Rock and Roll Feature: Unlock the Multifaceted Octahedron with the Mars Volta

This is the thirtieth in a series of Rock & Roll features I'm writing for this site. I'm a rock and roller, so this column is a way for me to feature a different album that I like, from different genres every month.

Today I put forward what is the 30th Rock and Roll feature I've done in the past 2-1/2+ years. There's been a lot of variety, albums new and old, during that stretch and each one remains a favorite of mine for some reason or another to this day.

Although I pick the albums often based on what I'm currently listening to at the time, certain rock and roll milestones, and just the fact that they're great musically, I also tend to pick albums that are artistically exciting and innovative. Sometimes that's an active choice, but it's also just something of a coincidence because the albums I tend to like the most are also usually the artistically innovative ones as well.

And as innovative and creative as each of my past featured albums are, I don't think any of the past 29 (I think there's actually only 28) can compete, in terms of sounding like the future of experimental music, with this month's featured band: The Mars Volta.

Today I would like to discuss the newest release from this band: Octahedron.

I've written at length about the Mars Volta at least once before (you can read that post here: Controlled Chaos: The Experimentalism of the Mars Volta) and they continue to wow me with each new, classification defying album, not to mention each subsequent listen. The music that comes out of the continued collaboration between core members Omar Rodriguez-Lopez and Cedric Bixler-Zavalar and a cast of supporting characters, can perhaps best be represented by a quote from Rodriguez-Lopez himself:

"The only objective, throughout, has been to always move forward...To always make the next album sound different to the one that came before it, to always be evolving... The only reason we even have a fan base is because I've stayed true to my instincts... We've not tried to repeat previous successes to make them happy, we've stayed true to ourselves, and made the music that we want to make, and that's what they respond to. They can sense this is something really pure."
(http://www.themarsvolta.com)

The sound of the Mars Volta is exactly that... ever evolving, album to album, or on the same album and sometimes even within a single song. They draw from a multitude of different genres and sources to create something truly unique every time. Genres they touch upon include metal, hardcore, alternative, funk, world, jazz, progressive, experimental noise, fusion, electronica, psychedelia, space rock and pretty much anything else you can think of in one form or another. Their songs take unexpected turns, feature odd rhythms or time signatures and are highly complex with distinctly angular, yet still sweeping and powerful, melodies. Their creativity seems boundless and like Rodriguez-Lopez said, is something of a pure art form restrained only by the band's will and direction. And the results are pretty sweet to listen to as well.

When compared to past Mars Volta albums, Octahedron could be referred to as "more mellow", but that descriptor really requires some context. This band is, by there very nature, a bit frantic and chaotic...always on a quivering knife's edge. That's a part of their charm and style, so saying this is a more mellow release does not mean that it doesn't still have it's hard hitting, edgy moments. Instead it simply means that some of that inherent frenetic energy is smoothed over and channeled a little more towards melody and songwriting than brute force or encompassing cacophonies of sound. That isn't saying that I prefer the earlier or the more recent Mars Volta albums over each other... more mellow also doesn't mean inherently better or worse, just different. This "more mellow side" is simply another color they can employ... another texture used to great effect... and sometimes subtlety (again, subtle for this band is unique and not as subtle as some might expect) has the greatest impact.

The album starts off with a subtle hum... almost imperceptible at first... that takes 2+ minutes to grow and swell. The song if called "Since We've Been Wrong" and when the subtle picked layered guitar melodies finally kick in to back the lead vocals, swelling to sweeping choruses, it's obvious that the band has come a long way from their first album. This song builds layers and layers of melody, including strings, drums and edgy guitar to make for a soaring climax that has tons of weight and expression before receding back to that gentle hum again.

The aptly named "Teflon" follows with a primal, bassy drum throb and slippery, jittery guitar lines that come and go from echoing off in the distance to all encompassing. Haunting and ethereal it's those guitar sweeps that keep the song in an almost constant state of drifting motion with a touch of the frantic during the breaks. I especially like the ending rapid fire guitar slides that serve as to underpin the climax of this track. They scream like sirens out of the distant future... mechanical and organic all at the same time... great track, a personal favorite from this album.

"Halo of Nembutals" sounds like the band is channeling a little Radiohead and Pink Floyd in those ethereal echoes, but the massive hard hitting choruses, shifting guitar timbre and rapid echo, spacious vocals are purely trademark Mars Volta style all the way. This song also features an odd, but neat piano break that's almost faded into the background to transition directly into the next track. "With Twilight as My Guide" is a lightly picked, haunting, space rock ballad complete with more ethereal electric guitar melody and sweeping tones that could be organ, synth, guitar or even processed vocals... I can't really tell, but they are effective in terms of both sonic color and timbre. This track also features some subtle guitar leads that are just the perfect icing on the cake.

