 144-character tweets, uncompromised long-form pieces like "Cassandra Gemini" are even more important. If one has the attention span and a dedication to music, "Cassandra Gemini" is remarkably rewarding, with its repeating motifs, constant build, trippy 3/4 break, and explosive finish...or at least rewarding to a kid who grew up listening to classical music. I haven't heard anything like "Cassandra Gemini" before or since, even from this very band...but in the interest of this review not taking 32-minutes to read, I'll close here.
It's been a decade's journey from confusing pariah to treasured classic, but Frances the Mute now stands as a landmark album in rock history, The Mars Volta's most noted contribution to popular culture, and the highlight of their bright, six-album career. Frances the Mute has become such a comfort to me that I listened to it before a physics final last year, just to calm myself. I, uh...I really like it.

I wish I could have seen them do this live. I was supposed to see them in New Orleans on April 28th, 2005...it didn't work out...thanks, Youtube!
ONE FINAL NOTE: When I was younger, hipper, and cooler, I purchased the "Frances the Mute" single on vinyl from the now defunct Compact Disc Store on Jefferson Highway. Yes, "Frances the Mute," the title track for the album Frances the Mute, which is not actually found on the album, Frances the Mute...only on vinyl by itself, with a live version of "The Widow" as its b-side. Bixler-Zavala referred to the song as a "decoder" for the album it is not actually found upon. The opening lyric for "Frances the Mute"'s outro is "This never happened." I think my theory that the plot and premise of the album are all constructs of Bixler-Zavala's vivid imagination is confirmed.
ONE SECOND FINAL NOTE: As season one of Lost ended with a terrifying scene of Walt being taken away by the Others, just two months after Frances the Mute was released, did anyone immediately think of that show in conjunction with Casandra Gemini's first line: I think I've become like one of the others? I did!

2005 Gold Standard Laboratories/Universal

1. Cygnus....Vismund Cygnus 13:02
A. Sarcophagi
B. Umbilical Syllables
C. Facilis Descenus Averni
D. Con Safo

2. The Widow 5:51

3. L' Via L' Viaquez 12:21

4. Miranda That Ghost Just Isn't Holy Anymore 13:09
A. Vade Mecum
B. Pour Another Icepick
C. Pisacis (Phra-Men-Ma)
D. Con Safo

5.-12. Cassandra Gemini 32:32
A. Tarantism
B. Plant a Nail in the Navel Stream
C. Faminepulse
D. Multiple Spouse Wounds
E. Sarcophagi

Sunday, February 22, 2015

The Mars Volta -- De-Loused in the Comatorium

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9/10

Most Mars Volta Lyric: Dolls wreck the minced meat of pupils/cast in oblong arms length

My Backstory: During my nine-month migraine, in the second of my three semesters as a senior at LSU in pursuit of my first bachelors degree, in the spring in the year of our Lord 2004, I somehow made it to Craig and Hannah's house and they told me to buy The Mars Volta's debut album, De-Loused in the Comatorium. They had never been wrong before, and they weren't wrong then. I picked up De-Loused in the Comatorium from Best Buy (along with the film Shattered Glass, which proves that Hayden Christensen can actually act, and that George Lucas really is that bad of a director), put it in my car stereo blind...I don't mean that I couldn't see, despite the splitting headache, but that I had never heard one single note recorded by The Mars Volta. Within two minutes, I knew I was listening to something special. Thanks, Craig and Hannah, even though I haven't spoken to you in four years, and you never, to my knowledge, bought another Mars Volta album. Since then, I've bought them all from Best Buy the week they were released (with one exception), on sale price. I love the Mars Volta, and over this indefinable span of time that I review their six albums, I will attempt to explain why.

The Album Concept: According to the Wikipedia entry, and not cited in any way, De-Loused in the Comatorium is the story of Cerpin Taxt, a man who "...enters a week-long coma after overdosing on a mixture of morphine and rat poison. The story of Cerpin Taxt alludes to the death of El Paso, Texas artist — and Bixler-Zavala's friend — Julio Venegas (1972–1996)." Thankfully, I can vouch for this--I remember reading interviews with vocalist, Cedric Bixler Zavala, from 2003-2004 that confirmed the story to be true. Like Wikipedia, I won't cite those interviews...and like it matters--at this point in the band's career, Bixler-Zavala's lyrics are just a mish-mash of bizarre phrases that paint more of a mood or feeling than tell a story.

