Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Review of Octahedron by the Mars Volta

Last year when The Bedlam in Goliath came out, I lamented the fact that there weren't any "nearly acoustic beauties" like "Asilos Magdalena" on it. So now I have to wonder if I'm psychic or something, because the Mars Volta have described Octahedron as "acoustic" many a time, though they really should qualify it with "nearly", because Omar's guitar is more plugged in than Bender when he was jacking on. They've also called Octahedron a pop album (much to Hitler's dismay. Get used to it, Hitler.) and, yeah, it's not that either. I don't think I've ever heard a pop song that mentions necrophiliacs, for one thing. I've heard a pop song by a necrophiliac, though, since I've had the misfortune of hearing at least one Celine Dion song before. Zing!

So Octahedron isn't the usual wanky, jazz-noodly, feedback-and-sample-heavy, Tom-Waits-effect-vocally distorted Mars Volta from their other albums. So I'm a little sad about the dismissal of the amazingly talented Adrian Terrazas-Gonzalez. Do I resent them trying something new? No, because it works. Yes, the arrangements and lyrics are a little less dense, but in a way that simplification shows what an incredible band they really are.

Hey, this time it actually makes sense to go song by song! So let's do so, why not?

"Since We've Been Wrong" – I admit, the day I bought this and put it immediately into my car's CD player before even leaving the Best Buy parking lot, I thought I was going to have to go back into the store and shout, "You bastard! I'll kill you, you bastard!" at one of the employees while beating them with my recently severed arm for selling me a defective CD. Luckily, my passion for disemboweling was patient enough to wait the minute or so it took for the song to actually start. Since that first listen, though, I've begun to be able to hear things in that silence, the same kind of shimmering cloud of noise that you sometimes hear at the beginning of symphonies, only with a metallic sheen to it. (Really, the Mars Volta's music has always been quite symphonic in structure, especially Frances the Mute.) Once Cedric starts singing, though, "Since We've Been Wrong" becomes a fairly straightforward, but tragically beautiful, song about ruined love and alienation. Cedric's first foray (as part of the Mars Volta) into coherent lyric-writing is a searing one, with lines like "Since we've been wrong/you will never, ever know me" and "All the days become a cast away/I seem to think I don't belong here". With the less intense musical arrangements, Cedric's voice really becomes the main instrument, and it's gorgeous, tremulous as a pulse under your finger. In my usual vocal-fetishizing way, I'm kind of obsessed with the way he sings "heart" – it's almost like a bone-deep sigh of sound.

"Teflon" – "Teflon" is heavier than "Since We've Been Wrong", and it gives my hero Thomas Pridgen more to play with too. The song supposedly has something to do with the "Holy shit, we'll be fucked" feelings that Omar and Cedric had when faced with the prospect of John McCain winning the presidential election, and some of the lyrics reflect that (the Oval Office and motorcade mentions), but the way Cedric sings "One driver in your motorcade/is all it all it takes" is far more gut-wrenching than anything that would be covered on Countdown with Keith Olbermann should be. Then again, a piece of my own soul is deleted every time I hear Sarah Palin speak, so maybe it is all about politics. Politics can definitely make you feel hopeless, which is one of the major themes of this album, I think -- hopelessness, loneliness, isolation, invisibility, alienation, disappearance. Hey, I knew there was a reason why I liked it spoke to me deep down where I'm soft like a woman!

"Halo of Nembutals" – This is by far the ear-wormiest song on the album for me. It's also the one that got the most baffling piece of criticism leveled at it – that Cedric sounds "snotty" and like Gerard Way from My Chemical Romance in it. Um, no, for him to sound like Gerard Way , he'd have to have a complete talent-ectomy and also have some sort of tiny little shrunken head of Billy Corgan on him. There's a slight sneer in Cedric's voice, but that's nothing new. The guy even physically sneers when he sings the word "eat", for fuck's sake. What I especially love about this song is the almost swinging movement of the lines that climb from a low, accusatory tone to a high, piercing answer. I will agree with the reviewer from that Thomas Pridgen does an excellent job on this song, punctuating each line in the chorus and then keeping up an arrhythmic patter in the background, but everything else that critic tells you is a filthy lie. Though I'll go to my grave insisting that Cedric's not singing "Of this I ate" like the liner notes would have us believe. Also I'll go to my grave before I'll recognize Missoura, but I'm sure you already knew that. There's a lot of great guitar work on this track too, along with some oddly Mike Garson-esque ivory-tickling from Ikey Owens.

