Album Review: The Mars Volta – Noctourniquet

There are few songwriters in the world as prolific as Omar Rodriguez-Lopez – let’s be honest. He has 14 solo albums to his name (8 of which were from 2009 and 2010 alone), around 10 albums collaborating with other people in the Omar Rodriguez-Lopez Group and otherwise, 6 albums and an EP with the Mars Volta (his project with vocalist and lyricist Cedric Bixler-Zavala), and a nearly uncountable list of appearances, production credits, live recordings, and otherwise. As far as sheer amount of music goes no one even comes close, save for maybe Aphex Twin, Lil’ Wayne, and (if you count the help of their 24 hour song) the Flaming Lips. But the last few years have marked a transitional period for Rodriguez-Lopez, and his most critically acclaimed project The Mars Volta. Their latest offering, Noctourniquet speaks testament to that struggle, while giving Mars Volta fans something to love and to relate to.

If you are unfamiliar with how the Mars Volta works, it’s very interesting. Omar writes all of the instrumental parts, makes his instrumentalists record apart from each other to maximize individual contribution, and then sends the whole thing over to Cedric to slap lyrics on top of. Noctourniquet was done, instrumentally, in 2009, only several months after Octahedron was released. But after Cedric confessed that Omar’s ridiculous pace was too much for him (who can blame the guy?), the two had a disagreement. After a small hiatus of a little over two years, Cedric began work on the vocals, and this week, we have a new Mars Volta release. The instrumental lineup is almost completely rearranged (minus the guitar work of Rodriguez-Lopez), but the band is more cohesive than ever.

The Bedlam In Goliath, the Mars Volta’s 2008 release, was an “inspired by true events” spookfest about the band being haunted by a spirit that they (supposedly) accidentally conjured by messing with an Ouija board in Israel (I’m totally serious). The album is, to this day, one of the best prog-rock albums ever made, and hold the Grammy-winning single “Wax Simulacra”. When Rodriguez-Lopez announced that the band’s next album, Octahedron, would be a stripped-down, mellowed-out record, we were all a bit scared. But even a stripped-down record for the Mars Volta is a complex artrock freeway pileup for anyone else.

For all comparative purposes, Noctourniquet is perhaps most similar to last Mars Volta release, Octahedron (and not just because the title is a 4 syllable superword that you can’t really pronounce with confidence). It takes the same “more-conventional” approach and feels similar to Octahedron in that it doesn’t burn the coals at full steam like Bedlam did. But in a lot of ways, Noctourniquet is a better album than Octahedron. For one, Cedric says it is a concept album, based on the Greek myth of Hyacinthus. Like all Mars Volta concept albums, you are going to have to dig to find the story – Cedric’s lyrics are as cryptic and enticing as ever. But the emotional themes of the story are present: bravery in the face of death, artistry in light of discouragement, and pursuing one’s true desires.

Musically, Noctourniquet is much more of a continuum than its predecessor. Omar’s tracks glide across the emotional spectrum from one end to the other. “Molochwalker” echoes the Mars Volta’s punk ties to At the Drive-In, while “Vedamalady” is a haunting acoustic piece that rivals Mars Volta ballad highlights like “Asilos Magdalena” and “With Twilight As My Guide”. Still, the album sees its high points when Rodriguez-Lopez goes all out. “Empty Vessels Make the Loudest Sound” is a 7 minute odyssey that surges back and forth until it gives way to “The Malkin Jewel”, the album’s drunken brawl of a single. Perhaps the most memorable track is album closer “Zed and Two Naughts”, which floats between skittering anticipation and the explosive, full-fledged Mars Volta texture that we’ve seen on older albums.

Noctourniquet may not be the best album the Mars Volta have ever created, but it certainly should not be overlooked. Rodriguez-Lopez says that Noctourniquet marks the end of an era – the one that frustrated Cedric so much to create the band’s hiatus in the first place. This disagreement and tension can be felt throughout Noctourniquet. Nevertheless, the album’s high points rival the band’s best work, and it will be most interesting to see what the next era of the Mars Volta will bring us.

The Mars Volta have not posted any new tour dates yet. At the Drive-In will be reforming for a few festival shows this summer, including a stop at Coachella Music Festival.

Listen to Noctourniquet single “The Malkin Jewel” here.

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