The Mars Volta have always remained a band whose developments and evolution has always fascinated me, and so far has never failed to impress me. Last year’s ‘Amputechture‘ drew a lot of criticism from not only the music press, but fans of the spazzy prog outfit’s ludicrous adventures in sound. Some considered it a massive step back from the concept driven ‘Frances the Mute‘ and some said that it was trying too hard to be like ‘De-loused in the Comatorium‘. Whatever the case, it became clear that those who followed the unique development of this band were not going to sit and suck them off to every release they made.
After barely touring Amputechture (perhaps a statement of how they felt the record turned out) the ever expanding Volta group (the album boasts a collective of nine members) almost immediately returned to the confines of a studio, to write a record that’s conception is almost as bizarre as some of the songs on offer.
Just as a precursor to this review, you can read about the band’s own story regarding the origins of Goliath right here.
So, it looks like we’re in store for quite an epic 78 minutes, if the (dubious) narrative is anything to go by. Opening track ‘Aberinkula‘ certainly kicks things off in that direction, immediately blasting out a cacophony of high pitched vocals, erratic guitar work and drumming that conjures up images of an octopus blisteringly attacking the whole kit with all its might. The latter is the blood, sweat and tears of Thomas Pridgen, the incredible permanent replacement for Jon Theodore after his departure. And in case you were worried, he’s more than capable of filling those already sizable shoes, driving almost every song with an incredible passion and power that never ceases to amaze. The song climaxes with an absolutely barnstorming riff that explodes with punctual succinctness, making it feel like every member of the band has just ejaculated over you via the medium of musical instruments.
The great thing about the first five tracks is their complete and utter relentlessness. Metatron sends you into an uncontrollable groove the moment singer Cedric Bixler-Zavala opens a song that just doesn’t let up, once again building up into a complete and utter eargasm. Ilyena continues the trend, perhaps showing the Mars Volta at their outright damn funkiest, as the music can’t help but send your body into movement. Believe me, if you can listen to the closing few minutes of this track and not flinch at all, then music isn’t for you. Seriously, perhaps try comics?
This constantly driven sound is a far stretch from Amputechture’s acoustic tunes which, whilst allowing the listener room to catch their breath, only really ended up completely driving the record to a shuddering halt, almost as if Omar and co. had forced themselves to hold back. Wax Simulacra, which becomes the Volta’s shortest tracks at a mere two and a half minutes yet doesn’t suffer for becoming instant single material, with an alarmingly catchy verse that will bury itself into your head. Interestingly, it succeeds at showing the band are capable of holding themselves back from their oft-criticized wankery (albeit apart from the last few seconds of saxophone free styling) and creating a simple, damn good song.
Once again, Goliath buries itself into your head. Cedric’s vocals are rather restrained, and his ever inventive lyrics fit in beautifully among the ever increasing chaos around him, before breaking down into a swirly cesspool of bass and Omar’s eccentric guitar tapping, building up and up until it all gets pulled back into another repeat of the chorus before everything is brought down a notch and the cesspool turns into a fully blown hurricane that rips everything apart as Cedric screams down the microphone, clearly not holding himself back anymore.
However, after this point the energy, and subsequently the quality of the album take a sudden drop. Tourniquet Man, I suppose the Volta’s equivalent to a ballad, complete with swimmy vocal effects and what sounds like pan pipes just doesn’t match up to the quality of the introduction. It’s almost as if they couldn’t quite let go of whatever feeling dogged them on Amputechture. Subsequent track, Calvalettas, picks up the pace with holepunch rhythms and yet more solid drumming from Pridgen, but as if on self destruct the group have decided to break up the song, interspersing it with bizarre effects that just take the song nowhere, and are reminiscent of the meandering and uninspiring passages in their live release, Scabdates. It’s not a terrible song by any means, but this unnecessary and offputting dwindling just totally ruins the atmosphere that the first few tracks did so well to immerse you into.
Agadez follows, and is certainly a marked improvement on the last two tracks. Things seem to plod along for the majority of the song mainly driven by a bassline that creeps up and down until the chorus breaks out into a rhythm that, if written, would be a series of full stops. Askepious once again suffers from breaking the tempo and cohesiveness of the album. Cedric’s voice grates, and for the most part the song really seems to be going nowhere, only really saved with an impressive ending, relying on a repeated phrase and some guitar soloing that even Slash might enjoy.
Ourobourous, once again returns to a faster pace, with Pridgen’s blistering drumming forcing the song along more so than anything else on this album, which somehow slows itself right down to a snail’s pace before kickstarting itself again and then rather uneventfully dribbling out to a meager ending much unlike everything else on this album. Soothsayer, at nine minutes long is the longest track on the album, and suffers for it. It plods along, Cedric warbling away, sounding as if he has made this all up on the spot. Those who dislike what the Mars Volta do have always blamed their over-indulgence and long track lengths, yet I will always defend these points by arguing that these factors still somehow manage to create some fantastic songs, but I can’t say that for this track. Omar rips on his guitar just for the sake of it, Pridgen sounds tamed and rather uninventive and the other random instruments thrown into the mix really add nothing to the song, especially the use of samples.
The closer, Conjugal Burns (I will never know how these men can come up with these incredible song names) rather unfortunately follows the pattern set by the last few tracks. It would seem Omar almost takes a back seat early in this song, letting some fantastic saxophone playing take the lead, but it’s not too long until he just can’t stay quiet, once again letting his guitar shrill away at you. The song jumps all over the place, so much so that you’re never quite sure where you stand with it, and as it begins to reach its eventual conclusion you’re left feeling dazed and confused. The song uses some bizarre effects that I can only suggest are an aural representation of Goliath being pissed off or something, but by the end of the song you just don’t really care. Abruptly it ends, and you almost breathe a sigh of relief.
There’s no doubt that this is an album that cannot really be fully appreciated in one listen. Furthermore, it’s an album that actually takes quite a lot of energy to reach the end. 78 minutes is a long time, and there are times throughout the album where Cedric’s almost constant wailing nearly drives you to the edge, and Omar’s over-indulgence does begin to grow tiresome. But despite this, the album stands as a great effort from this ever evolving band. The opening tracks, full of raw passion and some fantastic song writing/jamming remind you that this is a band who are not afraid to venture into the realms of ‘catchy’ despite their inaccessible progressive image. After the first five tracks the album becomes a rollercoaster ride of quality, with the ups just being enough to keep you interested until the conclusion of Goliath’s story. It’s certainly not an album for the faint of heart, or those with little patience, but in the right frame of mind there is a lot to take away from the Mars Volta’s fourth studio release.