The Mars Volta are back having released their new album Noctourniquet – a study of “how to stop the night from bleeding,” according to singer Cedric Bixler-Zavala – back on March 27th. ‘Back to what?’, you wonder? That’s what’s stumping me, too. I can’t put my finger on it. So let’s dive right in and get back to that later.
Upon a first listen through, it’s pretty noticeable that Bixler-Zavala’s vocals own these tracks. He’s forceful and aggressive when it calls for it, and understated and soft-spoken when he needs to be. Sure, we all know that Omar Rodriguez-Lopez is the dictatorial mastermind composing the album from start to finish, but for the first time (as Thomas Pridgen, drummer up until this album, will tell you), Cedric is the most important man in the room. A track like ‘Zed and Two Naughts’ would fall flat were it not for his outbursts of, “Saint Christopher/don’t go-o-o-o-o wan-der-ing,” that break up the machinelike pumping of the drum and bass. His penetrating repetition of “do you think I’ll fold?” from the song ‘Noctourniquet’ will stick in your mind far after the swagger of the bass line and layers of guitar and synth have dissipated. He’s reigned in his vocal range so when he soars you well and truly feel it, and his lyrics are kept concise compared to his prior oeuvre, holding minimalism to a higher esteem than ever before. Whether it’s his timing, melody, or lyrics, Cedric is essential to every track on the album.
The primary theme of those lyrics is the relationship between parent and child, and more specifically, the will of the parents being forced onto that of the innocent youth as suggested in the opening track’s title, ‘The Whip Hand’. Often he sings from the perspective of the young boy, like in the first single off the album, ‘The Malkin Jewel’, telling stories of his mother, the town harlot and the song’s namesake. Unfortunately, his vitriolic croon in the chorus resembles that of bygone Marilyn Manson, but it works well with the subject matter and the captivating, offbeat jangle of the rhythm section. Alternatively narrated, ‘Lapochka’ – according to Cedric himself in an interview – is about a mother and her incessantly pestering child whom she in turn calls lapochka, a russian term of endearment for a young girl.
Also at play through the record are the relationships between language, memory and death, as heard in the lyrically magnificent ‘Aegis’, as well as the dualities of good and evil, decimation, and rebirth. Maybe my favorite song so far, ‘In Absentia’, is the longest – and most rewarding – track on the album. It benefits from building up to a resounding finale pleading, “Da-a-sehra-a-a-a-a-a-a,” a cry that was initially intended to be the chorus, but – I think successfully – was converted to the ending. Dasehra is the Sanskrit goddess that takes away sin, or, similarly, a Hindu celebration of good over evil. In the context of the narrative Cedric is weaving, we can read into this more as a question: “when, if ever, does the reign of one’s parents come to an end?” As you probably already know, we could spend days deciphering Cedric’s reference-laden puzzles like T.S. Eliot’s poetry, so I’ll leave the rest to you. Back to the success of the album as a whole, something that rides on more than just lyrics.
The gravity of brevity is possibly the greatest alteration to the TMV formula, and it’s one enforced by Omar to compliment the shortened song structures that he has pinpointed as integral to progressing the band’s sound. For the first time since At the Drive-In, less is more. No more breakdowns filled with relentless shredded solos, drum fills, and bass jams – unless it’s a well-rounded act of cohesion, all of that jammy goodness is left presumably for the live show. On the album, they’re strictly business. Another addition is new drummer, Deantoni Parks. I know, I know, what more could you ask from a drummer that the awe-inspiring whirlwind that is Thomas Pridgen couldn’t answer? If the drum work on Octahedron is any indication, I’d say…restraint. If you want a flying fury of drums, go listen to Bedlam in Goliath, ’cause it seems by Omar’s schemes, that precision and control are what the mad scientist has ordered. Not that Pridgen has no control, but his talents are too outspoken. He’s like the frickin’ Incredible Hulk, his presence can’t be caged as I’m convinced Omar attempted on Octahedron. This experiment requires something more like a drum machine with a heart, and the closest you’ll come to that is mister Parks. Just focus intently on the drumming throughout the album and you’ll see how it is brilliantly precise and uniquely timed, yet it never overshadows the rest of the band. Not only that, it compliments the increasingly electronic sounds of the album and the generation quite well.
So to sum up, I thought this album was back to former ass kickin’ ways – the album that should have followed up Bedlam, leaving the soft Octahedron to rest, as if it never happened. But then I listened to Octahedron again to refresh my cringeful memories of it, and – surprisingly – I didn’t hate it. The differences from one album to the next aren’t too sonically drastic. Octahedron has its hauntingly dark moments a la Bedlam as well as ravenous thrashing. The main problem was that it wasn’t able to flow because it was chopped up with long stretches of near-silence and the occasionally too harmonious interplay between Cedric’s vocals and Omar’s string-pulling that ended up turning the stomachs of most TMV fans. Oddly, some of those poppy moments still appear on Noctourniquet, but now, they are quickly forgotten because you don’t have time to dwell on them, the next song has smacked you in the face already. And there’s the beauty. In the past, a song that you didn’t like could ruin the entire album; after all, it was most likely ten or thirteen minutes long and a sixth of the whole thing. This time around, there are thirteen tracks – full, substantial songs, not spacey interludes. Although a couple reach the seven- and eight-minute mark, the majority are about five minutes long, and they come and go hard and fast making those longer takes a refreshing change of pace with meaningful growth.
So, perhaps Noctourniquet is the album we all wanted after Bedlam, but that’s not how it works. TMV needed to (painfully) grow through Octahedron to reach this point which could be the band’s crowning achievement considering it seemed like they were on the tailend of their career. The future is once again bright for this powerhouse duo (and friends).