MARS VOLTA – Octahedron (Mercury)

For their fifth album Mars Volta have stripped back their bombastic prog rock to reveal a gentler side of the band. Slow building pieces based around acoustic guitars are not what we have come to expect from Cedric and Omar, but it is to their credit that they work just as well as their proggier moments. ‘Since We’ve Been Wrong’ has such a leisurely intro that I began to wonder if my CD player had stopped working, but when it does eventually get going it is a strangely beautiful song, enhanced by the lovely guitar fills in the chorus, and a pointer to the pop direction that they could so easily take should the mood take them. Of course, it isn’t long before they revert to form, and ‘Teflon’ has some elements of the old Mars Volta, but in a more subdued way. The lyrics are in English and entirely decipherable, and the music grooves along lazily with the band only really breaking a sweat on the chorus. ‘Halo Of Nembutals’ is the closest yet to the sound of their first two albums, but even on this one they seem to be holding back on what this song could erupt into, and ‘With Twilight As My Guide’ is another acoustic offering, melodic and touching, and an interesting direction for the band to take, although I think that stretching it out to nearly eight minutes was not really necessary considering that the last two are just droning guitar. Current single ‘Cotopaxi’ is what we have been waiting for, though, as this is what the band do best. Urgent rhythms, passionate vocals, quiet/loud passages, and prog-rock time signatures, all overlaid with lashings of screaming guitar, and they named it after a South American volcano that has nothing to do with the lyrics! The Volta are back! ‘Desperate Graves’ keeps the momentum going with a slightly reined-in sound, but still instantly recognisable as classic Mars Volta, and you suddenly realise that the band were just lulling you in with those first few songs. ‘Copernicus’ slows the pace down dramatically, but this time they manage to keep the progressive elements intact, and the guitar-work on here is particularly eloquent. ‘Luciforms’ pulls out all the stops to close the album in grand style. After a slow-burning intro the verses gradually appear under a barrage of vocal distortion, and then the whole band kick in for the chorus. A wah-wah guitar solo slowly struggles to the surface, soon to be eclipsed by another searing solo from John Fruciante, before the whole tracks collapses in a maelstrom of sound effects and guitar. A truly epic way to finish off what was up to then something of a hit and miss record. Despite the band heralding this as their acoustic album, thankfully at least half of this is classic Volta, and yet oddly enough it is the opening ‘Since We’ve Been Wrong’ that I find myself returning to more than ‘Cotopaxi’ or ‘Luciforms’, as it is such a great song. Perhaps they could be onto something with this new direction, although I would hate to see them abandon their old sound, so an amalgamation of the two styles is the best compromise, and that is exactly what we have here. If it doesn’t hit you on the first few listens then keep persevering as this album is definitely a grower.
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