My journey with The Mars Volta started about three years ago. After I listened to their music, got really annoyed and deleted all of their songs from my hard drive and never thought of it again, I was reintroduced to the Mars Volta when someone who reviewed one of our songs in Garageband compared us to this band I had a faint recollection of. My second impression was "what the hell is this?" I let Opher have a listen and he shared my sentiment. But this time I didn't forsake, and after five times of listening to De-louse at the Comatorium, I finally got it. I recommended it to Shai, whose initial response was unsurprisingly "it's not that great", but he eventually came around too. I've listened to this album hundreds of times, and I'm not exaggerating. It remained in my Car's CD changer for a total of six months straight (CD changer? What the hell is that?), and I can always listen to it again and not be bored by a single moment, even though I practically know it all by heart. Well, except for the lyrics. Even my memory has limits.
Unfortunately, such an excellent debut is hard to follow. The release of The Mars Volta's fourth studio album, The Bedlam in Goliath, is further proof of the fact that while Deloused was an amazing achievement, it appears that it stunned even the members of the Mars Volta themselves. They really have no idea how it happened, and have been trying to recreate this success time and time again, in a variety of unlikely methods. When it comes down to it, it wasn't the guitar blips and churns that made De-loused at the Comatorium a great album. It also wasn't Omar's guitar technique of "hitting every possible note until something sounds right" nor was it Cedrix's distinguished high frequency vocals. It was the way all of those things were wrapped together with excellent melodies and efficient songwriting. The compositions were complicated, the arrangements were packed, it had so many features that under other circumstances would be irritating rather than beautiful, but it all fit together perfectly, delivering a complete artistic message. Every song had a beginning, an end, and a whole lot of unpredictable middle between them. But the songs were clear. They served their purpose perfectly.
And then something happened. Omar Rodriguez-Lopez and Cedric Bixler-Zavala apparently forgot how to do it. They forgot how songs should begin and end. Without this vital knowledge, they started to experiment with new methods of constructing songs. In Frances the Mute, they decided that every song should end with 3-10 minutes of painful noise, caused either by a random synthesizer module or simply by someone kicking a guitar amp that's turned all the way up, until the next song eventually suddenly emerges. On Amputechture, they decided to try a different way to end songs. They simply wouldn't end at them all. The songs go on and on, with an average running time of 9 minutes, some lasting over 11 minutes, and usually not justifiably so.
The Bedlam in Goliath sees a combination of the two. The songs lengthes are not standard (not as much as on Amputechture, but still), and instead of ending each song with a lot of noise, they decided to record the noise OVER the actual songs. Kill two birds with one stone, aye? Also, instead of having a beginning and an end, the songs simply erupt into existence and then eventually get disrupted and a new song would begin without any warning. It took me three listens to realize that Aberinkula and Metatron are actually two separate songs. Because with these guys, how can you tell, really?
By the way, do NOT put this album on if your stereo's volume is high. I wasn't kidding about the part about the songs erupting – I think I lost 20% of my hearing capacity the first time I listened to this album.
Now, it's not that I'm a stranger to songs who spread through an unconventional period of time. Obviously, since the average running time of a Solstice Coil song is six minutes. I love the 30 minutes long The Truth will set You Free by The Flower Kings, for example. But the reason I love it so much is that despite the fact it's so long, it doesn't feel that long. It's carefully constructed with a variety of excellent melodies, instrumentals and diverse arrangements, which is exactly what De-loused had. Frances the Mute had a couple of very good songs, but it had more noise than actual songs. The 30 minutes long saga at the end of the album, doesn't work as well as the aforementioned piece does. While it has some powerful melodies, it also has several minutes of either noise or complete silence, and very long and agonizing one chord jams. Amputechture was mostly a headache. Though it had some memorable moments, they were scarcely scattered among many minutes of excruciating dissonant guitar solos.
The Bedlam in Goliath has the least redeeming moments. When I first listened to it, I was appalled. I couldn't believe one of my favorite bands released something so horrible. But since I know that things change with this band, I continued to listen, and I started discovering the content beyond the racket. Much to my dismay, it wasn't enough. Every time I got to a good part and started thinking, hey, this is actually not bad, something twice as horrible came in its stead and made me forget why I ever liked listening to this band in the first place.
The majority of the songs are comprised of good choruses and crappy verses. However, even the good choruses sound almost exactly like the good choruses from previous albums, with a slight variation of a note or two. Much like in the Cassandra Geminni saga, the verses consist of a long jam based on a generic hard rock riff, with Cedric singing completely-improvised-blue-note-drenched vocal melodies, which I'm afraid to say are often quite ugly, even though some of the riffs are cool. I think that the best melodies on this album are on the disco song, Ilyena. And by the way, I FUCKING HATE DISCO.
