The Mars Volta’s latest “Noctourniquet” has already been the subject of quite a bit of debate among my music-geek friends and associates. One former The Mars Volta die-hard fan, a close friend of mine, mourned their ‘death’ on Facebook last week, stating that they have become creatively bankrupt (or something similar). I don’t happen to agree that this band no longer has anything to offer us, creatively, but I think “Noctourniquet” is, overall, not their best.
Again, never a band to follow convention, “Noctourniquet” is a concept album, which in mainstream music almost always means (and has almost always meant) career suicide, but I don’t get the feeling The Mars Volta worry about that. The story behind “Noctourniquet” is pretty esoteric, even when Cedric Bixler-Zavala, the vocalist, sort of explains. I won’t go too much into his explanation, as it has already been widely written about, but at very least, combining a nursery rhyme (Solomon Grundy), with Greek myth (Hyacinthus) is intriguing.
Less intriguing, unfortunately, is some rather average drumming from Deantoni Parks, on his first outing as The Mars Volta’s drummer. Maybe we got spoiled on some of the earlier TMV albums, which featured some true virtuosos behind the kit. So far it seems that this drummer is of lesser ilk than some previous drummers. Not so evident to me was the lack of John Frusciante guitars, a mainstay in the studio for the last few albums; We all know he is good, but I didn’t notice the contribution or lack thereof.
Starting the album off, ‘The Whip Hand’ is almost easy listening compared to what we TMV fans are used to. There’s noise, the signature odd time signatures, and the operatic vocals, but this track is really tame, and for me leaves a lot hanging. It’s not the grabber that I would have expected to open the album. It’s just okay.
Track 3, ‘Dyslexicon’, picks up the heretofore slow pace a bit, and adds in the space-laser synth and distorted guitars. The vocals have a sort of call-response feel, and Bixler-Zavala starts to get into his high register. What makes this tune really interesting is the layering of sounds going on, and is more like vintage, proggy TMV than up to this point.
Track 5, ‘The Malkin Jewel’ starts out with a noise montage, complete with banjos, that could be straight from a Primus album. Moving on, it’s not a stretch to imagine a song like this featuring in a stage production, Broadway-style. The vocals vary widely, with interspersed Tom Waites-ian gruffness (or attempts), and carnival barker at various times. Interesting and growing on me.
Finally, the title track, “Noctourniquet”, again with many layers, seems drum-heavy to me, but has a lot of really cool synthy noise going on throughout. The vocals are emotional and heartfelt, more of the archetypal TMV than in some of the earlier tracks, but something in me still wants to hear more, to hear the breakout, high-pitched wail that is mostly absent on this album.
In the interest of space, I left out a lot of the track on the album. I leave it to each listener to figure out for themselves if this is what they were expecting. Is it genius, or does it fall short? Does it require the requisite 10 listens to get into the groove and understand the story? I am not sure yet, and having read a lot of very positive reviews on “Noctourniquet”, I am left wondering if I am really a dumbass and completely missing the point, or if, because it’s TMV, there can be nothing bad to say. I will say that it is a decent album, and I don’t dislike it; It is just not the best The Mars Volta have to offer. Judge for yourself. That is the beauty of music, to each his own!