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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:

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 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 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

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