Please Come Back, Mars Volta… PLEASE.
*Way-hay, Stuff and That’s 2-years-old! How ’bout that. Honestly we’re still a fledgling of a website if we can even count ourselves as that rather than a simple blog, but what the hey, we’re here and it’s going pretty darn well. Thanks for reading for all this time, and thank you for all your support! To celebrate or whatevz, here’s a review. And, apologies for the music takeover of this site, but it’s just what I find most satisfaction writing about, so it’s the only thing I feel like writing about. Also, me and Milo are just a bit obsessed. ANYWAY! Happy Birthday, us!*
Yo, this be Reuben. Chaboi’s back to write about The Mars Volta again, because he’s seemingly got himself into another li’l obsession with the band. I’ve been wanting to write something about this album for a while, because it’s such an interesting one and one I’ve always struggled to form a grounded opinion on.
The band’s final record, Noctourniquet puzzled quite a few fans and critics alike with its more electronic, mellowed and somehow almost more experimental approach than their previous efforts. The album came about after Omar’s mother died and saw him take a more lenient approach to making music, as the production of this album was more collaborative than previously and Cedric was given songwriting duty. Also, the band saw its number of members cut by three as John Frusciante, Marcel Rodriguez-Lopez and Ikey Owens didn’t make an appearance on the record, leaving the band at just four members, the smallest it ever was. Adding to the changes, Thomas Pridgen, who had drummed for the band spectacularly on The Bedlam in Goliath and Octahedron, dropped out and was swapped by Deantoni Parks, who has a radically different style.
In some ways the smaller band for Noctourniquet meant for a refreshing change, but at the same time some of the amazing grandeur of something like Frances the Mute, and the immense flowing energy found in The Bedlam in Goliath, are missing. Not sorely, but still missing. There is less of an edge to this record, and therefore it isn’t as impressive as anything done in their prime of the mid 2000’s. However, it is not lacking in ambition.
The previous record, Octahedron, lacked ambition by the band’s standards, as whilst a fantastic album, felt a little like it was The Mars Volta by the books, just a bit toned down. Noctourniquet screams of an effort to add more variety to the band’s discography after that previous record, which disappointed many for its lack of bite, as this record brings to the table a space rock and electronica infused take on prog rock. Soundscapes are much more prominent, as well as notably more eclectic guitar work, focusing far less on flashy leads and more on light accompaniments and effect-ridden sections, making for something that is much more atmospheric and subtle than their funk and jazz influenced work beforehand. There are few chunky riffs or high energy rock-outs on this album, as its a big departure from the groovy sound you’ll hear on Goliath or the overflowing jazz fusion you’ll hear on Meccamputechture.
Indeed, what you’ll find on this album is far less impressive than the sort of behemoths they were erupting with in the last decade, but, come into it with an open mind, and you’ll find joy in it given you’re a fan of progressive rock already. The music you’ll find on this record isn’t the trademark madness you would expect from The Mars Volta, but in its unique style it finds perhaps more melodic power than the band had ever found before, with a fantastic atmosphere gripping its whole run-time.
It has a certain ambient nature that is very listenable and emotive, particularly with the climatic progression on tracks like Empty Vessels Make the Loudest Sound and The Malkin Jewel, which with Cedric’s deeper vocals and more meaningful lyrics are brought to another level of effectiveness. At the same time as being subtle in its melodies and its progression, the album’s music holds immense melodic power, as each section of the instrumentals work together brilliantly. Interestingly, it isn’t necessarily memorable given time, but it always hits me in the right place while listening to it, and that’s what’s most important. So, in a sense, the last two songs I mentioned along with the title track and Zed and Two Naughts are some of the band’s most powerful and effective tracks – you could almost call them emotional powerhouses (not quite Black, but yunno).
Noctourniquet has always been an interesting album to me, something of a mystery and something I’ve found hard to completely understand. I think this is a quality, however, as each time I listen to it I seem to find something new to enjoy about it, which makes it incredibly re-listenable. It’s a unique and adventurous album by the band, and it’s certainly a grower. I didn’t like it until about my sixth listen, but, about thirty listens later, I am in love with it. At least, most of it.
Indeed, although a brilliant quality of Noctourniquet is that it manages to create for itself a completely unique atmosphere and feel throughout its whole run-time, sometimes it really falls beneath the bar it sets itself with its best tracks. For instance, the opening track, The Whip Hand is a huge off-putter. It’s an interesting one for sure, and with a lot about it, but I’ve realised I’ve never actually found enjoyment from listening to it. I mean, although the rest of the song is capable enough, the chorus is a thing of nightmares, as it just does not sound good with those over-loud synthesizers, and is actually unpleasant to listen to me. It’s the worst track the band has ever released as part of a full album.
The other weak point in the album comes in tracks six, seven and eight. I like each track, don’t get me wrong, but they just don’t hold the same quality as the rest of the album (bar The Whip Hand). Each track in this section takes a softer approach, and although all with their own qualities and all with that same great atmosphere, they just don’t hit the same melodic power. For instance, In Absentia has moments of real power and quality, but it’s inconsistent as it changes itself a little too much in its 7-minute length. Lapochka and Imago, however, are cool tracks, with a good mellow feel, but they just aren’t anything special.
Nonetheless, the rest of the album is absolutely spot-on, and I could come back to any one of the other songs on it to listen to again. And, although it kinda breaks up the rest of the album’s feel a bit, Molochwalker is a very welcome addition, as an energetic bout of classic Mars Volta awesomeness that is one of my favourite short songs by the band, with Omar showing the rest of the album the brilliance he can achieve when he decides to show off on his guitar, and Cedric slamming in some fantastic falsetto vocals to remind you what the band is really about. The song isn’t out of place at all on the album, though, as it still brings that spacey sound in spades.
Perhaps the most important aspect of the album is Deantoni Parks’ work on the drums, which is about the most unique drumming I’ve ever heard. It’s usually offbeat and it’s juddery, completely off-the-wall, but at the same time it’s immensely impressive and in some ways competition for the skill shown by Thomas Pridgen and Jon Theodore, as though lacking in the same energy or overt skill, gives the album a huge part of its uniqueness and is impossible to easily replicate.
Within its consistent atmosphere, Noctourniquet has room for flexibility. There can be found moments of tranquility and even some creepiness in tracks like Trinkets Pale of Moon and Aegis, moments of punk influence and bouts of madness in The Malkin Jewel, Dyslexicon and Zed and Two Naughts, masterful progression in Empty Vessels Make the Loudest Sound, and even some jazz and funk in the title track, whilst Molochwalker is just a brilliant bit of fun. So, in the consistency, there is almost a hidden extent of variety to be found in this album, it’s just your choice if you want to find it.
The problem with Noctourniquet is that you must have patience with it, because there may be moments of frustration as the album doesn’t match the energy or grandeur of former records, and there are perhaps a few irritating soundscapes, or a couple of weaker tracks, but there is a lot to love about the album, as it just keeps on giving. It may not be the best record the band ever put out, or is anywhere close to that, but this swansong is almost infinitely re-listenable and is full of moments of brilliance, with aspects of subtlety, madness and emotional power spread across its whole run-time.
It may not exactly be perfect or spectacular, but at the very least it’s hard not to admire the ambition the band exhibited in making this album, and as a different piece of their discography it’s very welcome.
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