"Cotopaxi" is without question my favorite song from this album. A Mars Volta rocker all the way complete with thoroughly complex syncopated melody and riffs, plenty of wah guitar and a driving beat, it seems to both channel their previous "more frantic" offerings and break new ground in terms of musical complexity at the same time. It is a great song and it also provides a sharp contrast to the spacy "With Twilight as My Guide"... as one fades its melody out, the other hits hard and fast right out of the gate with almost no gap.

"Desperate Graves" picks up where the echoes of "Cotopaxi" leave off, fading in with with subtle guitar parts, then eschewing them for a softly driving beat and more layers of wah guitar before a chorus riff that just hits like a hammer. This song also features strong sweeping melody throughout, echoing those opening guitar chords, that is both contrasted against ,and underpinned by, the heavier choruses.

The album closes with back to back 7+ minute songs in "Copernicus" and "Luciforms".

The first is a soft sweeping ballad that sounds more stripped down, one might even say minimal by Mars Volta standards offering up single electric guitar notes or piano lines where previously might have been multiple layers of sounds to create the appropriate texture. Again, terms like "stripped down" and "minimal" need to be viewed in the context of this band. The mix is certainly less dense than others they've produced, but it is still extremely lush and rich, just also with appropriate amounts of space as well. Perhaps what makes this track most interesting though beyond it's melodic composition is the electronica influenced bass and drum machine part that underplays the middle section. It's a sharp contrast to the light, floating melody, giving the song a unique sense of weight and also a strange mechanical contrast to the more organic melody.

"Luciforms" on the other hand is the soaring coda to this thrilling ride. Fading in with that now familiar background humming, it builds layers of sound slowly including processed vocals and light drum work before erupting with hard edge guitar melodies in the chorus. The song surges and recedes between these these two forms with the heavier parts sounding thick, rich and huge, and the darker softer sections peppered with touches of screeching guitar noise and atmospherics. I especially like the guitar work on this one as there are some tones in the bridge towards the end that are just ridiculously massive. There's also a sweet wah guitar lead as well as the song approaches its appropriate psychedelic noise freak out conclusion complete with plenty of stereo movement and fade ins and outs that just beg for headphones... in the dark of course.

And then it's all summed up with some feedback screeches and tinkly chimes and we're left to ponder and digest what we just experienced.

As I said, this album could be considered more mellow than previous Mars Volta released, but that's relative and doesn't inherently make it better or worse than any other. In fact I like all their albums equally. Each is completely unique so I like them for very different reasons.

Octahedron has it's strengths in melody, composition and arrangement. It's a very different kind of album than say the band's previous one The Bedlam in Goliath, which although both are thoroughly conceptual in nature, is far more about the embodiment of chaos and madness in a sonic media. Both are excellent, but these two albums (and actually each of the Mars Volta's albums) are completely different and set out to accomplish completely different things conceptually and artistically from the very beginning. From this perspective the more mellow textures of Octahedron are not are departure from the band's sound or anything like that... they were just the best way to accomplish the goals of this album.

In fact, no where can I really say this doesn't sound like a Mars Volta album through and through, just another side of their art that maybe hasn't been as prevalent in the past. I think it shows a mature band that doesn't explicitly NEED to experiment with extremes in order to sound exciting or innovative and in fact, doesn't need to experiment or go to extremes at all... they just do those things when they come naturally. They can and have no hesitations about going to extremes when the music and their art calls for it, but don't do so just for shock value.

Another thing I really like about this, and actually all Mars Volta albums is their cohesiveness. Each one sounds and plays like a complete work... sometimes actually having the songs knitted together, although that it's exactly the case with this album...and not just a collection of songs. They're a single art piece, from the first second to the very last... even the artwork... and that's part of what makes them so great. If you let yourself become engrossed in the music, they will take you on a ride that will thrill, surprise and maybe even frighten you at times, but will surely make you feel something.

Octahedron works very well in this respect, as although the songs are all unique, they sound like part of a whole and you can easily listen to this album straight through and not even realize it... something that's actually true of most, if not all, of the albums from this band.

So, if you haven't checked it out already, this latest release, Octahedron, from the Mars Volta is a keeper for sure. It's a great, complex and unique album that might be different than their previous releases, but is equally rewarding in it's own way.

If you've never listened to the Mars Volta, this might actually be a good album to bring you in, but as with all bands I'm partial to starting at the beginning. Still, if you're into progressive hard rock, you really can't go wrong with anything from this band... each album is unique.

You can check out this album directly from Amazon here: Octahedron

You can find more information on the Mars Volta, including the bio from which I took that quote, at their website: http://www.themarsvolta.com/home

And last but not least... I'm lucky to have the chance to see this band come next month... so if you're a fan, or maybe this feature turns you into one, keep an eye on the Soul of Rock 'n' Roll out towards the middle of September as there just might be a Mars Volta concert review posted around then.

- The Soul of Rock 'n' Roll is a division of Fifth Column Media - www.fifthcolumnmedia.com -