Sunday, May 6, 2012

Intense Atmospheres and The Mars Volta's "Noctourniquet"

I was in South Texas enjoying the buzz of mexican marimba performances at an ethnomusicology conference, but the night before, McAllen experienced an intense storm that cut a swath of destruction through parts of town. The video footage I saw was terrifying, with windows shattering under the onslaught of hail propelled by high winds and living rooms pounded by hail and rain. When I was listening to Noctourniquet, the new release from The Mars Volta, I was driving around McAllen the day after this disaster, and the streets were cast with a desolate veil. Despite being a growing city of over 100,000, parts of the city looked abandoned and decades older since last I saw them. Everywhere I looked, paint was peeled off of the north side of buildings, windows were broken and boarded up, and roofs were missing massive sections of shingles.

I picked up Noctourniquet as a memento of this academic conference, and it was an album I had been cautiously anticipating. I took notice of The Mars Volta in 2003, when several “nu-prog” bands were coming into prominence. Their aggressive melodic energy immediately appealed to me, so with very little simmering time, I decided that they were the future of progressive rock, which has been mostly true. Love them or hate them, The Mars Volta name is clearly associated with innovative, relevant prog rock that acknowledges the artistic potential of styles outside of the Yes family tree. Cedric Bixler-Zavala and Omar Rodríguez-López, The Mars Volta’s creative core, take great satisfaction in challenging the status quo with intellect and have created a lot of amazing music under this mission statement. They have also created a lot of opaque, indulgent work that carried the subtext that if you didn’t get it, you just weren’t thinking hard enough. The Bedlam in Goliath, in particular, sent me looking for some Dramamine.

In recent years, however, The Mars Volta has been refocusing their energies towards a more accessible approach, a trend that continues on Noctourniquet. In a recent interview, Bixler-Zavala described it as their "Krautrock" album in the sense that they tried to throw out everything that they had done before and start over fresh. I certainly wouldn’t suggest that the results will catapult The Mars Volta to the top of the pop charts - there are still lots of freaky things going on.

Noctrouniquet’s emphasis on melody, however, is definitely more inviting than many of their releases. Here, the band doesn’t try so hard to challenge their listeners, but use the awareness gained from their more extreme experimentalism to wrap a cosmic psychedelia around what is, inexplicably, more often a song than an assault.

Vedamalady by The Mars Volta on Grooveshark

The most volatile role in The Mars Volta Group is the drum throne. Mars Volta drummers have to maintain poise in the face of a chaotic onslaught of energy while simultaneously providing the fuel that drives the whole thing along. Still, Bixler-Zavala and Rodriguez- Lopez seem to find amazing musicians to play this role. Current drummer Deaontai Parks has an impressive resume that easily puts him on the same creative level as Cedric and Omar. His contributions add a subtly complex, disorienting, and somewhat hyperactive feel to Noctourniquet.

The album's singable aspects seem to follow me around, but as my familiarity with the album increases, so does the gratification I get from the listening experience. It’s easily my favorite Mars Volta album since De-Loused in the Comatorium, the album which won me over into fandom in the first place. Because its depth stands up to repeated plays, however, Noctourniquet’s focused, atmospheric intensity may even surpass my affection for their debut in the long run.

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