The Mars Volta: Noctourniquet – Music Review
By Justin Polak
Co-founder, Ambassador to the Mushroom Kingdom
Back in 2005 I remember that I had enough. Nearly every website I frequented kept talking about this Mars Volta band, and how amazing their latest album was. I decided to see what the fuss was about, not knowing anything about the band, and checked out Frances the Mute. My progressive rock upbringing probably influenced my reaction, but I suddenly saw why people wouldn’t shut up about the album. From there, I had Frances and their first album in constant rotation all summer long. I became a Mars Volta fan.
I have followed the band ever since that summer, though not nearly as hardcore as some of their most devout fans can get. Although I never heard anything by them quite as good as Frances the Mute, I have to admit that vocalist Cedric Bixler-Zavala and guitarist/director Omar Rodríguez-López are quite the pair. I appreciate their experimental approach to music, too. There aren’t many bands anymore that sound like The Mars Volta.
With Noctourniquet, the formula has once again been shaken up, but those familiar with the band will notice a bigger departure this time around. The most notable difference is that the songs are much more compact than usual. The longest track clocks in at about seven and a half minutes, and the rest are about the average length of a more conventional song. I’m not complaining , because for the most part the band’s complex nature of songwriting still shines as bright as ever, and it’s refreshing hearing what The Mars Volta can do without venturing close to or over a double digit track time. For example, it was nice to hear a brief droning synth effect instead of one that lasted a few minutes in length. I’m not saying that the departure totally transforms the band. If you played this for me years ago, even without Bixler-Zavala’s distinctive vocals, I would have been able to identify the band.
Speaking of which, I have to say that Bixler-Zavala’s vocals has always been used very effectively as an additional instrument. With this album, he mixes with the rest of the band better than ever before. I particularly loved the way he sung in “In Absentia.” I also liked the heavier use of electronic elements in Noctourniquet. While I thought the opening track “The Whip Hand” was a bit of an odd one to start out with, I was pleasantly surprised with the fact that a buzzing electronic sound took most of the attention during the chorus. From the get-go, I can almost hear Rodríguez-López saying that this is going t be a different album.
While Noctourniquet finishes strongly with “Zed and Two Naughts,” the album did kind of lose steam towards the end for me. In fact, as much as I enjoyed this album, I can’t help but feel that there is something missing in general. Again, I appreciate the different approach to the album and the shorter track lengths, but something is just off. However, I also felt disappointed with the last couple of albums at first, but they eventually grew on me, so maybe this is the same type of deal.
I will admit that most of this stems from the fact that I am very hung up on TMV’s first two albums. I really hate saying things like that because even before being a hipster became a thing, far too many people would say something like I just said (i.e. “I only liked [band]‘s first album) just to sound superior. I guess my situation is kind of like a fan following a long running television show. When you first get into it, everything seems to fresh and magical, but eventually you get used to how things work. Eventually, you realize that no matter what, nothing can replicate that feeling of freshness and you can either choose to let it ruin your experience or accept that the creators are at a different place than they were years ago.
In terms of how this relates to Noctourniquet, I do realize that The Mars Volta’s earlier works is many years behind them. This album was still an enjoyable experience for me, but I also yearn for how earlier works were put together. If you’re a huge fan, you’ll love this album like the rest of them, but if you are more like me, you might be left feeling a little conflicted after the final song stops playing.
Front page image and interior photo by Eliot Lee Hazel, courtesy of Warner Bros. Records.