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Album Review: The Mars Volta ‘Noctourniquet’

It quickly becomes clear that Noctourniquet is a different album for The Mars Volta, but it’s not immediately obvious what has changed or in which direction they are heading. The band would probably be quite happy to hear that, as these guys like very much to test their listeners.

That said, played alongside their past work, the songs on Noctourniquet are actually a lot easier to imagine on the radio. The tortured and disjointed guitar work which normally makes up such a large part of their sound takes a bit of a backseat here, with a greater emphasis on electronic elements and keyboards. It’s not a radical departure by any means, but a measured and subtle shift.

The album’s first act seems to have something to prove, with opener ‘The Whip Hand’ showcasing an intentionally stuttering beat, as if challenging the listener to find its rhythm. Strange time signatures are nothing new for The Mars Volta, but there is an intentional ugliness here which doesn’t come across very well.

‘Aegis’ works a lot better, with a cool modal progression evoking Radiohead. Quieter moments are spooky and beautiful, though as the song progresses that intricacy is overwhelmed by very typical metal drumming. It’s a shame that the louder moments and songs tend to be the weakest links here, on an album more likely to be sought out by fans of hard rock.

Noctourniquet continues to get steadily better as it goes, except that it may go on a bit too long. This is a somewhat lengthy album by industry standards, at over an hour, and it drags in a couple of spots. The Mars Volta is a band that has put out individual compositions of over 30 minutes in the past, but these are simpler songs not even attempting such grandeur.

Lyrically, it’s often hard not to think that singer Cedric Bixler-Zavala is pulling random poetical phrases out of a hat. Frequently the words seem not to make any sense at all. “Their gourds are punctured easily / Amnesia fumes in little twists of silk.” It sounds cool, but it might not actually mean anything. One might get the same impression just glancing at the titles of each song, which could have been created by a goth or emo screenname generator.

The album’s best song may be ‘In Absentia’, with a cool industrial overlay, crunchy bass, and a feeling that is simultaneously organic and cold. The vocal is underwater, the drums are a mile away, and guitars are mostly absent. It’s definitely the most atmospheric song on Noctourniquet, and a direction more of its tracks would have been well served by.

The overall feeling of the record is creepy, moody, and often a little sexy. The sounds showcased here are best when they are atmospheric, but that can get lost at times behind walls of noise. Intros and transitions sometimes have more impact than the songs they lead in to, and that leaves me to lament that those ideas were not expanded upon more often. ‘Trinkets Pale of Moon’ is an example of a track that evolves instead of throwing its prettiness into the shredder, and it’s one of the highlights as a result.

‘Vedamalady’ seems not to complain about or dwell on things the way other tracks do, but finds its closure and presents something pleasantly uplifting. It would have made a much better finale than ‘Zed And Two Naughts’, which doesn’t stand out in any way.

The balancing act between the sometimes opposing forces of guitars and electronics is very carefully executed. Though the album can be a bit cacophonous at times, the instruments do find each other, and there is usually a common direction for their frenzy. The Mars Volta is not a band that subscribes to any kind of less-is-more philosophy, always seeming to find ways to cram in more sounds and more words, which can sometimes be really interesting and effective. Here, it’s pretty hit-or-miss–but it does hit.

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