Monday, March 02, 2015
The Mars Volta -- The Bedlam in Goliath
Most Mars Volta Lyric: Folding wormholes/my time is riding in the alphabet
My Backstory: I mentioned in the first review that I bought all but one of The Mars Volta's subsequent albums right when they came out. The Bedlam in Goliath is the exception. In January of 2008, I was still wrapping my head around The Mars Volta's previous album, Amputechture. As I was feeling ambivalent toward the band, and a little turned off by the weird "ouija-board curse" concept they were using to push The Bedlam in Goliath, I didn't pick up the album until more than a year after its release. By that point, I had made peace with my perception of the band, and for maybe the only time in my life, was flush with cash. I picked up the album, once again from Best Buy, and gave it a couple of listens. I enjoyed it, but then loaned it to my friend, Sara. She gave it back a few weeks later, scratched all to hell. The disc was unlistenable, thanks a lot, Sara. With everything I've mentioned above taken into account, and also perhaps due to the fact that right about that time, I found out I was going to be a father and kind of went mentally wibbly-wobbly, of all the Mars Volta's albums, I have the least emotional connection to The Bedlam in Goliath. In fact, when I pulled out the disc to listen for this review, I had forgotten how badly damaged it was. I had to download The Bedlam in Goliath just to review it here.
The Album Concept: The Mars Volta have marketed their albums on strange hooks before, but The Bedlam in Goliath's is somewhere in the nethersphere. Supposedly, guitarist, Omar Rodríguez-López, bought vocalist, Cedric Bixler-Zavala, a ouija board from Jerusalem. The band screwed around on it and accidentally contacted a malevolent spirit named Goliath, who wrought bad luck upon the band. The board was buried in an undisclosed location, and The Bedlam in Goliath is an attempt to counteract the band's bad luck. Also, if a cursed ouija wasn't enough, the board also had a bunch of poems attached to it (Were they scotchtaped? Superglued?) about an elicit love triangle or something. And then there's some other stuff about Santeria and good grief. I appreciate the imagination the band puts toward all this stuff, and by imagination, I mean that I appreciate all the thought they put into making all this stuff up. According to singer, Renée Fleming, from an interview for Amazon.com, Cedric told her that "Bedlam in Goliath, was one huge metaphor for the way women are treated in Islamic society (honor killings, etc) not just a story about a ouija board... it's meant to make you question the way things are." With all that said, Cedric's lyrics on The Bedlam in Goliath are as obtuse as ever, but there are a few lines that kind of give the feeling Fleming said Bixler-Zavala was going for. As with all Mars Volta albums, you can make out with it anyway you like. Just make sure you buy it dinner after.
The Music: Alright, here we go. The Bedlam in Goliath, like all of The Mars Volta's albums, is unique among the band's discography--with that said, The Bedlam In Goliath is the relentless one. Mars Volta have gone to some intense places before, but outside of the 2:38 break the bizarre "Tourniquet Man" offers in the middle, The Bedlam in Goliath doesn't let up til close to the very end of its 76-minute running length. The vast majority of the time, the guitars are going nuts, the bass is in some sort of endless, indestructible groove, the horns are nearly mechanized, Bixler-Zavala is shrieking his head off, and the drums sound like they are being played not by a human, but by some sort of sentient hammer. This album just pounds you in wave after wave...not apt, actually--waves have troughs--more like some kind of punishing river current that doesn't let up until it deposits you in the sea.
Why, four albums in, did this sound suddenly happen? Why did the Mars Volta do anything they did? No one knows. Best guess, though, is inspiration from new drummer, Thomas Pridgen. Pridgen is generally considered one of the best drummers in the world. He can do stuff with his hands that humans aren't supposed to be able to do. I have to admit that the band's previous drummer, Jon Theodore, played with a bit more feeling and emotion, but as far as pure technical ability, Pridgen is untouchable, and perfect for The Bedlam in Goliath.
Of course, 76-minutes of sustained, direct pummeling isn't very appealing. In the past, The Mars Volta recessed their busier passages of music with ambient, relaxing sections (i.e., the ending of "Roulette Dares" from De-Loused...). The Bedlam in Goliath doesn't necessarily have that, and going off of memory, I thought I would just give this album an 8/10 on the sheer majesty of its technical power and sweep alone, the minus two for lack of diversity. However, on the many re-listens I've given this album over the last month, I've found something a bit deeper. The music doesn't necessarily have breaks, but there are so many subtle little changes in movement and delicate touches among the chaotic violence that I've made a deeper connection with The Bedlam in Goliath:
The saxophone that drops into the mix seven minutes into "Cavalettas," like a fish into the Gulf Stream. The boozy saloon piano and drunken flute during the woozy ending of the same song. The weary tempo change three minutes into "Metatron." The drum breakdown four minutes and fifteen seconds into "Ilyena" that forces your feet into motion. The album is loaded with these sorts of moments.
In addition to this new, frenzied, never-letting up pace, certain aspects of the music itself have also changed. For instance, the heavy Latin influence, which seemed to be increasing with every album, is nearly completely absent from The Bedlam in Goliath. In its place is a bit of a Northern African influence, found in the percussion and woodwinds, the drums, some of Bixler-Zavala's cadences, and the strings near the end of the album. The album's artwork, track titles, and obviously, marketing theme, also support this sonic change. And finally, this is the first Mars Volta album to contain no songs over 10 minutes long. That said, there are still three songs over eight minutes, and as stated above, these 12 tracks still clock in at 76 total minutes of music. The steroidal pace does make it fly by, though.
Even though the running time does seem to compress, The Bedlam in Goliath is exhausting through its first ten tracks. Then "Soothsayer" comes, whirls you around like a dervish, and takes your legs out from under you. Taking advantage of your aural and emotional exhaustion, "Soothsayer" sweeps in on a bed of Middle Eastern strings and chants, disorients, and calms. The song comes from out of nowhere and is incomparable to anything else in The Mars Volta cannon in its hypnotic power. It isn't quite a "break" due to its movement, feeling like the aural equivalent of shifting sand, but it is The Bedlam in Goliath's best version of one (the aforementioned "Tourniquet Man" is so bewilderingly bizarre, it doesn't really function as a break), giving the closing track that follows it more power.
So with years of retrospection and many recent listens, I can confidently say that The Bedlam in Goliath is a worthy addition to The Mars Volta's cannon, and a fine album on its own. It takes more effort to unpack and dissect than any of The Mars Volta's other albums, but it proves the task more than worthwhile.
2008 Universal Motown Records/Gold Standard Laboratories
1. Aberinkula 5:45
2. Metatron 8:12
3. Ilyena 5:36
4. Wax Simulacra 2:39
5. Goliath 7:15
6. Tourniquet Man 2:38
7. Cavalettas 9:32
8. Agadez 6:44
9. Askepios 5:11
10. Ouroborous 6:36
11. Soothsayer 9:08
12. Conjugal Burns 6:36