Column: Noctourniquet as cosmic, long and frustrating as its title
Prog rockers The Mars Volta give listeners the kitchen sink and then some on latest release.
Alternative rockers The Mars Volta have been peddling their distinct brand of prog-rock for more than a decade now, bringing the subgenre renewed interest in the new century. It needed the boost too, considering progressive rock is one of the most dubious associations in rock music. At its best, it can be hypnotic and deep, with focus on instrumentation, solos and length rather than cohesion or straightforwardness. This can be a rewarding avenue, traveled most often and successfully in the '70s (King Crimson, Genesis, mid-period Pink Floyd), but it can also easily fall into a trap of sludgy excess and inaccessibility. It is notable that all of these artists achieved various levels of commercial success by streamlining their sound or collaborating with more established artists (such as Crimson’s Robert Fripp with David Bowie), but The Mars Volta is able to sidestep this requirement. Their attack is distinct and uncompromising, and all the better for it.
Literally rising from the ashes of At the Drive-In (a traumatic bus accident effectively ended the group), The Mars Volta hinges on the collaborative efforts of Omar Rodriguez-Lopez and Cedric Bixler-Zavala, a chemistry that ultimately fuels the aggression and variety on their latest release, _Noctourniquet_. Don’t put this on and expect _The Dark Side of the Moon_. Instead of smoothness and jazz-lite touch, The Mars Volta is bracingly forward, mashing together elements of krautrock, jazz fusion, and metal to make a contrastingly futuristic and rough sound to base their compositions on. _Noctourniquet_ is particularly spacey, with laser-sharp keyboards and warped synth lines shimmering around and jarring the action. Opener “The Whip Hand” has electronic swells and pulses that nearly overpower the activity, no small feat considering the wah-wah-ing guitar lines, spastic drumming and most importantly Bixler-Zavala's vocals. His work is key to _Noctourniquet_’s success: Somehow nasally, smooth and detached, it manages to anchor some of the tracks that veer to the left and risk spinning out. “Trinkets Pale of Moon” almost sounds as dippy as its title, with chanting sound effects, busy acoustic work and surging keyboard bordering on the incoherent. But Bixler-Zavala's sensitive work makes this mashup quietly touching. In fact, the group really shines in quieter, un-showy performances. “Empty Vessels Make the Loudest Sound” is the best example, its rippling drum patterns and swaying guitar lines creating an oceanic vibe to place Bixler-Zavala’s voice in, and when the aggression and power come in, the transition feels natural. The melody is maintained beautifully, and at nearly seven minutes “Empty” proves how prog’s length and ambition can be an asset. “In Absentia” is similarly impressive, a seven-minute micro-epic that showcases the band in full form. Deontoni Parks’ drums are smattered onto walls of guitar scuzz and reverberating bells, and by the time The Mars Volta’s signature synths and hypnotic vocals are added the result is strangely engaging and rewarding. Whenever this raw instrumental power and digital trickery are meshed together, the results are always interesting; the title track has a vaguely 80s vibe with its jangle guitar work, “Lapochka” plows forward with a powerful beat and “Molochwalker” is a showcase for Rodriguez-Lopez's often fiery and overlooked fretwork. This is a delicate balance, however. Often the group seems to have so many ideas and so much space to work with that the results and can be unfocused and unintentionally showy. “Zed and Two Naughts” takes a beat from a mid-2000s alternative band and draws it out to a tedious five-minute spasm of drum fills that is less than the sum of its parts and “Aegis” has a doomy atmosphere and busy instrumentation that fails to cohere. These moments generally keep _Noctouriquet_ a tad unbalanced, and on a 13-track album with precious few light moments (like the lovely, moody “Imago”) this adds to the bloat. But bloat and tedium are a natural liability of the subgenre, and though The Mars Volta have done more consistently impressive work elsewhere, an uncompromising and musically impressive work such as _Noctourniquet_ proves that finesse and variety can at least minimize these issues. It’s a must for established fans, and for those interested in prog in a modern setting, as good an introduction as any.