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Friday, March 06, 2015

The Mars Volta -- Noctourniquet

 photo 220px-5127-marsvolta_zpsb8e534c3.jpg

Most Mars Volta Lyric: The obelisk fumes have occupied/emphatically austere/a smelter pile made by the debt collector/where the children should be seen, not heard

My Backstory: In the spring of 2012, I...who cares. Really, enough about me. The Mars Volta had gone nearly three years without releasing an album, after releasing five albums in six years. The music for Noctourniquet was actually written and recorded years before the album was released, but Mars Volta vocalist, Cedric Bixler-Zavala, felt rushed, and wanted to take his time in recording his parts. I knew I was going to purchase Noctourniquet because I had bought the other five Mars Volta albums, and I'm not a quitter, but after the lackluster Octahedron, I wasn't exactly enthused about this next Mars Volta album. Man, what a pleasant surprise.

The Album Concept: Cedric Bixler-Zavala, on his lyrical concept for Noctourniquet: "It's about embracing life for what it should be. There's a view of the elitist lifestyle - that being an artist is unattainable. I'm trying to write this story that reminds people that we're all artists." HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA!
As if anyone would be reminded of anything coherent when reading or hearing Bixler-Zavala's lyrics for Noctourniquet. They are the same sort of dense mass of nonsense Bixler-Zavala has written for almost every song in The Mars Volta's catalogue. In fact, they may be even more opaque and nonsensical than ever for Noctourniquet. It's like the Finnegan's Wake of music.

The Music: As nebulous as Bixler-Zavala's Noctourniquet lyrics are, his vocal performance on the album is outstanding. He has ditched the caterwauling singing of the band's first few albums for something more concrete and solid. This could be do to age, or simply because of a learned restraint that tempers all of Noctourniquet (outside of its lyrical insanity). Bixler-Zavala's melodies here are thoughtful and innovative, and it is clear that the extra time he took was worth it. I said the word "restraint" a second ago...I typed the word "restraint" a second ago--on Noctourniquet, restraint is the name of the game. The Mars Volta doesn't go totally quiet like they did for half of previous album, Octahedron, but Noctourniquet finally sees The Mars Volta lineup pared down to traditional rock band size. Cedric on vocals, Omar Rodríguez-López on guitar and keyboards (along with his production duties and musical miscellany), Juan Alderete on bass, and Deantoni Parks on drums. That's four people and four instruments (five if you count the human voice). The Mars Volta's first album features nine performers. Their second features 29. In comparison to those albums, Noctourniquet feels punk rock in its minimalism.
In addition to the small amount of performers, the band's performance is also punk in tone. Rodríguez-López, who seemed to play 100,000 notes a song in the band's early days, seems content to just pick out a few per song this time around. He plays the keyboard far more rambunctiously. Deantoni Parks, who makes his only appearance in the Mars Volta's discography, drums in such a brilliantly shambling style, the songs sound strung together with loose chains and cardboard. I mean that as a compliment, though. To play so loosely and yet still keep impeccable rhythm is quite a task. This style of play suits The Mars Volta just as well as anything they've done, and is quite refreshing.
As I said above, I found Noctourniquet to be a pleasant surprise on first listen, and it still holds up just as well three years later. I really like that the band are still able to sound so diverse, with nutty rockers like "Molochwalker" appearing right after near-ballads like "Imago." Speaking of "Imago," despite Cedric's lyrical tomfoolery, Noctourniquet is quite an emotional album, with that song in particular resonating like a lonely, reflective walk down an empty street, or in my case, field, at night. The surprising keyboard breakdown and outro for "In Absentia" is a revelatory catharsis. My favorite song, though, is "Empty Vessels Makes the Loudest Sound," with Rodríguez-López picking out a huge-sounding effect on the bridge that sounds like continents being scraped off a planet. The effect is beautiful, and really, if I had to pick out a word that uniquely describes Noctourniquet, among The Mars Volta's six unique albums, "beautiful" is it. If I could use two, I'd simply say, "night album," as night is Noctourniquet's main atmospheric component--I mean, it's in the title, literally a bandage to put on the night.
I feel like I'm rambling, which is unfortunate, but Noctourniquet is the point where The Mars Volta's music finally matches the abstract, impressionistic nature of the lyrics--describing something abstract is fittingly difficult. How fitting then, that Noctourniquet is The Mars Volta's final album. It is a powerful final statement, revealing how far a band can come from its initial sound, while still retaining its identity throughout its multiple album journey. And while I'm reaching a point of incoherency, let me finally mention Noctourniquet's cover art. It reinforces the two threads I've been spinning here, as it appears to be an abstract recreation of the very end of a sunset, matching the album's sound with the sad fact that The Mars Volta are done making music forever.

2012 Warner Bros.
1. The Whip Hand 4:49
2. Aegis 5:11
3. Dyslexicon 4:22
4. Empty Vessels Make the Loudest Sound 6:43
5. The Malkin Jewel 4:44
6. Lapochka 4:16
7. In Absentia 7:26
8. Imago 3:58
9. Molochwalker 3:33
10. Trinkets Pale of Moon 4:25
11. Vedamalady 3:54
12. Noctourniquet 5:39
13. Zed and Two Naughts 5:36

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