The Mars Volta – Octahedron

It is expected, almost to the point of inevitability, for me to get obsessed with bands to the point where I have purchased, in tangible disc-based form, everything they have put out thus far. It wasn’t so hard with The Mars Volta, besides a few obscure items, they only had the 4 studio albums, and I have purchased and thoroughly enjoyed each of them. However, recently, due to monetary circumstances beyond my immediate control, I went ahead and downloaded this, their new album:

Everything weird being sucked up into some kind of vacuum? Yep, seems appropriate enough.

Now, progressive rock bands are a tricky lot. It seems to me that, as soon as they stumble onto some kind of hallowed ground of having a sound that is both interesting, complex, and popular, it’s time to pull the plug on that sound. It’s really a shame, because this activity has ruined careers before (see: Gentle Giant when I write about them in the coming months), and doesn’t bode well for our two fry-guy looking Grammy-award winning hipster duo.

See, I loved their previous album, The Bedlam In Goliath, even if I haven’t written about it yet. I will spoil the future writeup for you now and say it’s my favorite Volta album yet, because they’ve taken a sound that is fast, fussy, and just a huge assortment of high-pitched squeals and drum practices to a level that it actually is not only insane, but insanely catchy. I was excited about the direction that the band could go from there, because it just may have solidified them as my favorite “new” band (then again any band that formed less than 20 years ago is “new” to me).

Octahedron is not that. It is, in fact, so far from that in terms of interest and excitement and even the simplest of complex, chromatic note guitar wanking that I don’t even know what to think anymore. It’s not like me to be so disappointed by a band changing gears (try and ignore that when it comes up many times in the future), but the idea of growth is to somehow get better, right?

It’s not even that the band has gotten worse (well, not technically), oh no, that would be fine by me. If their insanity took over to the point where the album was almost entirely white noise, I would have been happy with that, it would at least give me something to be confused about.

No, what’s happening here is far worse. The band has decided to go pop. Not just “pop”, however, like the way that the punk fans mean it (also known as “selling out” though a band like Mars Volta doesn’t really need to change their sound to get lots and lots of money, you know?), because punk music is the same crap whether a bunch of money is thrown at it or not. I mean the band has changed their sound to accommodate the “pop” formula. Their songs are now shortened and definite (the whole album’s pretty short, to tell you the truth), their tunes are all slowed down with mostly standard beats (save for the final track, “Luciforms”, which is a really good track), and they still retain the whiny singing, high pitched whiny guitars, and a few awkwardly placed violins. Even the acoustic guitar numbers like “With Twilight As My Guide” aren’t particularly “good” acoustic guitar, compared to the segments in the previous albums where they’d break out some confusing acoustic playing that were actually really cool.

So, just what is the intention here? Are they slowing down because 4 albums’ worth of screaming noise were starting to get to be too hard to play in concert, or just too predictable? Did they feel they couldn’t keep writing the same diminished noise-fests and continue to take themselves oh-so seriously, so they thought they’d try to sound more like Pink Floyd?

Sure, there’s more emphasis on melody and solid, cohesive songwriting, but that’s not what I was secretly wishing for when I started listening to Mars Volta. What attracted me to the band, regardless of some light ribbing, was that their sound was wild, uncontrollable, and unpredictable. Sure they tended to stick with the same kinds of unpredictability and certainly their uncontrollable sound was largely under rather strict control, but smoke and mirrors or not, they are the only band doing that kind of sound.

The worst part about this album is that the reason it sucks so much is that it was all done to mess with the fans. I’m sure in the kind of bizarro-world of unironic irony that hipsters live in, this album will be regarded as a brilliant subversion of the audience’s expectations. I suppose that would be true, again, if the album was actually “bad” by any technical means, but you aren’t going to impress me by boring me to death, fellas, even if you did so under your own free will. I’ve never much been for pranks, anyway. In what I can imagine was some kind of emergency room situation where singer Cedric-something-Bixler was getting a blood transfusion and was a little woozy from the drugs, both prescribed and not, he called this the “Mars Volta acoustic album”, despite it containing less acoustic guitar or any other instruments than the much-better album Amputechture.

Still, these pretentious morons will make their fans listen to 15 minutes of birds chirping and water dripping on even their best efforts, so this album should come as no surprise. I’m just glad I’m not spending any actual money on it. I hope that these guys get their smelly afros back in the game of making unique, chaotic, and interesting music before At The Drive In absorbs them full-time. Also, please re-hire your saxophonist, boys, I didn’t realize until this album came out just how much you actually need him.

