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The Mars Volta - Noctourniquet CD (album) cover


The Mars Volta


Heavy Prog

3.55 | 295 ratings

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Prog Reviewer
4 stars To be honest, I've never been a huge Mars Volta fan. I enjoyed most of what I heard from them, but I never made it a priority to seek out and listen heavily to their stuff, and by the time The Bedlam in Goliath came out they had more or less fallen off of my radar. Thus, I'll freely admit that I haven't really been along to hear their sound evolve from what it was on Amputechture to what it is here, but I'm becoming more and more convinced that I need to go back and find out.

My point, of course, is that the sound of Noctourniquet is drastically different from the sound of The Mars Volta's first three albums. I have no idea if this has been a drastic shift or a gradual drift, but coming off a two album gap there's definitely a difference. For one thing, electronics are much more prominent on this album, appearing nearly ubiquitously. Second and even more drastic is the compositional shift that seems to have occurred. Gone are the 16 minute odysseys, the instrumental freak outs and extended prog-rock solos. In their place are very tight, well put together compositions that manage a level of accessibility their predecessors never had while still maintaining some degree of the Mars Volta's inherent weirdness. While I won't venture to claim that one style is better than the other, it is a definite difference and one that's very interesting to hear.

"The Whip Hand" begins the album with some rather innocuous electronics before a fuzzed- out, distorted, and bizarrely rhythmic riff comes in. Vocals follow soon after, laying down a vocal line that's both more accessible than much of the band's previous work and still unmistakably the Mars Volta. Some psychedelic, almost acid-washed guitar parts appear in the track as well, along with a variety of electronic sounds. Largely as a result of the latter sounds, the track as a whole sounds much more alt-pop than prog-rock, but the band's rampant experimentalism also permeates the track, and "The Whip Hand" ends up being a very strange song that samples from many genres without falling squarely into any of them.

"Aegis" is noticeably more subdued, with a languid, almost Radiohead-esque vibe to it that contrasts sharply with the tightly wound insanity of so many previous TMV tracks. Again, various keyboard sounds feature prominently, and the combination of a fairly standard structure with the immediately recognizable "Mars Volta sound" results in a surprisingly accessible, even catchy song with some great vocal melodies and a noticeable lack of the knotty, occasionally hard to digest instrumental parts that featured so prominently on much of the group's earlier work.

"Dyslexicon" also makes prominent use of electronic sounds, with a kind of distorted Kraftwerk sequence playing near constantly behind the percussion and guitar parts that make up most of the rest of the music for the track. As with much of The Mars Volta's music, the vocals are the primary focus for much of the track, with haunting harmonies and some extremely (if unsurprisingly) powerful delivery courtesy of Mr. Bixler-Zavala. The instrumentals are fascinating as well, with multiple parts sounding as if different instruments are playing in different time signatures and a strange degree of distortion on the guitars that gives them an avant edge without ever sounding intentionally weird.

"Empty Vessels Make the Loudest Sound" begins with some distorted electronic noise before an uncharacteristically cheerful guitar part comes in. The track has a very psychedelic, almost Floydian vibe to it, though the always-unique vocals keep that comparison from going too far. I can again hear a little bit of similarity to Radiohead as well, and really this is a very approachable song, especially for the Mars Volta. In fact, I'd imagine that if you played this song and "Cygnus? Vismund Cygnus" to someone who wasn't in the know they'd be unable to identify the two as the same band. That said, this is an incredibly solid song, and it really highlights how behind all the insanity the Mars Volta are really just incredible composers. "Empty Vessels?" is hauntingly beautiful, delicately psychedelic and gratingly abrasive all in one, and at least here that's a combination that works.

"The Malkin Jewel" is probably the song that you've heard by now if you've been following this album at all, as the band released it about a month in advance as the "lead single" of the album. Featuring an almost groovy bass part and some brilliant interplay between percussion and guitar, "The Malkin Jewel" is a decidedly idiosyncratic track, but not one that's terribly hard to "get." I never thought I'd use the word accessible this much in describing a Mars Volta album, but this track is another very approachable one, at least until the rising wall of sound that ends the track appears.

