Album Review: The Mars Volta – The Mars Volta

[Cloud Hills; 2022]

Using trauma as a means of creating art is a very, very tricky choice. It reframes any creation through a therapeutic angle: the haunted, troubled artist, whose pain is on full display and whose personal story becomes larger than their artistic development. In these cases, talking about the troubles of a creator often becomes ultimately overbearing, and leaves a work that is just not engaging beyond subjective attributions. On the other hand, if approached with seriousness and strong will, personal art pieces that grapple with pain can communicate ideas with great intensity and allow to pass on control: the ego steps aside for the shadow to express itself.

This approach became the calling card of The Mars Volta during their decade-long struggle with themselves. An unsteady unit whose existence was framed by personal tragedies, drug addiction and eccentric outrageousness, the band spearheaded by duo Cedric Bixler-Zavala (lyrics and vocals) and Omar Rodriguez-Lopez (guitar and compositions) reframed their personal history into blistering, psychedelic concept albums that embraced post-punk, prog rock, jazz fusion and ambient electronica, somewhere between PiL, Pink Floyd, Brainiac and Aphex Twin. Often, this was very cryptic, at times painful to watch, almost collapsing into unintentional self-parody, then catching itself spinning on its own axis like some sort of radioactive diamond to deliver another blistering climax. Their dissolution felt like a loss even to their detractors – there simply is nobody around as weird and weirdly appealing.

With constant rumours swirling over the years, the group has finally reformed and handed in a new – self titled at that – album, draped in strong gold, and lifted the veil of obscurity a bit: there was a falling out between Cedric and Omar, connected to the former’s newfound interest in Scientology – a short honeymoon period, which fell apart prominently, the history of which is well documented by Cedric and his wife on their respective Instagram pages and other social media. Yes: Cedric has declared war and has transformed his tongue into a sword, making a record even closer to home than the already personal previous works.

But the most prominent change here comes sonically: Omar has created a chromatic pop sound – something wholly new for The Mars Volta. Yes – this is warm yacht and alternative rock, somewhere between Doobie Brothers and late-era Smashing Pumpkins, with the longest songs still shorter than the four minutes fifteen seconds mark! This contrasts the cosmic sound of the predecessor, 2012’s Noctourniquet, and feels like a conscious attempt to “strip things down”.

This allows the band’s Central and South American roots to shine, with a heavy Latin edge to much of the guitar playing and percussion. Meanwhile, the prog aspects are even gentler than on previous standouts such as “The Widow”: “Palm Full of Crux” feels like an embrace of (very) late 60s folk balladry, adding mellotron flutes and a haunted chorus. “Tourmaline” is similar, but brings in the band’s signature ghostly electronic wails (see the opening of their debut record for reference). It also manages to weave in some truly incredible jazz drumming to lift up Cedric’s powerful declarations of commitment. It’s the type of track teenagers find themselves listening to, holding hands, staring up to the glow-in-the-dark stickers on their ceiling. Even when The Mars Volta have sobered up, there’s a hint of weed and acid within those moments of playful exuberance, which works as a contrast to the dark epics of the past.

This also allows for their signature shapeshifting focus to become a little more organic. “No Case Gain” is a very good example of this: in just under three minutes the song dances through changes in tone and genre, without feeling pretentious or overbearing – it has the gravitas of grey storm clouds, finishing before it falls prey to any urge to noodle on. 

First single “Blacklight Shine” is the clear standout and further proof of this newfound clarity in direction: again within three minutes the song concentrates on its rhythmic beat and vocal melodies, finding a balance between its dark, spiteful lyrics and borderline sub-tropical aura.

Still, even at 44 minutes – which is incredibly short for a Mars Volta record of 14 songs (!!) – there’s a few moments that don’t connect as effortlessly. “Equus 3” still passes by without much of an imprint in its proggy groove. “Graveyard Love” feels oddly placed as the second track, and likely marks the most awkward transition from paper to record. Something about the elements within seems to not quite gel, with samples, background vocals and guitar textures never really feeling comfortable. Maybe approaching it similarly to the spacious closer “The Requisition” would have worked better – concentrating on individual elements rather than creating a large construct could have given weight to the performances and dialled down distractions.

On an elemental level, and progressing on from this point, The Mars Volta not only seem keen to change, but also open to learn new lessons. The biggest musical take-away from this self-titled album should be that the band is not quite comfortable yet completely dressing down. Even at its most painfully naked – the sensual “Shore Story” – the band longs for a larger sound, even if contained in a sound with less echo and delay, cutting corners and dropping solos. It works on this particular track, also thanks to Cedric’s very direct lyrics, which sit somewhere between combative and soothing. But this could be intentional.

While some fans could potentially go for the “they’ve lost their edge” complaint levelled at so many reunion albums, this album feels more like the pastry-covered hammer in The Grand Budapest Hotel, an analytical reading that posits that dark messages and violent imagery can be hidden within a more digestible aesthetic. Most people dressed well and finding comfort in a highly controlled manner hide dark histories behind this façade. The Mars Volta have made a career of the exact opposite: they used gloomy labyrinthine structures and cinematic effects to find expressionistic landscapes that frame their friends’ deaths and personal struggles. The complex nature of this suffering was directly translated into complex music.

Following this train of thought, this means that their least complex album to date thus carries a less complex message: “Fuck You! I’ll come for you!” It’s hidden in plain sight – the lyrics are autobiographical, and Cedric has made no mystery behind his intentions. This is especially interesting as so much of the band’s past output has relied on mysticism and occultism, often employing words and techniques of high power that casual listeners would remain ignorant of even when it had great effect on them. Never forget their engineer for Bedlam in Goliath quit, claiming “You’re trying to do something very bad with this record, you’re trying to make me crazy and you’re trying to make people crazy.

Maybe within all this soothing softness, the pleasant yacht rock guitars and 60s mellotrons there’s something else after all, buried so deep within the mix we barely sense it. Or, in total contrast, it’s this lack that drives some mad; the fact there is nothing to this self-titled album but what we plainly see: the very words and emotions of two soulmate-friends who love to be back together, with one of them there to get at the tormentors that tore into the love of his life.