Location: like liutenant dan i'm rollin'
The Mars Volta
The Bedlam in Goliath
Link-arrowBuy it from Insound
Link-arrowDownload it from Emusic
Link-arrowDigg this article
Link-arrowAdd to del.icio.us
The Mars Volta discography carries an astronomical risk/reward potential, and so it is no surprise that the band's latest record, The Bedlam in Goliath, is yet another all-or-nothing entity. Pitchfork has tended to be in the "nothing" camp: Their first three studio LPs bombed but did so in entertaining and spectacular fashion, clusterfucks of Cedric Bixler-Zavala's incomprehensible lyrical jabberwocky and Rock Band feats of strength. But every now and again, even we'd catch a glimpse of their undeniable upside. Few bands in popular modern rock share their technical prowess, super-adventurous listening habits, or K2 conquering ambition. If they could somehow manage to channel all of it into something other than a tribute to their own excess, even we believe it would probably be totally fucking awesome.
Despite its surface similarities to 2006's Amputechture (decoder ring title, Street Fighter II cover art), it's possible that Mars Volta were finally willing to meet non-converts halfway. First single "Wax Simulacra" clocked in shy of three minutes without a single edit, and while they're still using a compact disc's capacity as a starting point, this time it's broken down into a relatively manageable 12 tracks-- most of which begin with a vocal riff of instantaneous impact. Of course, this is still Mars Volta's idea of accessibility; having left the earth's orbit sometime in 2003, they can only go further into the cosmos. If you can commit any of these attention deficit disorders to memory, you're probably in Mars Volta. If you can explain the concept (something about a cursed Israeli ouija board) without having read any of the pre-release materials, you've recently done drugs with Lil' Wayne.
The general "pro" argument for Mars Volta is that they're a true anachronism of the iPod age, but The Bedlam in Goliath goes great lengths towards actually rewarding short attention spans. Between Bixler's preposterous lyrics (no need to quote them, you've already gotten the idea by now), the fractious time signature switcheroos of "Metatron", and Ikey Owens' keyboard globules on "Agadez", you'll find plenty of moments worthy of high-fiving, but they lack any sort of meaningful big picture context or contrast. (Oh, excpet for that Israeli ouija board stuff.) It used to be you could rely on them to toss in some aimlessly ambient smoke breaks for variety's sake, but save for the turgid wolf cry of "Torniquet Man", Bedlam plays like the true soundtrack to Katamari Damacy, indiscriminate consumption set to a relentless beat.
Opener "Aberinkula" is typical of the dynamic assault, erupting like it was in a stepped-on firehose for the past year and proceeding to just get fucking louder and louder until the free-time saxophones confirm the scent of apeshit. I swear there's a legit funk-metal groove in "Ilyena", but Thomas Pridgen doesn't agree. Ignoring the basic drumming priority of keeping time, Pridgen solos for about six minutes-- or as much you can "solo" while the rest of the band does their own thing. "Goliath" has an appropriately mountainous riff and lumbering rhythm, but guitarists John Frusciante and Omar Rodriguez-Lopez deface it with rote pentatonic wah-wah soloing in the same manner people use the word "like" in conversation. And in the most preposterous production trick you'll (likely not) hear in 2008, 90 seconds into "Cavalettes", the mix gets fried and then sounds like it's being sucked down a toilet before spitting back up. And then they squander any WTF impact by repeating it every two minutes.
Bixler comes off the best here; not since Chris Cornell on Superunknown has there been a lead man who can do a more convincing job of peddling obvious hokum through sheer force of primal will. He isn't as interested as testing the boundaries of his falsetto this time around, and it results in some of the most melodically satisfying tune fragments the Volta have ever come up with. But he can't leave well enough alone, and whatever restraint he shows on the mic fails to make it to the production board, as Bixler filters his vocals through the last 30 years of voice-manipulating technology. Obviously, recent developments have caused for reassessment of the effect, but once again, it's a matter of context. Whereas the robo-pimping of T-Pain or Snoop Dogg at least is juxtaposed with the smoothness of their backing tracks, here it's just another wanky sound effect from a band that can't get enough of them-- Bixler's most recurring guise has him sounding like an insectoid clone of himself.
And I suppose none of this should've been a surprise, but whether it's At the Drive-In's enduring goodwill, a fear of preemptively dismissing the band that could be seen as the premiere 21st century schizoid men, or the brazen conviction with which Mars Volta sell their shtick, they always manage to make you at least second-guess your own instincts. But consider what the similarly constructed virtuoso collective of Battles have accomplished with their chops this past year-- embracing technology, humor, groove, and concision into something that actually sounds like the future as opposed to the refrying of decades-old noodles in dry ice and snake oil. I'm sure defenders of the band will champion Mars Volta as a keeper of the prog-rock flame, but The Bedlam in Goliath renders the term meaningless-- the result couldn't be more averse to actual progress in rock music.
-Ian Cohen, February 06, 2008