BY DANILO BOOK
Of all the consequences of the pandemic, the surprising reunification of several beloved progressive rock bands (Genesis, Porcupine Tree, and King Crimson to name a few) was a welcome one. While The Mars Volta’s highly-anticipated reunion has been in the works since the breakup of principal members Cedric Bixler-Zavala and Omar Rodriguez-Lopez’s post-hardcore outfit At the Drive-In, the pandemic may have been the push the band needed to complete their self-titled seventh studio album. Speculation was fueled when the long-dormant group signed to Clouds Hill Records in 2021 and put out a career-spanning box set entitled La Realidad de Los Sueños.
The Mars Volta has been one of the most critically acclaimed and innovative bands of the 2000s, fusing a multitude of genres, including traditional Latin music, jazz, and punk in a distinct, difficult to categorize, yet addicting sound. This is why the choice to make a self-proclaimed “pop” record is both questionable and in character for the band. But, what is “pop”? Is it a clean slate? Is it an excuse to take The Mars Volta’s trademark experimentation in a new direction while tempering a fanbase’s expectations? The question is never quite answered, but what the album shows is, for the first time in a long time, signs of a pulse from a beloved creative outlet.
“Blacklight Shine”, the album’s lead single, exemplifies the band’s new lineup and their Latin roots. Mesmerizing percussion and Caribbean rhythms carry the song through a soaring vocal by Bixler-Zavala, but right as the song finds its footing, it’s over. This is, overall, the album’s biggest flaw. Many tracks feel more akin to intros or middle sections as opposed to full songs – the aimless meandering of “Flash Burns from Flashbacks”, the demo-like nature of “Que Dios Te Maldiga Mi Corazon”—it’s hardly persuasive when no track crosses the four and a half minute mark.
“Vigil”, the album’s third single, is where the tracklist comes into its own. With a melodic chorus and jazz drum outro, the song feels like a spiritual successor to the band’s fifth album Octahedron. Its impassioned vocal performance compliments its lyrics, which allude to Bixler-Zavala’s acrimonious split with the Church of Scientology, whose influence permeated the band’s previous full-length, Noctorniquet. “Vigil” will certainly be a choice cut on the band’s first North American trek in a decade, which begins later this month. The uptempo, rapid-fire spitting of “No Case Gain” carries a dearth of live potential as well, although a tinge of overdrive would have made its ascending chorus truly feel larger than life.
The album’s final four tracks are by far its best. Equus 3’s fuzzed guitars compliment the bright keyboards and intertwining percussion, as Bixler-Zavala delivers one of his strongest vocal performances yet. Welcomingly, the song’s ideas make headway with a short, winding keyboard solo as Bixler-Zavala commands the song’s protagonist to “say his name”. The bout of inspiration continues through “Collapsible Shoulders”, with strong verse hooks and spoken word interludes delivered over an easygoing keyboard line. The band finally achieves its pop vision on album closer “The Requisition”, which firmly establishes a new era of The Mars Volta with cascading melodies, and hearkens back to prior work with angst-riddled guitar electricity, driving keyboards, and the album’s most progressive and inspired song structure.
While The Mars Volta focuses more on sonic experimentation than songwriting experimentation, and several tracks are unfleshed and forgettable, there’s enough solid material to build on for a follow up —which Bixler-Zavala and Rodriguez-Lopez, the busiest men in progressive rock, have already begun work on. And though we may never again see the likes of an “Inertiatic Esp” or “Vismund Cygnus”, the band seems to be comfortable with their present direction—it’s just a shame that they spend most of the album’s runtime figuring out what that direction is.
Rating: ★ ★ ★
Favorite Tracks: “Vigil”, “Equus 3”, “Collapsible Shoulders”, “The Requisition”.
Least Favorite Tracks: “Graveyard Love”, “Que Dios Te Maldiga Mi Corazon”, “Cerulea”, “Flash Burns from Flashbacks”