Rantings, reviews and lists from a person who structures half his life around obsessing over music.

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

The Mars Volta - Octahedron (2009)

3.5 ★/7.0 - 7.9

The infinite monkey theorem states that a monkey hitting keys at random on a typewriter keyboard for an infinite amount of time will almost surely type any given text, such as the complete works of William Shakespeare.

With The Mars Volta in 2009, there's bound to be an emerging school of thought which purports to use Octahedron as an example of this theory, portraying the body of work from Omar and Cedric as blundering infinity - an endlessly spewing sewage hole of unintelligible spazztastic, progressive nonsense, and viewing Octahedron as a diamond in the rough for its more conventional reliance on prog-ballad structures. We can already see hints of this, with Pitchforkmedia indirectly declaring it the first Mars Volta album worthy of breaking past a 5.0 rating. But don't believe these doubters. As much as the band might have gone off the deep end with The Bedlam in Goliath, it's hard to imagine this radio-friendly album being successful on any level without its influences from the brainy Afro-brothers' prior experimentations. The fact is, based on the songs themselves, Octahedron is pretty damn boring. It's King Crimson balladry 101 through and through, and on long-winded snoozers like "Copernicus" or "With Twilight As My Guide", there's no denying it. The reason it works as well as it does is not because of Cedric's new reliance on his singing voice, nor is it because of the scaling down of overlong track lengths in favor of identifiable song structures. It's the unconventionality that made Bedlam in Goliath so unmemorable that gets the job done on Octahedron.

The difference is a matter of degree. The Mars Volta has never been more subtle with their psychedelic explorations as they are now, and while it may not reach the peaks of their more brain-melting sound, it's definitely a refreshing change of pace that the Drive Like Jehu-influenced acid-drenched guitars and free-jazz undercurrents of "Luciforms" are just identifiable enough to suggest discomfort but not so obvious as to inspire nausea. Similarly, the hallucinatory electronic rhythms of "Teflon" and the teetering walls of jagged riffage of "Halo of Nembutals" never overtake the basic songwriting chops, but are engaging enough to make us forget there isn't much songwriting here we haven't from these guys in the first place. Overall, unlike most of Bedlam, there's very little on Octahedron that feels like a product of random chance. Like The Mars Voltas best work, its success clearly required a delicate balancing act, and those who are usually so quick to dismiss the bands pretensions may find it a lot harder to deny them here.

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