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The Mars Volta: Frances the Mute

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The Mars Volta’s debut, “Deloused in the Comatorium” was one of the most amazing albums I’d heard for years. It somehow managed to combine the raw energy of punk with the complexity of full-blown prog-rock to produce something that completely transcended genre boundaries.

The followup pushes things even further. All the ingredients from “Deloused” are still here; soaring vocals, frenetic instrumental sections, incomprehensible song titles like “Cygnus…Vismund Cygnus” and “Plant a nail in the navel stream”. But they’ve added more; now alongside the machinegun drums and Frippesque guitars we have string sections and mariachi trumpets.

The 75-minute running time is split into just five tracks, with lyrics as strange as anything by Jon Anderson or Pete Sinfield, but an order of magnitude darker; twisted and disturbing, they’re not the things audiences are going to sing along with. But this album’s not really about the lyrics, it’s about the music.

And what music! This disc is far varied that their debut. There’s “The Widow”, at seven minutes the shortest track on the album, strongly bluesy in a way that recall’s Muse’s version of “Feeling Good”. Elsewhere we get fleeting glimpses of the improvisational King Crimsons of the mid 70s and mid 90s, flashes of psychedelic-era Pink Floyd and blasts of anarchic sax and sci-fi noises that recall Hawkwind’s “Space Ritual”. Some might label the lengthy instumental sections of the epic “Cassandra Geminni” as self-indulgent, but I just can’t agree; there’s a hypnotic quality about them, and the quiet bits break up into instrumental anarchy just before the overstay their welcome.

Overall, a superb album, and proof that “Difficult second album syndrome” simply doesn’t happen to great bands.

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About Tim Hall

  • You must have the Itunes version of the album – the CD is split into 12 separate tracks (“Miranda” and “Cassandra” are broken up by their subsections.)

    If you do have the Itunes version, can you check something? On the CD, it’s track 9, from around 3:40 on – unfortunately I can’t tell you where in the single-track version that is, but listen for static that sounds unnatural, like a bad disc. The forum at The Comatorium lit up the week it came out with dozens of complaints about this problem. My disc suffers from it too, and I even exchanged it for another – same problem persists, but in slightly different places and volumes. I’m curious to know if the Itunes version has these errors, too. It is, without a doubt, unintentional. I’ve heard my share of bad pressings and this is certainly one. I have a feeling, however, that at an average price of about $6.99 consumers are going to have a hard time getting the label to take this seriously and offer replacements. Is it copy-protection gone awry? No one seems to know, but it is on Universal, who are apparently putting out discs with copy-protection, even in the US where our fair-use rights should make this cumbersome attempt at preventing copies basically illegal.

  • I’m describing it as having five tracks because “Miranda” and “Cassandra” are each continuous pieces of music. Perhaps I should have used the word “Song” rather than “Track”, but song is hardly the word to use for 20+ minutes of anything on the album.

    On my CD, “Miranda” is one long track, while “Cassandra” is split into eight sections , even though the liner notes only list five parts.

    I have an EU-made CD, and there’s no sign of any static on track 9; this supports your belief that it’s a (US) pressing problem.

  • Thanks Tim, that at least clears up that mystery. Now if only Universal would fix the problem . . .