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The Mars Volta - Frances The Mute
by Mark Hensch

Five Star: A look at albums that are so good that they impress even the most cynical of critics. Very few albums are superior enough to obtain a five star rating but occasionally a band slips through the river of mediocrity that is the modern music industry and they produce an album that restores our faith in the future of rock! This series is a look at such albums. 

Once upon a time, a great sense of conformity befell a community of people who despite many differences shared a common bond in the interest of music. This sense cursed most of the community, sickening them with a fathomless cynicism so far reaching that there was no cure. So spoke the victims of this hellish condition "There is no music that is boundless or free; we are doomed to a lifetime of repetition and trend-following musical arts that bore and exhaust us." Some of these unfortunates even dared to say "this curse is so great; soon we will lose all interest in music itself!" Those lucky enough to not be burdened with the plague of musical boredom looked far and wide for a cure; it took a while, but eventually it was found. It was the serum known as The Mars Volta.

I went a bit biblical with the intro to this review as to many ignorant people who I have heard speak about my single greatest life passion, music, that music is never again going to be interesting, innovative, or exciting. It really is that serious. But it needn't be ever again. I've always been a fan of bands that push boundaries be they in any genre (I've spent the last week divulging in The Mars Volta, Meshuggah, and Enslaved, a pretty odd crowd) and I always tell those cynical music fans out there that with a little looking, you can find almost anything appealing and fresh at the same time. After hearing the follow-up to the genre-bending conglomerate that was The Mars Volta's debut, De-Loused in the Comatorium, I can safely say without any doubt that a person hearing this album can never mock music's eternal soul ever again.

Call me a fanatic, but music has a quality to it that should inspire fervent worship in it's amazing power to do just about anything. Rock has torn down Iron Curtains, scared entire societies of "free-minded people" (thus exposing their very hypocrisies) and done the greatest thing of all, change human minds to think in a different light.

On Frances the Mute, the Mars Volta take every known (or maybe even unknown) musical genre, perfect it, and than mix it without effort into a concoction that is cohesive yet barely contained. To make things even more mind-blowing, the Mars Volta wrap this insane musical style around a concept album, a sort of surrealist parody of the life events of former programmer/keyboardist Jeremy Ward, who died shortly after the band's first release. Ward had once found an odd diary that detailed an unnamed person's life, and strangely it was very similar to his own; both were adopted and never knew their real parents. On Frances, the TMV crafts what is in my mind a space-rock opera, an intergalactic ghost story within a ghost story. A lost soul's memory is found by a man, and the man's soul is channeled by the     people who loved him, fueling their lives through their loss.

Something is definitely possessing the TMV on this album for sure. "Cygnus....Vismund Cygnus" introduces the story's protagonist (with an amusing Bond reference) and some spacey folk rock. What explodes next is a trippy funk beast with dripping guitar solos and fiery bass lines. The 13 minute tune also eclipses an amazing lo-fi guitar jam, ambient washes of peaceful bliss for frontman Cedric Bixler Zavala's vocals, and even a growing string arrangement with violins. 

"The Widow" is a morose ballad for the Internet Age, and again Omar A. Rodriguez-Lopez's spacey guitaring totally blows some neurons. "L'Via l'Viaquez" is the height of the power of a confident Mars Volta. On this 12 and a half minute freak-out there are innumerable arena rock solos, bilingual (Spanish-English) vocals, and (I kid you not) keyboard laden salsa breakdowns. 

"L'via" is easily one of the best songs I have heard in the last six months, and maybe ever. "Miranda, that Ghost Just Isn't Holy Anymore" is another 13+ minute opus that starts with minimal samples and soon leads a sinister and brooding song that will drop some jaws. It's as if the spacey rock of previous TMV efforts channeled the lifeform of E.T. and now it's transformed into the acid-spewing Alien, hunting marines in a dark spaceship lost in the stars. The half hour epitome of genius is "Cassandra Gemini", which encompasses (among too many things to list) a sneering set of vocals from Zavala, voice box effects, jazzy flutes and noir guitar work, and a favorite of mine that I will describe as a piano being pushed down the stairs with an ambient guitar into the umbra reaches of a black hole. Let's not also forget enough crazy brass section solos to make Mr. Bungle crap their pants.

In conclusion, this is what happens when a group of people decide to do whatever they damn well please, even if it is pushing a piano into outer space with electronic salsa grooves in the background. The TMV has created a genre so ahead of its time (and I honestly believe this album has that much "classic" potential) that it is literally impossible to define it in current titles or phrases. Let me be the first to coin a new genre then, and I shall christen the sound "Cerebal Spectre Rock." Like a ghost haunting one's brainstem, the Mars Volta will make you think, feel, and most importantly, wonder if this is the boundary that no one else can surpass. Let's just say I can't wait till Frances The Mute is no longer the ghost of TMV present and rather the ghost of TMV past; clearly whatever is coming next will blow all of our minds.

More Info 

The Mars Volta - Frances The Mute
Rating (should be 6 stars)

Track Listing:
1. Cygnus...Vismund Cygnus
     a) Sacrophagi
     b) Umbilical Syllables
     c) Facilis Descenus Averni
     d) Con Safo
2. The Widow
3. L'via L'Viaquez
4. Miranda That Ghost Just Ain't Holy Anymore
     a) Vade Mecum
     b) Pour Another Icepick
     c) Pisacis (Phra-Men-Ma)
     d) Con Safo
5. Cassandra Geminni
     a) Tarantism
     b) Plant a Nail in the Navel Stream
     c) Famine Pulse
     d) Multiple Spouse Wounds
     e) Sarcophagi

author's note: Many of the Frances tunes include "sub-chapters" to each song. The sub-chapters have been listed for your reading pleasure.

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