"Lapochka" begins almost minimalistically, with vocals coming out with such bombast that the backing instruments sound strangely spare. The sound gets flushed out a bit with a variety of keyboard textures and other sound effects, and "Lapochka" develops some very good hooks along the way as well. It also highlights how strong the arrangement is on this album, with vocals, guitars, percussion, and electronics all working together perfectly to create one cohesive musical blend.

"In Absentia" begins with some breathy, distorted sound effects before a very cool, ominous keyboard part comes in. The song has a very interesting compositional structure, with the keyboards, percussion and vocals all seemingly slightly out of touch with one another and yet the track as a whole working perfectly. "In Absentia" has a decidedly sinister atmosphere to it, with a hauntingly melodic keyboard part repeated consistently under slightly distorted vocals. As a result of this (in combination with the disjointed composition), the track comes off as very unsettling and slightly unhinged, which in my opinion is a style the Mars Volta can pull off very well.

"Imago" actually reminds me very strongly of David Gilmour's solo album, On An Island (except for the vocals, of course). With a very relaxing ambience only minorly undercut by brief, noisy electronic bursts, "Imago" is by and large a very dreamy song, and one that ends up being very pretty. It's also a very good change of pace after the rather dark "In Absentia," as its feel is noticeably sunnier.

"Molochwalker" is a bit of a rockier number, with more strange guitar riffs and belted vocal delivery to contrast with the dreamy crooning of "Imago." As a matter of fact, it's probably the most similar song on the album to the band's work circa Frances the Mute or Amputechture, though the slightly more accessible approach the band took for Noctourniquet definitely still comes through. I can pick out some definite blues influences in the riffing as well, though to say that this song falls anywhere close to straight blues would be a drastic oversimplification.

"Trinkets Pale of Moon" begins with a fairly sedate guitar part played over some ambient voice clips. When the vocals come in, they have the kind of mysterious, slithery tone that only Bixler-Zavala can pull off. Some pseudo-vintage organ textures round out the sound before a more modern keyboard texture comes in at around the two minute mark. The juxtaposition of this with the classic rock organ gives the song a very unique, chilled-out feel that's equal parts haunting and idiosyncratic. Another very relaxed track, but a very compelling one.

"Vedamalady" follows much in the same vein, with guitars and keyboards playing off of each other in a way that elevates the track beyond its alt-rock and avant-electronica influences. However, despite its occasional moments of textural strangeness, this is still a very accessible track, with gorgeous vocal melodies and harmonies. In fact, toward the end of the track the song becomes nearly anthemic, with one of the most powerful and emotive vocal lines I've heard from any Mars Volta album.

The title track is a bit stranger, with an understated introductory section that again recalls much of the band's earlier work. After this comes another section of seemingly clashing time- signatures, but the song stays fully in the realm of more-or-less relaxed psychedelia. Even as intensity begins to build towards the end of the track it's far less frantic than most of what I remember from the group's first 3 albums. There's even some instrumental passages that wouldn't have sounded out of place on Kraftwerk's The Man Machine, and that album is about as chilled-out as you can get.

"Zed and Two Naughts" closes out the album on an interesting note, starting off with an almost trip-hop motif but quickly building into a more frenetic rocker, with Bixler-Zavala's vocals becoming more intense as the track progresses and the instrumentation getting noisier and heavier as well. By the time the track reaches its climax, in fact, the band is in full on rock mode, which makes the sudden end to the song all the more jarring. Overall, it's a very fitting end to an album that never seems insistent on keeping the listener just a little bit off balance.

So overall, while I would argue this is not the prog-rock masterpiece that Frances the Mute was, it's still a very solid album and a worthy addition to the Mars Volta canon as far as my limited experience with the band is concerned. Going into the album with an open mind is almost certain to yield positive results, and for me at least it's nice to hear the Mars Volta relax a bit after building up a mental image of them as a band that couldn't hold still. And of course, as I've hopefully conveyed, the songs are excellent, by turns psychedelic, haunting, and beautiful. A very good album and a highly recommended listen.


VanVanVan | 4/5 |


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