"With Twilight as My Guide" – So another one of Nature's D students (i.e. a music journalist) called the lyrics in this song "camp/kitsch." Eh, whatever, I don't hear it. Anyway, this song is like a calmed-down, wistful, contemplative "Halo of Nembutals" – the swinging, reaching movement is there, with Cedric's voice going up and up and up, but it's soft and ghostly instead of a bit frantic and accusatory. Some critic complained that "With Twilight as My Guide" covered the same ground as "Since We've Been Wrong", but I don't hear that either. Yes, they're both slow-tempo songs with gorgeous acoustic guitar work, but "With Twilight as My Guide" is more about guilt and remorse, whereas "Since We've Been Wrong" is about being misunderstood and alienated. I also like the effect of the multi-vocal tracks, so Cedric is basically dueting with himself. Singsturbation? The singing beginning at the verse "Everybody/hangs like dead leaves" makes me want to writhe with helpless, sensuous ecstasy like an itchy dog scratching its back on the carpet. The organ work at the end, especially when coupled with the shimmering, slightly mechanical noise that plays throughout the song and the "Televators"-reminiscent kind of airplane-engine drone, is really haunting. It's like a modern Duruflé's Requiem.

"Cotopaxi" -- A return to the wild, frantic Mars Volta we're used to. I have to admit that the beginning of this song startles me more than a giant guinea pigs in a dinosaur costume when it comes on after the quiet ending of "With Twilight as My Guide." Randomly, I would very much like to know if there were a lot of lake-draggings in El Paso when Cedric was growing up, because I'm pretty sure that image has come up before in their music. In a recent interview, Cedric called their music "a celebration of the absurd", but to me, it's also a celebration of noise, and "Cotopaxi" is like a patchwork of noise -- march-like drumbeats, howling guitar, Cedric's wailing and chanting, and just general, well, noise -- that all comes together in this wonderfully strange kind of aural onslaught.

"Desperate Graves" -- Some windchimes lead us into "Desperate Graves", which is another faster-paced song with an insistent rhythm, some top-notch shrieking, and some guitar work that manages to weave all the different elements of the song together. A lot of Cedric's performance in their shows is kind of centered around Omar's guitar -- his voice bleeding into and being absorbed by the sound of it -- and now I understand why: Like Omar himself being the brains of the operation, his guitar is like the magnet drawing all the little iron filings of music to it. Also in true Mars Volta style, we have some what-the-fuck lyrics: Dressed in the slurs/of bovine engines/To feast upon the carcass/of your mother. o_O Then again, considering that Omar has dreams about raping his best friend's mother, I think all of our mothers got off easy just being eaten. Oh, so many puns, each more disgusting than the last. Incidentally for your edification, the riff in the last thirty seconds or so of the song totally reminds me of the repeated guitar motif from Frances the Mute.

"Copernicus" -- This is probably my least favorite song on the album, even though I still love it. Really, choosing a least favorite song on Octahedron is kind of like saying that the Toblerone bar in the blue wrapper is your least favorite -- yeah, you don't like it as much as the others, but it's still chocolate. Cedric's vocals are a bit too cooing for my tastes on this track. I wonder, though, if "Copernicus" isn't kind of an answer or a companion to "Cotopaxi". They sound completely different, but both allude to kidnapping and to searching or being searched for.

"Luciforms" -- The tuning-up hum from the beginning of "Since We've Been Wrong" also opens the last track, "Luciforms", before someone turns their white noise machine to "Coastal Morning". One of the most striking things about this song for me is the depth of Cedric's vocals in some parts of it, like on "Still I can remember the day/that they took you from me" and "When do I get to see the body/preserved inside this grin/Sewn in the lips/where her last words/I'll be damned - I can still hear her laughing." He really has an incredible range, even if his vocal quality isn't homogeneous throughout it; it's still damn impressive. The Mars Volta are masters of ending albums, kind of working all the elements they've been building over the course of the album in a frenzy, so "Luciforms" is chockful of lovely guitar wank, forceful drumming, weird noises, and more scattered Garson-esque keyboard-playing. It also has one of my favorite lyrics on the whole album: "If your heart does cease to speak/My fingernail choir/will make your chalkboard sing".

Huh, maybe this is why I'm such a negative person -- because when I try to talk about things I love, it feels like my mouth is stuffed with peanut butter, even when it's not. Or my fingers are dipped in peanut butter, as it were. Anyway the verdict is: Octahedron is the best album of an already strong 2009, and I totally can't wait to see them play again next Sunday.

*I've noticed that I focus too much on vocals in my reviews. In some ways, that's what I pay the most attention to when I listen, but it's also because, though I can't sing myself, I can understand the mechanism of singing, whereas I'm kind of clueless about instruments. Also, I tend to listen to music for the emotion it creates in me, and I get that more easily through vocals than through instrumental music.

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