The Music: Something I've come to love the most about The Mars Volta: all six of their albums have their own unique feeling, yet they all sound like no other band but The Mars Volta, and they are all almost shockingly consistent in their quality. The Mars Volta are generally considered a progressive rock band, as some of their songs reach long lengths (the longest here clocks more than twelve minutes), the musicianship is virtuoso, and their albums feature plenty of solos. However, some critics, mainly the kind that only post snarky comments on other people's reviews, have tagged The Mars Volta with the moniker "mall-prog." This is because The Mars Volta's music is accessible and actually fun to listen to. The band can write an eight-minute song (and just one album later, a 32-minute song) that still contains a killer hook. Basically, The Mars Volta are insanely talented and experimental, while still creating music that the average person might want to listen to. Such a style does not suit snobbery well. Just check out The Mars Volta's Pitchfork scores (from some reason, they skipped out on the last one).
De-Loused in the Comatorium is The Mars Volta's full-length introduction to the world. Its first real track introduces Bixler-Zavla's sky-high, cartwheeling vocals, guitarist Omar Rodríguez-López's dextrous, unpredictable fretwork, Jon Theodore's "He's gotta be an octopus!" drum work, and Isaiah Ikey Owens psychedelic keys. Oh, yeah, and some dude named Flea played bass for this album. This dude Flea's buddy, John Frusciante, also tags along for a few guitar solos. Latin percussion dominates throughout.
With all of that set up out of the way, I can be a bit more spare in describing what sets De-Loused apart from the rest of Mars Volta's equally unique discography. Perhaps due to the nature of the concept, De-Loused in the Comatorium is a bit more emotional than its counterparts in The Mars Volta discography. The lyrics, with music reflecting, point to things being physically out of whack. I must say that I took particular solace in "Cicatriz ESP"'s "I've defected" chorus line in 2004, feeling at the time that a chip in the pain center of my brain had come loose (a few months later, I'd be fine and still jamming this, but that time is recorded in depth here. Good times!). Cicatriz ESP in particular highlights the greatness of this album. The music can be dense and daunting, yet fall out for relaxed, airy, sometimes watery passages that can be quite relaxing amid the chaos. Cicatriz's middle is full of this calmness, then shifts to an awe-inspiring sequence of three guitars solo'ing at once before going back to the song's intense main section. This song, and most of the rest of the album also features a strong Latin feel, most heavily espoused by percussion work, but also by some of the scales played on the guitar, the melodies sung by Bixler-Zavala, and Jon Theodore's drum work. All of this together creates quite an epic feeling at times, as if the album is heading toward something huge, and the frenzied outro
Who brought me here
Forsaken, depraved and wrought with fear
Who turned it off
The last thing I remember now
Who brought me here

feels like a revelation.
Both sides of this album, the beautiful lucid dream and the nightmare are represented by the alternating album covers. The main cover is featured above, but below is a photo of the album cover when the reversible CD booklet is turned around. Like De-Loused in the Comatorium itself, it is a breath of fresh air.
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2003 Gold Standard Laboratories/Universal Records
1. Son et Lumière 1:35
2. Inertiatic ESP 4:24
3. Roulette Dares (The Haunt of) 7:31
4. Tira Me a las Arañas ("Throw Me to the Spiders") 1:28
5. Drunkship of Lanterns 7:06
6. Eriatarka 6:20
7. Cicatriz ESP 12:29
8. This Apparatus Must Be Unearthed 4:58
9. Televators 6:19
10. Take the Veil Cerpin Taxt 8:42

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

The Nicsperiment Is Buried in Kingcake

I can describe the week since the Nicsperiment last posted with one phrase and excuse: an orgy of kingcake.
Last piece in the house:
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BUT THERE WILL BE MORE AT THE PARADE. THERE IS ALWAYS MORE AT THE PARADE.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

I Also Write Video Game Reviews

For more than a year, I have have managed The Nintendo 64 Museum (though I have no links to here from there, as I like to keep that website a bit mysterious).
However, I also just began a new blog dedicated to Wii U and Wii reviews. I might play with the HTML a little more, but for now, it definitely looks best on Google Chrome (Google running Blogger and all).
So anyway, if The Nicsperiment wasn't specialized and nerdy enough for you, you've another option...