When bands pull off moves like this, it reminds me a little bit of Andy Kaufman reading the entirety of The Great Gatsby for an audience who were expecting him to his “funny foreign man” routine, which was a great joke at the fans’ expense, but doesn’t really work here. Though I appreciate what the band is trying to prove, this album is not much of a joke, it just shows how bad The Mars Volta are at doing straight music and being pretentious about it, which is kind of sad.

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7 Responses

  1. I kinda liked it, if I’m honest. But I can sympathize with you on someone developing a good direction, and then doing something stupid for inexplicable reasons.

    If I may use an incredibly obscure film analogy, it sounds like the movie Brother by Takeshi Kitano was to me. It had most of his stylistic tics, but it was pretty much just a by the numbers movie, playing to the expectations of studio execs. And it suuuuucked. Even worse, it came right on the heels of one of his best movies, Hana-Bi, which needs a better DVD or Blu Ray release in this country.

    Then, he made Zatoichi, which was kind of his typical style, but sort of mainstream as well, and it was really neat. And then he started to make movies which didn’t make any sense whatsoever, and I love them dearly.

    (Dolls was also in there somewhere, and it was pretty, but I’m not sure where it fits in the overall picture.)

    So, if MV is anything like Kitano, they will sell out properly next time, and then go completely insane.

    I’m not sure what the point of the above was, other than pointing out how much I love Kitano yet again. The really strange thing is he’s not coming up at all this week, with a really awful Korean thriller coming tomorrow and some motorcycle movie Friday.

  2. I love your comments dude, seriously. I guess we are kind of like sister sites after all!

    Yeah I actually do like Octohedron, I just don’t like this “jerking around the audience” stuff much when they could and should be making better albums. I just have a really strong BS meter and when it goes off so do I.

    I really need to check out these Takeshi films, they sound fascinating!

  3. I like your comments as well, in fact. Let’s keep commenting! It’s probably because film and music really go well together anyway, so the separate projects complement each other. Though you get to talk about music you want to talk about all the time, and due to the nature of MaR, that doesn’t always happen to me.

    If you are going to try to get into Takeshi, you’ll want to start with the movies in the middle of his career, Kids Return, Kikujiro, and Hana-Bi. Unfortunately, the Hana-bi DVD release that I’ve seen is really, really terrible, but it’s a good movie anyway. After that, his early stuff is hit or miss (and hard to find, though Sonatine seems common, and is not what you might expect). Then there’s the later stuff, where I think he lost some confidence probably because of Brother, which was trying a bit too hard to crack Hollywood (with Omar Epps of all people). I liked Dolls, but it does have an annoying opening. Zatoichi is probably his most normal movie (I actually bought this one with money, though I’ll probably buy the others eventually. I need a big box set), and then he starts with Takeshis’ which makes no sense and just gets stranger from there.

    I’m going to start you on the road to crazy foreign movies! Though I suppose you’re the primary reason I’ve got a lot of Warren Zevon lying around, so that’s fair.

  4. I have heard of Kikujiro and Zatoichi, so perhaps I should start with those since I know where to purchase them should I find them enjoyable. I can be won by most Japanese films because I just love the language so much. What a curse that I should be so in love with the Japanese language, yet find anime so disconcerting and boring… what’s a nerd to do?

    Warren Zevon is the best, if I ever need a straight shot of motivation I listen to his “Preludes” second disc, “Primate Discourse” where he talks to an Austin interviewer about mortality and life and music, just weeks before learning of his fatal cancer. His music works wonders too, of course, but interviews are always interesting to me.

    You are right, film and music kind of share a lot of the same consistencies, or at the very least, can be appreciated by fans of the other (of course, who doesn’t like film and music in some capacity?) Still, you can keep your french films about 14 year olds getting raped and I will keep my indie rock out of the discussions.

  5. Essays could be written on how bad french movies and bad indie rock are similar (right down the the unearned critical acclaim), but that would require watching more of it and I really don’t want to.

  6. Yeah I just listened to Frog Eyes which is an indie band that made me frown my hardest. If I could have frowned at it any harder it would have been illegal to do so.

  7. I think they’ve always wanted to be a band that changed with each release. If this were their sophomore release, it likely wouldn’t have hit you so hard. Prior to this all the releases were but subtle changes.
    I can enjoy most of this album, save the song with the “vault of devil daughters” line. Fuck that. Cedric gets too “mystical” for me.
    And perhaps my copy of Amputecture was an early release, but the songs didn’t transition fluidly at all. It was like they happened to hit stop on the recording too early and didn’t care to fix it. Absolutely hated that album. Kind of wanted to re-cut it (as I did Frances the Mute due to refusing to listen to long periods of annoying).

    For me, Deloused (though I’ve heard it so much I’m tired of it)
    Bedlam
    Octahedron
    Frances
    Amputecture

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