New Music: Frances the Mute

Guitar manipulator Omar Rodriguez, co-frontman of the Mars Volta, swears that their new album, Frances The Mute, was completed without any needles, pipes, or bottles. This may be a rock and roll first.

Unlike with the recording of the band’s 2003 debut De-Loused in the Comatorium or any output from At The Drive-In (the El Paso afro-toting prog-punk powerhouse he and crooner Cedric Bixler, the other permanent ‘Marsvoltian’, led until 2001) the drug policy with this record was to wait until after the recording to start the debauchery. The good news, for those who have warmed to the histrionic, full-blown theatrics of the Mars Volta, is that the sober influence is not felt.

Without a doubt, the Mars Volta is a self-consciously difficult band, one that has simultaneously increased the level of permutations in its sound along with the variety of its genre affiliations. The roots for the template Rodriguez and Bixler currently employ can be found on At The Drive In’s records—namely, Rodriguez’s off-the-hinges screeching and squalid guitar-wanking—without really hinting at the more drastic experimentations the two would soon dabble in.

Back in their Drive In days, the guys wrote self-contained songs, mostly some variant of verse-chorus-verse, with discernible beginnings and ends. With the Mars Volta, at least so far, they have committed themselves to the idea of the album as one entity; both this album and De-Loused are said to be concept albums loosely based on experiences that occurred in the lives of former friends.

While De-Loused’s spiraling story line centered on the fictionalized dreams spawned by tormented childhood friend Julio Venegas’s time in a coma, Frances the Mute is purportedly based on a diary discovered and then continued in a similarly troubled vein by Jeremy Ward, the former Mars Volta bandmember who died of a drug overdose in 2003.

At The Drive In’s songs pack a wallop, hitting the ground running in excellent form. The missteps occur when the band attempts to stretch a really great three and a half minutes into a six minute mini-epic that lacks forward motion. Bixler and Rodriguez have forgone that problem, not resting on any patterns—other than some near-patience-breaking extended stretches of ambient noise—for too long. The ambience serves as a segue between the music as they sustain one continuous unit, five segments of which make up the track listing, some with their own accompanying subsections.

The opener, “Cygnus…Vismund Cygnus,” opens with acoustic strumming before the band flicks the switch to “high” and reaches a melodious, manic cacophony—racing guitars and almost tribal drums framed with all kinds of bells and whistles. In between the lyrically accompanied parts, the listener is treated to a variety of sounds: Rodriguez’s grating guitar squeals and jabs, sounds of cars speeding by, and electronic dance beats, to name a few. The novelty wears off quickly with this hodge-podge, a marked drop from the urgency present at the outset.

There is a strong lean towards Spanish instrumentation—rolling pianos, bongos, and the cleanly distorted guitar sounds associated with Carlos Santana—on much of “L’Via l Viaquez” and a down-tempo shift of the style on “Miranda, That Ghost Just Isn’t Holy Anymore.” The breadth is impressive and serves the pacing of the 77-minute record.

On “Cassandra Geminni,” the album’s final segment, the jarring shift is made, to be diabolical, to spaced-out rock—the Queens of the Stone Age in fast forward with a sprinkling of stadium-sized riffs that would make Eddie Van Halen proud. The frantic, fervent horns still make opportune appearances throughout the proceedings, assisting the rollercoaster-through-the-underworld vibe ably and even veering into jazz-style improvisations at some points.

Still, the long stretches of ambient blips and beeps are an exasperating bump in the road. Even if Bixler and Rodriguez maintain the need to provide transitions between segments, do they really have to be so arduous? The duo has ambition seeping out of their pores; restraining their indulgences would do them much good.

These prog-rock embellishments seem more Rush than Pink Floyd; while creating a final package that takes more time to digest, like the worst offenders of the genre, they also detract from the intensely accomplished peaks the band manages to climb. Ultimately, though, I doubt the Mars Volta will ever hold back much on the grandiosity. Even with their bloodstreams and lungs clean, Bixler and Rodriguez’s twisted mind trips will impact the presentation of their music more than appropriate. Too bad.

—Amos Barshad