Review: The Mars Volta’s “The Bedlam in Goliath”

Feb 4, 2008 9:39am

Sometimes good technical musicianship is not what you need to make a good record.  Sometimes a band’s musical structures can be too complicated and convoluted for its own good.  Sometimes impulses need to be harnessed and brought to a head in favor of some sense of structure and coherent sensibility.

The Mars Volta is an experimental band that formed out of the ashes of the somewhat respected ’90s  band At the Drive-In.  Since forming, it has released several difficult albums with some likable moments.  What makes its  sound most difficult is its prog-rock aesthetic and tendency to constantly shift tempos and keys.  To add to the mess, lead singer Cedric Bixler Zavala has a high, nasally voice that careens in all directions.  He screams like a howler monkey while instrumentation runs amok behind him.  The end result at its worst sounds not unlike a Latin-tinged answer to Rush, mixed with metallic influences like System of a Down, mixed with some of the most challenging free jazz you can imagine.  For a few minutes, this can be interesting.  For an hour and 15 minutes, it’ll drive you so bonkers that you’ll want to tear your ears clean off the sides of your head to make the noise stop.

The band’s previous records had some satisfying songs that  were accessible enough to grip you.  The  album “De-Loused in the Comatorium” had the song “Televators,” whereas a few years later the band had a hit with “The Widow” from its album “Frances the Mute.”

“The Bedlam in Goliath,” on the other hand, is simply a hopeless mess.  It’s a deafening cacophony.  Sometimes it sounds like two or three songs are being played over each other, which just creates a set-up for audio madness.  Attempts to be innovative just end up sounding punishingly awful.  When you think it can’t get more annoying, it proves you wrong time and time again getting worse and worse each time.  There are moments when you think something remotely enjoyable is just around the corner, only to have your hopes dashed at the last moment.  Passages of “Ilyena” almost make the cut, but then Bixler Zavala’s voice goes way off key and you wonder whether the record executives are sitting in their offices laughing at what tuneless garbage they’ve churned out to the unsuspecting masses.

The Mars Volta are obviously very good musicians.  Technically speaking, this is a surprisingly complex record, but with many tracks topping the seven-, eight- and nine-minute marks, and with the band’s loose “song” structures, it just winds up sounding like well-versed stoners noodling around in the band’s parents’ garage.  It’s noise.  Not the good kind, either.

Not even the presence of Red Hot Chili Pepper John Frusciante can save this.  In recent years, Frusciante has proven to be an excellent guitarist, even while his main band has slowly mellowed into a shadow of what he once was, but here, his ax just adds another layer to sift through.

But the worst part is what has happened with Bixler Zavala’s voice.  On earlier albums, his voice could easily be considered an asset.  Its high timbre and range could be quite beautiful in more subtle surroundings.  Here, he often sings in his upper register.    His voice is high to begin with, so putting it into overdrive could put every mirror near your stereo in danger. Listen to the album’s opener, “Aberinkula,” and see whether you can make it past the 30-second mark.  To make things worse or more “challenging,” a few times his voice has electronic effects over it — because I guess it wasn’t difficult enough to handle before.  The goal is to obviously throw as much in as possible in the name of musical complexity.  Such a move, if successful and enjoyable, would be worthy of praise, but in this case, it has failed royally.

There’s also something highly pretentious about the Mars Volta’s choice of imagery and song titles.  Calling a song “Soothsayer” and then screaming over a wall of aimless guitar squall (and a string section) doesn’t make things very clear, even if it does fade into what sounds like an ill-fitting church  choir. Song titles and lyrics don’t get much more cryptic than this.  I can’t imagine a sticker on the cover highlighting the presence of a track called “Conjugal Burns.” “Metatron” and “Wax Simulacra” are some other puzzling titles.  It’s as if the band was thinking, “How can we make this more difficult for our listeners?  Can we make this so difficult that we fool the critics into giving us good review for being ‘artsy?’”  I, for one, will not be fooled.

The album was produced by group co-leader Omar Rodriguez Lopez.  Perhaps he felt he needed to produce the record to get his band’s “vision” across.  Considering “De-Loused in the Comatorium” was produced by Rick Rubin, the band really should’ve given him a call.  Perhaps with it created an unholy, sonically abrasive, unforgivingly cryptic record.  It makes other like-minded more-accessible prog-rock bands like Coheed and Cambria sound like easily digestible three-chord punk in comparison.  That would indeed be preferable.  Less is indeed more.

But hey, “The Bedlam in Goliath” will give your proverbial little cousin — let’s call him Stevie for argument’s sake — something to blast while he plays “Dungeons and Dragons” in his parents’ basement.  It is a record that should annoy parents — and frankly, people who enjoy really GOOD, loud rock music — for years to come.  Maybe next time the Mars Volta will keep its experimental spirit without losing its sense of clarity.

There aren’t enough outside stimulants in the world to make this record good.  Now I have a headache!

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