Wax Simulacra is one of the shortest songs in Mars Volta history. It erupts with some way-too-happy melodies, and includes some bizarre Nintendo-esque musical transitions between verse and chorus, which reminds me of the soundtrack of Contra 3. This is actually one of the better songs, which is why it's a shame it ends as quickly as it begins. Did I mention the whole eruption/disruption concept?
Goliath begins with a Rage Against The Machine groove, includes unmelodic improvised vocal melodies again, along with some obvious King Crimson rip offs, which eventually evolves into yet another generic rock riff extravaganza.
Tourniquet Man is another short song, only this time, we'd be better off if it stayed that way. Starting off with an 80s style chorus guitar, which is always the harbinger of bad news, almost half of the song is overrun by the most excessive use of annoying effects I've ever heard. This song makes me cry, and not in a good way.
In Cavalettas, the Mars Volta show just how completely lost they are in the art of songwriting. If every song on De-loused has carefully picked melodies, which were both catchy and challenging at the same time, then The Bedlam in Goliath is the complete opposite. In fact, Bedlam is De-loused's arch nemesis. A weak, feeble, poke-you-in-the-shoulder-a-million-times-kind-of-annoying arch nemesis. Cavalettas demonstrates the poorest technique in songwriting, which simply states – if I repeat the same melody four hundred times in a row, the song will become catchy! So granted, after a few listens, I started walking around with 5 seconds of this song stuck in my head, playing repeatedly in a never-ending loop, but is that really a good thing?
In all Mars Volta albums, there's always a moment I instinctively send my hand to my pocket because I'm sure somebody's calling me on my cellular phone. Usually it's not the case, rather the various blips and squeaks (or Hammond) that resemble the sound of a ringtone that the band likes to add to the music with no apparent reason so much. On Askepios, they take it one step further. They actually sampled the noise that speakers make when affected by a cellular phone's radiation when it is about to go off. Also, this song includes some of the ugliest melodies I've heard in my entire life, including the stupidest guitar solo in Mars Volta history, and, let's face it, Omar does tend to play some really idiotic shit from time to time.
Ouroborous reintroduces us to the Mars Volta's Spanish influences, which, thank god, we've been spared of up until this point. This is practically the only aspect where this album is better than the previous two. As much as I enjoy constantly making up words for Mars Volta songs and turning all the lyrics into a tribute to Lorenzo Lammas, I have enough trouble understanding their english lyrics. Also, the use of Spanish percussions in this song sounds like a pale attempt to recycle the cool groovy vibe of Drunkship of Lanterns.
Soothsayer is another example of the same melodic line repeating itself a million times. Cedric improvises front to back, and some of his attempts hit the mark, but mostly this song is a nuisance. The entire song, all nine minutes of it, includes the same fucking Arabian nights riff that repeats itself over and over and over again. It's nice that Omar decided to get in touch with his Middle Eastern roots, but dude, do it on your own time.
The fact that the album ends with Conjugal Burns does bring some hope, as this is one of the better songs, maybe the best. It definitely has the best chorus. Although, again, it sounds too much like the chorus of Take The Veil Cerpin Taxt, both in melody and arrangement.
It all comes down this time: While De-loused was an actual artistic accomplishment that operated in a void, because nobody believed that this kind of music would ever be so popular in this day of age, its success spoiled the band for good. They've been desperately trying crack their own secret formula, but only managed to scratch the surface, reusing the external elements without any of the internal content. The excessive use of noise, the continuing attempts to make everything bigger and louder causes them to completely miss the point. De-loused has some pretty stupid dissonant guitar roles, but they all worked within the context. Stupid, yet borderline brilliant. They told the story. And it seems like the Mars Volta have forgotten that in music, much like in cinema, story is key. And no, that does not mean that the lyrics have to convey the epic tale of a cybernetic one eyed centaur that travels through space and time to find a good ham and cheese sandwich, through metaphors that only someone who has inhaled poisonous gasses can understand. It means consistency. Which, much like a bad David Lynch movie, is what this album lacks the most. Okay, I know, all David Lynch movies are bad, but this is more like a student film trying to imitate the works of David Lynch.
The Mars Volta are constantly turning into a parody of themselves. The audacity of self importance and the complete lack of self awareness, fuelled by fame and sheer laziness, are causing them to magnify all of their faults and diminish their strengths. In the past, when Cedric sang in his unique high pitched voice, it was moving, because he was doing it out of some kind of pain. Now it feels like he's doing it because he has to. It's expected of him. It's his shtick. De-loused was an intense, emotionally exhausting and disturbing journey. This album is just disturbing. Although it has some cool grooves which cannot be disregarded and some memorable melodies, the few aren't enough to make up for the whole. This is simply not good enough.
Maybe it's time to reevaluate. The Mars Volta has clearly become something that cannot be contained anymore, even by its own creators. Years ago, when Cedric and Omar saw that At the Drive-in is no longer fulfilling their artistic vision, they decided to call it quits and start over. Maybe it's time to do that again.