Wednesday, March 04, 2015
The Mars Volta -- Octahedron
Most Mars Volta Lyric: Vanish to fifth dementia/Cables of ringworms have hung themselves/Of this I ate, communion shaped/Serpent rays in prism tail rainbows escape (This is perhaps the most Mars Volta lyric ever)
My Backstory: By the time Octahedron was released, my wife was five months pregnant with our first and only child. Having finally made peace with the Amputechture-era of the band, I was ready to once again buy every Mars Volta album the moment it hit shelves. However, as I had an impending life change, I was in the middle of doing what I always do in those type of situations: freaking out. I listened to Octahedron and liked it because it was Mars Volta. I put it on my "best of" list at the end of the year, even though Octahedron is not one of the best musical releases of the year 2009. I simply put it there because I was comfortable with the band, even though I hadn't dug very deep into the album. Later, once my kid was born, and I realized that fatherhood was not the end of everything, I went back and gave Octahedron a deeper look.
The Album Concept: Octahedron is one of only two Mars Volta albums for which Cedric Bixler-Zalava didn't come up with some bizarre, off-the-wall story. However, Octahedron is conceptually a landmark album in The Mars Volta discography...it is the first one to contain coherent lyrics. I don't mean every song contains coherent lyrics, as that statement is immediately proved incorrect by the lyric above, which is taken from track three, "Halo of Nembutals." But opening song, "Since We've Been Wrong," is clear in its depiction of a decaying relationship. Second song, "Teflon," minces no words in its President-assassination fantasy. Song seven, "Copernicus," paints a vivid picture of a kidnapping from multiple perspectives. Don't worry, though, incoherent lyrics fans! There's still plenty here for you to enjoy!
The Music: The Mars Volta took care to alert their fans that Octahedron would not be like their previous work. This album was going to be soft and delicate and "pop." I wish the band had had the balls to actually go all the way through with this, minus the pop part, which The Mars Volta could never be anything more than on the fringe of. The band do make it halfway through Octahedron's staring contest without their faces breaking out into a more typical Mars Volta expression, though. "Since We've Been Wrong" begins with a minute-and-a-half, nearly silent drone that runs through the background of the entire album. Then we get nothing but Cedric's plaintive vocals and Omar Rodríguez-López's guitar. "Since We've Been Wrong" is a lovely song, and when the band finally kicks in during the fifth-minute, it's more to fill out the song and give a light catharsis then to explode in chaos. This is a shockingly restrained moment from a band known for wild cacophony. "Full band" here means something smaller than on any previous Volta album, as well, as saxophonist, Adrián Terrazas-González, and rhythm-guitarist/sound manipulator, Paul Hinojos, were asked by Omar to leave the band, in order to pare down Mars Volta's sound. That said, the full band appears from the beginning on the next track, "Teflon." The song is moody and atmospheric, explosive in moments, but again, for most of its running time, remarkably restrained. "Halo of Nembutals" maintains the tone, with the band playing a little more chaotically without disrupting Octahedron's hypnotic spell. The drone at the end leads directly into album centerpiece, "With Twilight as My Guide."
"With Twilight as My Guide" is a beautiful song, composed entirely of vocals, guitar, and a bunch of really pretty noises. It is so ethereal that Renée Fleming (some kind of opera singer or something) covered it for an album she did of non-opera songs. If you've seen the Lord of the Rings trilogy, you've heard Fleming's voice, as she is the only living human equipped with elf-singing capabilities.
These first four tracks accomplish exactly what it seems The Mars Volta have attempted to do...and then the band blow it on track five, "Cotopaxi." Taking the previous sentence in the worst way possible is actually pretty apt, as the noisy, fast, and furious "Cotopaxi" sounds like a B-Side from the band's previous album, The Bedlam in Goliath, spoiling the haunting, deliberate tone of Octahedron, and leaving the listener unsatisfied. "Cotopaxi" does not belong here (even though the volcano it is named after is painted on the album's back cover). The song seems to have only been included to give Octahedron a traditional-sounding single. Unfortunately, the band follow "Cotopaxi" with "Desperate Graves," another upbeat track. By this point, the mood is gone. Octahedron was shaping up to be a brilliant night album, and now it is just an incohesive mess. It's a shame because the gorgeous "Copernicus" gets things right back on track, another dark and quiet guitar and vocal duet with a lovely piano outro. "Copernicus" is followed by one of the better closer's The Mars Volta have recorded, "Luciforms." "Luciforms" is, if such a thing is possible, a delightful descent into darkness, starting off slowly before the full band rips into a descending chord progression. "Luciforms" is tastefully restrained compared to the rest of The Mars Volta's album-enders, but like "Since We've Been Wrong," fittingly cathartic. I really wish that "Cotopaxi" and "Desperate Graves" would have gotten the memo received by Octahedron's other six tracks. Those six prove that employing the full band doesn't have to disrupt cohesion. The band could have written two songs for the five and six spots that fit in with the rest of what they were doing. Octahedron could have been regarded as The Mars Volta's masterpiece, much in the way that The Boatman's Call is often-regarded as Nick Cave's, despite the fact that Boatman is a quiet underground river surrounded by the booming waterfall of the rest of Cave's catalogue. Instead, due to its lack of its cohesion, Octahedron feels incomplete, more like a hodgepodge collection of b-sides and oddities instead of the left-field masterpiece it could have been. Bah.
2009 Warner Bros/Mercury
1. Since We've Been Wrong 7:22
2. Teflon 5:06
3. Halo of Nembutals 5:32
4. With Twilight as My Guide 7:54
5. Cotopaxi 3:40
6. Desperate Graves 4:58
7. Copernicus 7:24
8. Luciforms 8:22