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The Mars Volta - Amputechture Review

by Mark Hensch

Since the Mars Volta emerged as a separate entity from the ashes of At the Drive In (and in my opinion, they've a much better musical output for it), the work that the Mars Volta has put forth has been amongst the most challenging and forward-thinking of any genre. In fact, this might be some of the most innovative music in years. From the initial Tremulant EP to subsequent releases like De-Loused in the Comatorium, Frances the Mute, and now the equally weighty Amputechture, the Mars Volta have always done things their way, all in the name of original music.

The spirit of free-form, non-linear jamming found most notably on the expansive epic that was Frances the Mute takes center stage on Amputechture. The reason for this spirit of independence on each song is the fact this album marks the first full-length that the Mars Volta didn't pen a concept for the album. While Comatoriumdealt with a friend's descent into a coma and the visions he may have had in said state, and Frances was a search for a lost family off a mysterious diary, Amputechture has no defining theme and lacks the unified cohesion of the first albums. In some way, this is no big change; many complained that the narratives on prior albums were too confusing and schizophrenic to be followed anyways. Nevertheless, listeners find themselves force to indulge in nothing but the music itself, no easy feat. Always a difficult listen, The Mars Volta have actually crafted their most streamlined, accessible album on Amputechture. Of course, this isn't saying much, as this seventy-seven minute behemoth of a disc will still shatter all of your musical conventions. Various modes of thinking assault you, and the new, non-linear approach makes things even more disorienting, with no theme to grasp amidst all the chaos. Though they've always blown minds, here the Mars Volta blows existences.

Upon first hearing the delicate "Vicarious Atonement" one could be forgiven for thinking this will be an easy (though highly unique) ride through spectral experimental hard rock. Starting off with hollow, jangling hums, a swell of shoegazing noise leads into a cross of Pink Floyd's more ethereal moments and blazing arena rock balladry. Cedric's vocals hover in a void of claustrophobic, soft, and subtle angst. A rich backdrop of organ hums lets the esoteric guitar notes stand on their own two feet, as Cedric wails and croons in trudging melancholy. In one of the most straightforward moves the band has ever had, the song moves into a quasi-piano ballad with patient bass lines, billowing vocals, and sorrow-laden saxophone. The song leads into a massive finish, the likes of which sets a pick for the gigantic epic that is "Tetragrammaton."

"Tetragrammaton" has plenty going for it besides a fantastic name. Thundering percussion leads into bombastic, hellacious guitar wanking and some of the strangest brass blowing you're going to hear this side of Mr. Bungle. At around sixteen-eighteen minutes (sorry I have no times for the tracks, and I'm guessing) the song switches back and forth between oft-kilter rhythms at the start, quiet frameworks of abstract themes, and the more typical explosions of multi-textured freakouts. Huge, numbing, and a listen so good it borders on masochism, the song had me winching, grimacing, and laughing at how insane it was. So frequent were my varied expressions that my college roommate had to hear it too, and has now been converted to the cult of the Mars Volta. The best part definitely appears mid-epic, with a fluid solo that twists and turns throughout astonished eardrums. Excellent music....

The shorter "Vermicide" oozes out next, a rumbling clash echoing behind spiraling chords that rise into the sun and burn away. Cedric's vocals are drenched in random swatches of reverb, adding a very trippy feel to the song. The surprisingly obvious chorus structure here means this might be the closest the album has to a single, and the various ways they twist the main tune into different forms will have your head spinning. A simplistic, raucous joy of a song.

"Meccamputechture" has a mild Blood Brothers vibe to it, Cedric spewing hyper screeches as the song builds into a sugar-coated trance rave laced with arsenic-drenched Latin music. It is probably one of my favorites on the disc, and the song's surreal sense of groove and airtight fretwork marks a real shift in the spirit of rock 'n roll. In a common theme of the disc, the lyrics are much less obtuse and even catchier; this (and a large number of the other songs) are chock full of exquisite sing-along moments.

"Meccamputechture" marks the advent of the truly balls-to-the-wall rock portion of the album, and its hedonistic guitar wanking sets a precedent that the rest of the disc thankfully follows.

"Asilos Magdalena" glides in on wings of vaguely oriental chord progressions, the likes of which lead into first a multi-ethnic, bilingual ballad and later morphs into the pulsing tempo of "Viscera Eyes."

"Viscera Eyes" sways with revelry and intoxicating Latin funk/groove, bolstered to arena capacity. It isn't ever afraid to indulge in the band's more free-form style, and as such, by the end has devolved into a largely indescribable free-jazz cum Latin fusion.

The exquisite "Day of the Baphomets" has a conga-funk rhythm to it, and some deep bass lines. A stabbing guitar line shimmies up and down before the band proceeds to rock your face off with an interstellar rocket ride through universes of jazz, swing, samba, hard rock, and Lord knows what else. The jungle beat percussion combined with all manner of random ethnic nods makes for a very eclectic mix, and a fantastic song.

Closing things down is "El Ciervo Vulnerado," which is actually rather anti-climatic. At first, the song ebbs and flows with washes of ambient, special noise; Cedric whispers dark, unnerving gibberish as bass slowly but surely plods along. A guitar enters; it is quiet, threatening. Some Middle-Eastern notes drift by, and then the entire album abruptly ends. It is a jarring effect, but perhaps not a welcome one.

Amputechture dips so far into the well of potential you can't help but wonder where all the water went in the first place. It is always interesting seeing where this band has gone, and each new installment has something new. As a whole, Amputechture runs the gamut from unique soft rock to bombastic, insane, and unique hard rock. It marks the first time the band has ever really explored the dynamics between even delicate bliss and crushing heavy-music strength. It seems the more I spin this album, the more I like it. And to wit, let's say I liked it a lot the first spin it got. Grueling, majestic, and utterly on its own in this world, there is something divine about Amputechture. Five freaking stars!

1. Vicarious Atonement
2. Tetragrammaton
3. Vermicide
4. Meccamputechture
5. Asilos Magdalena
6. Viscera Eyes
7. Day of the Baphomets
8. El Ciervo Vulnerado

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