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Tuesday, January 29, 2008

The Mars Volta: "The Bedlam In Goliath"

I first stumbled upon The Mars Volta when I was in college. Not really into the progressive rock scene at all, I was stunned to find that I not only liked their first album, De-Loused In the Comatorium, but simply couldn't get enough of it. I spent countless hours rocking out to it in my dorm room, annoying roommates and probably the whole hall as well. Their second album, Frances the Mute, was equally as impressive, and perhaps more intriguing and challenging than their first. Therefore, it was a bit disheartening for me when they released their third album, Amputechture. It seemed to lack the focus of their previous works, often placing emphasis on extended complex freak-out sessions and putting secondary importance on Cedric Bixler-Zavala's vocals. Melodies seemed patched together, and afraid to take center stage. As a huge fan of vocals in music (indeed, it is almost always the most important thing), I was completely disenchanted with this approach and was equally as disappointed in the album. The Bedlam In Goliath has similarly disappointing sections, though I am pleased to say that the album as a whole is a step in the right direction for The Mars Volta.

Opener "Aberinkula" opens the album at full force, charging out of the gate like a bull. The song features a trotting bass line and absolutely mind-blowing percussion from new drummer, Thomas Pridgen. The vocal melody is uncomplicated, but still somewhat catchy. Cedric belts out "Have you seen the living, tired of their own shells?" in the chorus, and his piercing voice is well-suited to the musical chaos that it accompanies. The song eventually breaks down with a freeform saxophone solo, which the Mars Volta has basically perfected at this point. An infectious, guitar-led groove carries the song to it's end, and everything sounds great.

Amputechture's biggest problem rears it's ugly head again on "Metatron," where the music once again takes priority over the vocal melody. Cedric's voice is biting and forceful, but it is second to all the organized chaos that envelopes it. It's a shame too, as the lyrics are some of the album's more interesting. The instrumentation is unrelenting, as it is throughout most of Bedlam, and if you find yourself placing importance on that, "Metatron" may be a favorite for you. It is definitely reminiscent of "Tetragrammaton." "Ilyena" is a much cooler song in general. It begins with an incredibly distorted, wet vocal solo. When Cedric sings, "I need a brand new skin," it is undeniably awesome! After about a minute of that, the song busts out with a funky guitar riff and salsa percussion that just begs to be danced to. It's a very jam-band type of song, and doesn't scream of the forced complexities of many Mars Volta songs. Every aspect of this song is virtually flawless, and you'll undoubtedly find yourself singing along or dancing after a few listens. It's got a very cool drum outro too that is unfortunately ruined by some unnecessary distorted vocals.

"Wax Simulacra" is filled to the brim with typically cryptic lyrics ("I bring an avalanche of Toltec bones. Contaminated cravings if you choose to play something that aches for a spill.") It is a very vocally intensive song, but it sounds as if they are constantly doing battle with the instrumentation to see who will be the focus of the song. In the end it's such a mess that it's hard to focus on anything. Fortunately, "Goliath" completely voids any problems that it's predecessor had simply by being relentlessly amazing. Mars Volta fans will immediately recognize the song as a reworked, sped-up version of "Rapid Fire Tollbooth," a song from Omar Rodriguez-Lopez's last solo album (and from the band's live show in the past). It is, without a doubt, the standout track on the album. It's the first time on the album that Cedric gives us a vocal melody worth remembering, and despite it's 7+ minute runtime, it never feels too long or repetitive. Indeed, if anything, I found myself wanting it to continue. The band feels focused and tight throughout, only getting out of control when absolutely necessary.

Unfortunately, the momentum built by that song is instantly crushed by "Tourniquet Man," a song that sounds entirely too much like Limp Bizkit's cover of "Behind Blue Eyes" for me to take seriously. All Mars Volta albums have had a radio-friendly song, and this one just sounds like a failed attempt at one. Despite a convincing performance from Cedric, it gets a big "meh" from me. Likewise, "Cavalettas" struggles to find any meaningful reason for existence. The longest track on the album, it is unbearably repetitive and uninteresting, which is something I never though I'd say about The Mars Volta. The band seems to get lazy and can't find a way to transition from one section to the next, opting instead to just drop out all the instrumentation for a few seconds before jamming back in. This happens 7 times (really). Not even manic sax and flute solos can save this song from the skip button.

"Agadez" picks things back up. Again, the band comes together and blends perfectly, resulting in a much more satisfying experience. Cedric syncopates, "I'm nowhere near this place you wear. It's unforgivable. It knows that I am visible," over some truly great instrumentation. The song breaks down at 3:45 and adds in some ethnic drums and more subtle vocals before picking things back up for a more appropriate Mars Volta-esque freak-out. It's a great song! "Askepios" is really just a waste of time. It's 5 minutes of uninspired drivel. For the life of me, I cannot figure out why the band insists on continually squandering any ounce of momentum that they have for stuff like this. "Ouroborous" is a very vocally focused song. As such, I instantly connected with it. It features Cedric crooning softly over some harmonium-like synths, singing, "Of all the warnings that you gave me with all components in the fault. Have you heard me scraping? It'll be hard to hold." It's one of the album's cooler moments, and by far its most unique.

"Soothsayer" begins with enchanting strings and a lazily moving guitar solo. Cedric's vocals are haunting as they sing, "This deceit has no arms. Bended will, take what's yours." It is a beautiful song that never overdoes it, and everything just seems to work. Surely the strings were an excellent touch that pushed the song over the edge. The songs end with creepy "Requiem for a Dream-ish" violins and a reverbed choir. It's a very nice touch. Bedlam's closer is "Conjugal Burns" and once again, Cedric treats us to some impressive vocal stylings. When he sings, "I got a pain inside that'll rip through the fabric of time," I literally perked up because it was so unexpected. It's a solid song and it keeps it at a relatively short runtime (for a Mars Volta song, 6:35). It seems out of place as a closer though. Musically, "Soothsayer" seems much more appropriate. Still, I can't detract from it's greatness.

The Bedlam In Goliath is undoubtedly The Mars Volta's loudest album to date, and long-time fans will undoubtedly be pleased with what they hear. Unfortunately, there are a few songs that just don't work and should have been left in the studio. Indeed, at nearly 76 minutes in length, The Bedlam In Goliath could have used a nice trimming. As a result, the album feels less cohesive than their previous albums, and is definitely more enjoyable to listen to in small doses. However, I have found myself entirely satisfied with the album's better moments, and can therefore overlook its missteps along the way. For fans like me who felt a little disenchanted after Amputechture, rest assured that The Bedlam In Goliath is a much better album and worth picking up and investing your time in. Like all Mars Volta albums, it is not for everybody, but it is definitely something that deserves to be noticed.

Key Tracks:
1. "Aberinkula"
2. "Ilyena"
3. "Goliath"
4. "Agadez"
5. "Ouroborous"

7 out of 10 Stars


jill said...

"Goliath" reminds me of Rage Against the Machine there about the 6:18 mark.

Cale said...

You made it that far? I would've thought you'd turn it off after a minute or two.

I guess you really do listen to everything. Sweet!

Cale said...

Oh, and let it be known, that that whole "Let's stop the song in the middle" thing, never occurs on the actual CD. This is an old promo version.

Cale said...

Meh...fixed it with a real version.