Monday, February 09, 2015

The Americans -- Season Two (Review)

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The Americans
2014 FX Networks
Season Two
Score: 9/10


With the third season of FX's The Americans currently airing, I thought I should do a quick review of last year's season to get anyone who wants to jump in up to speed.
The Americans centers on the Jennings' family. Parents, Phillip and Elizabeth, are Russian agents embedded into suburban America. Their children, Paige and Henry, are clueless, but Paige is starting to suspect that something about her family is terribly wrong. The series is set in the early 1980's, the last full decade of The Cold War.
The Good: The complexities of such a situation are explored in full, but more than anything, this show is about marriage, duty, and parenthood. Phillip and Elizabeth begin the show as two people forced together, but after decades in the same bed, they have eventually fallen in lve. Unfortunately, part of their job is dressing up in disguises and sleeping with other people...sexual politics taken to an extreme. The two of them are also supposed to be communists, but Phillip has grown to love the freedom America provides, and finds his loyalty to Mother Russia somewhat wavering in light of his loyalty to his children. Elizabeth, however, is a stone, immovable in her Marxist faith and devotion to the USSR. Keri Russell stomps away the idea that Felicity is her signature role, as her work on The Americans as Elizabeth is stunning. Not only does she make it believable that this barely 100-pound woman can take down a man twice her size, but the vulnerability she shows in Elizabeth's marriage, counterbalanced by her ice cold, unwavering commitment to her cause makes for one of the most nuanced performances on television. Special attention should also be given to Matthew Rhys as Phillip, who slowly breaks down throughout the season, after witnessing the aftermath of the murder of a comrade's family. The two child actors also do a good job, with Holly Taylor as the older Paige receiving the lion's share of dramatic duties. Paige finds religion in this second season, the enemy of what Phillip and Elizabeth believe, and their conflict with her is believably, and sometimes harrowingly portrayed. I can't think of another show where the father-figure rips up his daughter's Bible in front of her, while barking, "You respect Jesus, but not us?!" The awesome thing about this is that everything in The Americans is so fully-realized and true to life that Paige's faith is actually treated as a real thing. Her Youth Pastor is portrayed as someone actually passionate about what he believes in, helping the children under his care instead of simply fulfilling the general child-molester cliche that unimaginative television writers often settle for. The Americans also explores the marriage dissolution of the CIA agent on the other side of the battlefield. As Stan Beeman, Noah Emmerich gives a quiet, devastating performance. He is a man completely lost in his work...and friends with people he does not even realize are his enemies. In what was perhaps Season One's only weakness, simply by its extreme coincidence, Agent Beeman lives across the street from the Jennings--a ripe target for them to turn, yet at the same time, the greatest threat to their safety. The show features numerous other characters, a million complex moving pieces, and it masterfully handles all of them, as well as every labyrinthine plot and scheme that could go with the Cold War spy-work of the era. It also captures the 80's in a startling gray, far from the flashy feathered hair of lazier shows. The soundtrack is an 80's music lovers dream, as well...Peter Gabriel abounds.
The Bad: Literally one scene in the entire season knocks the overall score from perfect, and just barely, at that. It is a scene of exposition, featuring a dying character who gives a really, really long plot explanation. The scene, from the season's finale, could have been handled better, as this person seems to be in the process of gasping their last breathe for minutes on end. Their explanation of earlier events could have perhaps been more naturally given throughout the episode. That's it, though. Other than that, this is a landmark season of television.
The Conclusion: The Americans is one of the most complex, nuanced programs on TV. It tackles moral and emotional issues few shows would ever even touch from a distance, and with aplomb. The show's quiet, thoughtful pace may throw off viewers expecting explosions and punches every minute, but there is nothing else like it out there. This is one of the most rewarding television experiences of the whatever this decade is called.

Friday, February 06, 2015

Down the Rabbit Hole of Boxcar Cadavers

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These two guys and a bunch of their friends are about to lead me through an aural maze of insanity.
Next week is not The Mars Volta week on The Nicsperiment. Oh, no.
Reviewing these six Mars Volta albums will take time and considerable mental fortitude--all while I work, study, and attempt to keep my family intact and happy, let alone my sanity.
Oh, no, friends, this will not take a week. It will take an undefinable amount of time that could be seconds or years or a lifetime, but write them I will and they will get written.
This indefinite quantity of time on The Nicsperiment: The Mars Volta Indefinable Quantity of Time.
Get ready, but then be prepared to stay ready