The Mars Volta’s Self-Titled Album is a Simpler Yet Wholly Satisfying Return

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There’s never been another band quite like The Mars Volta. The Texan troupe — spearheaded by guitarist Omar Rodríguez-López and vocalist Cedric Bixler-Zavala — grew out of post-hardcore outfit At the Drive-In and became one of the most distinctive rock bands of the 2000s. By fusing a host of different styles (progressive rock, ambient, Spanish rock, psychedelia, free jazz, and plenty more) with delightfully strange concepts, all six of their initial studio albums offered something typical yet special.

Unfortunately, they called it quits following 2012’s Noctourniquet, with both Bixler-Zavala and Rodríguez-López choosing instead to focus on solo work and newer projects (such as Bosnian Rainbows and Zavalaz, respectively).

Of course, the mid-2010s saw the short-lived reunion of At the Drive-In (including 2017’s in•ter a•li•a, their first new record since 2000’s Relationship of Command); naturally, this development — alongside the duo forming Antemasque, and Cloud Hill Group releasing a career-spanning Mars Volta boxset, La Realidad de Los Sueños, in 2021 — prompted a ton of speculation and desire regarding a potential comeback for The Mars Volta, too.

That more or less brings us to The Mars Volta, the ensemble’s seventh studio LP and first in over ten years.

Billed as the band’s first pop record — with an emphasis on Caribbean rhythms — it drew inspiration from Peter Gabriel’s 1986 triumph, So, which (the press release notes) “saw one of rock’s most experimental, progressive and generally uncooperative voices find a way to deliver his avant garde ideas and powerful subversion in a way that mainstream audiences would be able to decode.”

The Mars Volta in 10 songs
The Mars Volta in 10 songs

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A Beginner’s Guide to The Mars Volta in 10 Songs

The same holds true for this LP, which sees Rodríguez-López and Bixler-Zavala teaming up with drummer Willy Rodriguez Quiñones, bassist Eva Gardner, and Omar’s younger brother, keyboardist Marcel Rodríguez-López.

In fact, by emphasizing accessible melodies, lyrics, and arrangements over zanily complex instrumentation and ideas — some of that is here, too, don’t you worry — the record truly feels like an evocative and exploratory spiritual successor to 2009’s wonderfully approachable Octahedron.

Thus, those hoping for the imaginative bizarreness and intricacy of, say, Frances the Mute, Amputechture, and The Bedlam in Goliath may be let down, yet even they will surely find The Mars Volta to be an invigorating and fulfilling reemergence.

Much of the album is fueled by loss, trauma, and the like, leading to some of the band’s superlatively heartfelt and memorable songwriting. Take, for instance, “Palm Full Of Crux,” a haunting ode that Bixler-Zavala wrote “as a lighthouse” to late collaborator Jeremy Michael Ward. He sings touching poeticisms (“When you carved out your name on the arms of everyone asking/ I can still hear your footsteps/ Getting closer every day”) with crushing conviction and lovely high-pitched harmonies, all the while backed by a harrowingly off-kilter blend of drums, piano, horns, woodwinds, and other orchestral timbres. It’s gorgeously tragic.

That effective simplicity permeates several other tracks, including the enthralling lusciousness and synth-heavy strangeness of lead single “Graveyard Love.” Later, “Shore Story,” “Cerulea,” and “Blank Condolences” lean closer to stripped-down guitar ballads — although they’re swathed in characteristically refined changeups and inventive tones/effects — whereas “Tourmaline” ventures into folk-jazz territory via breezy rhythms and light timbres.

Despite never approaching the avant-garde trickiness of their wildest prior compositions (such as “Meccamputechture,” “Cavalettas,” and of course, “Cassandra Gemini”), there’s still a fair amount of hyperactive ferocity here as well. There’s the immensely catchy and funky Latin foundation of opener “Blacklight Shine,” along with the classic rock essences of “No Case Gain,” “Equus 3,” and “Vigil.” Elsewhere, the Frances the Mute-esque experimental edges of “Qué Dios Te Maldiga Mí Corazón” and the hypnotic evolution of closer “The Requisition” will appease fans of the group’s heftier eccentric ventures.

The Mars Volta is an excellent return from arguably the most singular rock band of the new millennium. Honestly, its biggest impediment is the fact that it’s preceded by several downright masterful LPs and at least one out-and-out work of genius (Frances the Mute). At the very least, then, The Mars Volta is a vast improvement over Noctourniquet and an exquisitely hooky, adventurous, and consistent collection in its own right.

Here’s hoping that it’s but the first of many equally superb records from The Mars Volta’s second era.

Catch The Mars Volta on tour; tickets are available via Ticketmaster.

Essential Tracks: “Graveyard Love,” “Virgil,” “Equus 3″

The Mars Volta Artwork:

The mars volta album Artwork
The mars volta album Artwork

The Mars Volta’s Self-Titled Album is a Simpler Yet Wholly Satisfying Return
Jordan Blum

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