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Tuesday, February 24, 2015

The Mars Volta -- Frances the Mute


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 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 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, 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

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