The Mars Volta are a hard band to pigeon-hole. They’ve been called progressive, experimental and even jazz rock in their time and all of those labels may have truth in them, but it can definitely be said that the Texas band are innovative. Forming out of the ashes of At The Drive-In after they collapsed following their third and final album ‘Relationship of Command’ in 2000 and taking influence from guitarist Omar Rodriguez-Lopez’s follow-up band, the dub reggae outfit De Facto, Volta combine quite a few musical influences to create a heady, often proposterous concoction of sounds that are always ambitious and when they work, brilliant.
While all of their six albums do contain these moments of brilliance, 2006’s Amputechture is their masterpiece, with eight songs of the highest quality that surprise and enthrall with their unusual sounds and symphony-like movements. First track Vicarious Atonement is a smorgasboard of different sounds and instruments, from guitars to pianos and horns, it serves as a powerful introduction to the frantic, energetic, wonderful mess of an album we go on to get.
That track ends abruptly and moves in to Tetragrammaton, arguably the track of the tournament with a name like it’s come straight of a Philip K. Dick novel. Coming in at sixteen minutes long, it’s a song that goes through a number of transformations, instruments competing with each other for attention and Cedric Bixler-Zavala’s wailing, passionate vocals acting as the final piece in an elaborate jigsaw puzzle of parts that shouldn’t fit, but somehow do, every bit of staccato piano and frantic guitar adding to the song’s wonderfully layered texture. Former Red Hot Chili Peppers member and guitar legend John Frusciante steals long sections of the song with riff-laden guitar work making up a lot of the song. You’re hit with so many it’s hard to keep track with them, and this sense of getting lost in the sound is one that’s maintained for the rest of the album. Needless to say, it’s pretty hard to hum a song unless you’ve listened to them hundreds of times, and even then you can only really hum one of the many strands of music that make up the complex piece.
This musical theme is generally maintained throughout the album, though songs like Vermicide and Asilos Magdalena are arguably the most accessible, taking the whirlwind of sound down a notch to provide us with tracks that verge on normality. They make for nice variety, but it’s songs like and the other lengthy masterpiece Meccamputechture that make the album what it is: an unabashed swirling together of genres that often feel like you’re bring transported to some sort of trippy netherworld with bright lights and blaring music. While it’s a shame that The Mars Volta is no more, the brilliance of the musicians involved, from Bixler-Zavala to Rodriguez-Lopez and drummer Jon Theodore, now of Queens of the Stone Age, mean that an album that could easily have been an unbearable concoction of noise becomes something deeply satisfying, namely a true examination of what music can do.