Album Review: The Mars Volta – Octahedron

[Warner Bros. / Mercury; 2009]

Art is about restraint, about boundaries organic and artificial. It’s not about limitless possibilities but rather about extremely limited ones and what an artist can do within them.

On past records, the Mars Volta hasn’t really adhered to this idea, instead opting to forge impenetrably sprawling prog odysseys, limited by neither the tenets of rock music nor the dicta of the English (or any other) language.

Octahedron, however, the band’s latest offering, finds the Mars Volta settling down a bit. After four full-lengths of unrelenting sonic urgency, records that began to pigeonhole the band as a one-trick pony (albeit a pretty neat trick), the band has taken a bit of a breather.

That’s not to say Octahedron phoned in by any means. It’s just a much more subdued Mars Volta than we’re used to. It’s certainly not the “acoustic” album that was once suggested, but it’s a whole lot mellower than past work. In establishing these personal goals for itself, the band not only maintains relevance but reaches an entirely new level of appeal.

The band’s hallmarks are all still there: the average song length is still over six minutes, there are still about a million ridiculous guitar solos, and the lyrics still don’t make a ton of sense. “Cotopaxi” would not have been at all out of place on The Bedlam in Goliath. But as a whole, this is undoubtedly a new direction for the Mars Volta.

Opener “Since We’ve Been Wrong” is a slow burner that takes more than five minutes before the percussion kicks in, and even then, you can tell the band is holding back. The guitar effects on “With Twilight As My Guide,” instead of alienating the listener, transports him somewhere else entirely. “Copernicus” even has an actual piano.

Octahedron clocks in at only 50 minutes, and the songs therein are a whole lot less exhausting than in the past. Where past Volta records could take multiple listens to get through and could leave you a bit burnt out at the end, Octahedron is succinct enough to be consumed in one sitting and digestible enough to not leave any nasty after-effects.

Such a tender approach serves to humanize the band in a way they’ve always fled from, instead choosing to overt obtuseness and obfuscation of the fact that this music is even made by people in the first place. Again, this is a far cry from anything that could be considered “acoustic,” but for the Mars Volta, it’s something. More than anything, the most salient feature of Octahedron is just how hard the band has to work to stay within these boundaries.

Ultimately the boundaries the band set for itself allow Octahedron to be by far the Mars Volta’s most accessible record to date. For a band that has actively fled from accessibility in the past (just take a look at the track listing for Frances the Mute), such a label could be taken as pejorative. Not so for Octahedron: the Mars Volta is still at least a few dozen guitar solos to the west of being a pop act, but the bands newest album is successful if only for its digestibility.