El Paso natives Omar Rodriguez-Lopez and Cedric Bixler-Zavala of The Mars Volta have long been known for their bombast and progressive-rock self-indulgence. Ever since they departed the seminal post-hardcore band At the Drive-In, they've spent their time making what can only be described as "epics."
At the end of the day, you either like their blend of psychedelic progressive Latino jazz-fusion punk rock as heard on albums such as 2005's Frances the Mute or you don't.
Many don't, considering the kinds of critical reviews they've received, but they've managed to carve out a dedicated fan base, a Grammy win and some impressive chart showings for a band as outsider as themselves.
It's been three years since they released an album, the last one being 2009's Octahedron (which they hit Houston for in September of that year). Now they're back this week with their sixth LP, Noctourniquet. It is simultaneously an about-face musically and a challenge to tradition.
They've stripped out most of the "progressive rock" elements. There is only one guitar solo on the album, no long instrumental breaks, and the album skews more to synthesized pop-rock. There's a chorus on opener "The Whip Hand" that could be from a Nine Inch Nails record.
But this album is indeed a progression all the same, breaking their previous mold and looking to the future. They've described the album as "future punk" and the title is absolutely fitting. It is heavier on balladry and pop influences than their older works, but still as dense, challenge, and forward-looking as one would expect from these artsy weirdos.
The concept is a new direction as well. Bixler-Zavala has said he wanted to present their lyrics more directly and, while there are still cryptic metaphors and heady concepts involving nursery rhymes, Scientology, mythology, a grandiose story, and Superman villains, this is probably the first time the band has ever written such a basic yet beautiful love ballad as "Empty Vessels Make the Loudest Sounds."
They've also changed up their lineup for this release. Gone are keyboardist Ikey Owens, Red Hot Chili Peppers guitarist and frequent studio collaborator John Frusciante, and drummer Thomas Pridgen. In their place are Rodriguez-Lopez's brother, Marcel Rodriguez-Lopez, and Lars Stalfors on keys and sound manipulation and superstar session drummer Deantoni Parks (who has worked with the likes of Sade before). Longtime bassist Juan Alderete also sticks around.
Meanwhile, Rodriguez-Lopez has been busying himself outside of music with film projects. His latest, Los Chidos, made its debut two weeks ago at SXSW Film and tells the tale of a lost American stuck in Mexico with a bizarre family.
They take advantage of him, but eventually come to enlightenment through his presence, each of them growing as a person through the events that take place due to his visit. I had the pleasure of seeing the film at SXSW, and it is an extremely accomplished work of filmmaking, much in the vein of Jodorowsky and Fellini before Rodriguez-Lopez, but with a heavy dose of satire on masculine culture.
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The duo has recently returned to Texas to rehearse with their recently reunited previous band At the Drive-In. This is the first time the band has been in a room together playing music since 2001 and it's sure to be an amazing time to see them make their return at Coachella.
But as busy as the principal duo of the band have been, it would be a shame to overlook their latest works in favor of their return to an old one. Noctourniquet is in stores now and it by all rights deserves to be these Texans' finest hour. They've earned it.