The Mars Volta – Noctourniquet
by Jeff Curry (Behavioral Neuroscience), published April 4th 2012
Moldy | Stale | Edible | Fresh | Tasty!
The Mars Volta is my favorite band. I say that I have a lot of favorite bands, but when it really comes down to it, the Texas progressive rock factory run by songwriter Omar Rodriguez Lopez and lyricist Cedric Bixler-Zavala always finds its way comfortably ahead of the rest. No other band has consistently reinvented itself on each release and still managed to produce enjoyable music, even if said enjoyment took several months (or years) to coalesce. Each TMV release strives for perfection, but with slow-digesting results—including the brilliant De-Loused in the Comatorium–with each subsequent Volta release being even further outside this realm of digestibility. So when Noctourniquet was officially announced back in January, I had the same feeling when previous albums Octahedron and The Bedlam in Goliath were announced in the years prior. It wasn’t really excitement so much as it was trepidation, knowing that once more I would have to sell myself that this was indeed my favorite music group and not just an unearthly fixation with De-Loused that was fueling an unwarranted band obsession.
Noctourniquet isn’t De-Loused, but it isn’t the opposite (read: Octahedron), either. In fact, it bares almost no consistent resemblance to any previous Volta album. This doesn’t mean much seeing as Omar and friends’ first five albums are all only related by artist name, but Noctourniquet is of an entirely different breed. The album is the first without contributions from keyboardist Ikey Owens and ex-RHCP guitarist John Frusciante, but their absence only makes up a small percentage of the change. And while the controlled drumming from Deantoni Parks helps to bring the percussion department back down from the far-off galaxy reached by the gospel chops-ridden Thomas Pridgen, his role is still mostly insignificant in the establishment of something so radically new. Unsurprisingly, Omar is to blame for the transformation. He strived for the creation of The Mars Volta’s first pop record, and while he succeeded in producing an approachable album, it was not done without making some near fatal mistakes along the way.
The album begins with my least favorite track by far, “The Whip Hand,” which is completely ruined by a painfully obnoxious synth lick and downright silly vocal hook. Luckily, neither reemerge in later numbers. My heart sank the first time I heard this introduction, particularly due to the Volta’s track record of consistently beginning their albums incredibly strongly. I have since convinced myself that song number two, “Aegis,” gives the album a much more powerful introduction. Two tracks later is one of the best TMV songs to date, “Empty Vessels Make the Loudest Sound,” a mature seven minute epic that exercises articulation over explosive force. “In Absentia” follows in a similar vein, beginning with five minutes of clutter and confusion only to culminate with a beautiful, revolving chorus. The sonic intensity peaks on “Molochwalker,” which may be the only track on the album that bears any considerable resemblance to a previously released Volta track, namely from the Amputecture era, sans the art rock influence. The album’s last three songs are all equally strong, each featuring a discernible chorus that is hum-worthy, a trait hard to imagine coming from a band known for affixing steep learning curves to anything even remotely definable as a hook.
The main problem I have with Noctourniquet, though, is that almost every track vaguely reminds me of another moment from a different Volta album. This record does an embarrassingly good job of serving as a table of contents for some of Omar’s finer moments of songwriting, with tracks that are ever so slightly reminiscent of each of the five albums that came prior. Noctourniquet would be a perfect debut album for many other bands, but when you have to follow up some of the greatest progressive rock albums of this millennium, the classical reinvention technique doesn’t always come out unscathed. Noctourniquet is good most of the time, great some of the time, and has rare but nonetheless unquestionable moments of brilliance. However, this is also the case on many of Omar’s solo albums. I can’t help but feel like had Omar released this on his own, the impact would have been much less significant. The fact that he didn’t take that route and instead pushed it as the next Volta album feels, well, lazy.
That being said, the album was still written over many years by Omar and Cedric, still features incredible musicianship from all contributors, and still combines the progressive aspects of classic Volta with mature and approachable songwriting. No, it’s not the best album by The Mars Volta, but for some it will certainly be the most enjoyable. While Octahedron was awkward and sloppy sounding because it took the Mars Volta sound and turned down the volume, Noctourniquet approaches accessibility from a different angle, making for a catchy, enjoyable prog rock album! It’s rare to see progressive rock and catchiness available on the same record, but for the moments when Noctourniquet really sings, you’ll find yourself tapping and humming along.
Recommended Tracks: Empty Vessels Make the Loudest Sound, In Absentia, Vedamalady, Zed and Two Naughts