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The Mars Volta - Frances the Mute CD (album) cover


The Mars Volta


Heavy Prog

4.07 | 1007 ratings

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Prog Reviewer
4 stars For someone (like me) who grew up in the 1970s listening to Genesis and ELP, The Mars Volta represents something close to the outer limits of modern Prog. Which by itself ought to be reason enough to recommend them to adventurous listeners not afraid to shed a few of their cultural inhibitions. In truth I can't recall being so totally confounded by a body of new music since my first exposure, while still an impressionable teen, to the sound of YES.

(The album, by the way, was "Relayer": a trial by fire to the uninitiated, and in many ways not all that dissimilar to this one. Listen again to a song like "Sound Chaser", and you'll hear a primitive echo of the same manic energy and unabashed weirdness embraced by The Mars Volta 30 years later.)

Anyone else in their growing tribe of fans could tell you more about the band than me. As a newcomer, I can only say I was initially drawn to them by one of those pandemic end-of-the-year ten-best CD lists (in, of all places, the otherwise strictly provincial Buffalo News), describing their music as "whacked-out Progressive Rock". And let's face it: who among us could resist a plug like that?

Whacked-out or not, this 2005 release is an acquired taste, to be sure: a free-for-all blend of metal, techno, ambient, symphonic, and psychedelic madness, dressed up in curious Anglo-Latino colors and played at lightning speed, with pinpoint accuracy and no shortage of power. The opaque surrealism of the cover photography, instantly recognizable to veteran Progheads as the work of Hipgnosis, suggests a concept album of sorts. As does the steady stream-of-consciousness lyrics (actually more tsunami than stream), sung in combined English and Spanish by a vocalist (Cedric Bixler Zavala) whose sometimes strident high-tenor exhibits enough emotion to send the heart of the late Freddie Mercury fluttering in its sarcophagus.

The album begins with a lush 12-string guitar melody, but otherwise all bets are off. What follows is an exhausting, relentless 77-minute roller coaster of creative energy, arranged into a near-seamless, uninterrupted flow of music, sometimes beautiful, sometimes abrasive, and more than occasionally both at the same time. It may sound totally off the wall at times, but in the end the album manages to resolve all its conflicting impulses by returning suddenly and with unexpected symmetry to the same 12-string guitar theme it began with.

My own initial verdict: this is astonishing stuff, and although it demands to be heard from start to finish, the entire album can be hard to digest in a single sitting. In its own way, it's probably no less disorientating than much of classic Prog must have been to untrained ears back in the early '70s. You might have felt a similar dislocation when introduced (for example) to a band like IL BALLETTO DI BRONZO, uncompromising Italian rockers from Prog's golden age (remember their 1972 album "YS"?). Imagine an urban NY update of the same music, and you might find The Mars Volta already beginning to sound halfway normal.

Neu!mann | 4/5 |


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