Happy 10th Anniversary to The Mars Volta’s fifth studio album Octahedron, originally released June 23, 2009.
I was something of a late comer to El Paso’s post-hardcore punk outfit At the Drive-in. By the time I’d purchased and consumed what would be the band’s final (at least at the time we thought it would be) record Relationship of Command (2000), the band had already splintered off into two factions.
The Mars Volta are led by vocalist Cedric Bixler-Zavala and guitarist Omar Rodríguez-López and write-ups in the music press indicated that their sound had morphed into various strange avenues of prog-metal and experimental noodling.
The other band, Sparta, featured At the Drive-in’s guitarist Jim Ward, who took up lead vocals, with At the Drive-In’s drummer Tony Hajjar and bassist Paul Hinojos. By all accounts, Sparta were the continuation of the key elements of At the Drive-in’s more robust thrashing and screaming aesthetics. Surely then Sparta would be the band that I’d naturally move towards.
This was almost the case except for an angel that descended from the record stacks in a UK Virgin Megastore sometime in 2003. Browsing the stacks of the “Rock and Metal” sections, I had Sparta’s debut Wiretap Scars and Mars Volta’s Deloused in the Comatorium in hand, but with only enough cash to purchase one. As I weighed up each record based on their physical merits, my angel arrived in the form of a long-haired grunger who just happened to observe my dilemma in passing.
“Go with the Mars Volta record,” he said peering over my shoulder “you won’t be disappointed.” Taken aback by the presumptuousness of the comment I simply raised by brows and muttered something along the lines of “Really? You think so?” My angel continued,
“Seriously. It’s amazing.” He walked off into the store and I didn’t see him again. I shouted out a quick thank you and reshelved the Sparta record. I proceeded to the desk to make my purchase and here is where began the deep dive into a long and continuing obsession.
The Mars Volta challenged my preconceptions of how rock music can communicate and broaden the mind. Deloused was by all accounts a wild ride of crashing and swaying drums, nosebleed inducing riffs and obtuse lyrics that sounded like they were offcuts from a heavy-handed sci-fi novel. But in its own mad terms, the record worked beautifully and the band’s subsequent albums, Frances the Mute (2005), Amputecture (2006) and Bedlam in Goliath (2008), whilst not having as much as an impact as Deloused, were still consumed in short order at the time and have been in heavy rotation ever since. These records continued the aural assault and incorporated freak-out jazz breakdowns, salsa, and even more wild and disturbing lyrical imagery.
Then an odd thing happened. In the late spring of 2009, I traveled to Canada to get married. The honeymoon was short; three days in fact and I returned to the UK alone whilst my new wife stayed behind in Canada and applied for a permanent UK spousal visa. For eight weeks I rattled around the house alone and desperate for distractions.
Distraction came in the form of Octahedron, The Mars Volta’s fifth record. Though at this point, my love of the band had dwindled, Octahedron offered something different. As was the case, I listened to a few leaked tracks online and found that what was offered was softer, more straightforward compositions. For the most part, the wild mutations into acid drenched guitar solos and the idea of throwing four songs into the space of one was scaled back.
Unlike previous Mars Volta records there is no overall unifying narrative that drives the lyrical content or overall sound. Octahedron is more a collection of songs that exemplify the band’s strengths. Despite guitarist Rodríguez-López leading the overall sound and style of the band, the greatest strength here is Bixler-Zavala’s explosive vocal performance. Bixler-Zavala’s voice has never sounded better than on this record. The opening track, “Since We’ve Been Wrong,” is a prime example of where Bixler-Zavala’s vocals were at. Throughout the slow, tender ballad that eventually breaks into a thumping crescendo of drums, Bixler-Zavala’s voice coos, whispers and emotes beautifully.
Then there is “With Twilight As My Guide,” in which Bixler-Zavala’s voice becomes something best described as operatic. In fact, so much so that opera singer Renée Fleming would later cover the song for her 2010 record Dark Hope. The composition is barely changed in Fleming’s version.
Of course, this being a Mars Volta record, there are places where the core Volta sound prevails. Songs such as “Cotopaxi” and “Teflon” offer up the same thrill and swagger as any of the band’s previous recordings, but they feel more compact and are better for it in this case.
To say that Deloused in the Comatorium and The Mars Volta themselves occupied my time for the subsequent years would be something of an understatement. Deloused, to this day is a record I return to often, and whilst I know most of the avenues and twists it takes almost by heart it always surprises me with new elements that arise out of the bluster.
The band’s other pursuits have also given me days of listening pleasure and I see The Mars Volta and At the Drive-in not as the motherbands of Cedric Bixler-Zavala and Omar Rodríguez-López, but rather as individual aspects of a larger creative picture that has transpired over the last two decades and incorporated many bands and collaborations. Like any release from these two, Octahedron has its place in this larger picture. It is a Mars Volta record that yields a more refined enjoyment. Whilst it offers adventurism, it also offers restraint.