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The Mars Volta - The Bedlam in Goliath

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Artist: The Mars Volta

Album: The Bedlam in Goliath

Label: Universal Motown

Review date: Jan. 28, 2008

To critics and haters, the Mars Volta’s Cedric Bixler Zavala and Omar Rodriguez Lopez will forever be known as “the guys from At the Drive In.” Which is unfair, really, especially considering they’ve been crafting specious neo-prog since the turn of the millennium. Pegging Zavala and Lopez to their post-punk past fails to take into consideration the pop-cultural sea change that allowed acts like Coheed & Cambria to trade emo earnestness for over-the-top indulgence. An entire generation of kids too young to remember Asia has embraced the musical showboating of today’s proggers. But are these bands worth a damn?

Compared to the cape-and-keyboards titans of yesteryear, hardly. The Mars Volta aim high – Yes, King Crimson, fusion-era Santana – but perpetually miss the mark. TMV’s latest major-label misfire is called The Bedlam in Goliath, and the marketing plan includes a really lame online videogame and a rather pricey USB version of the album. What they forgot to include are good songs.

The Mars Volta represents the art-noise-ethnic end of the neo-prog spectrum, with Latin-tinged beats and lengthy instrumental excursions that owe something to free jazz. But anything remotely interesting about their sound is mitigated by frustratingly obtuse “concepts” and a lack of dynamics. All the weird noises and tricky polyrhythms in the world can’t mask the fact that there’s not a lot of substance to the band’s music. And singer Zavala has one of the most grating voices in modern rock. Mixed high and effects-laden, his eunuch wail only interferes with the instrumental inanity.

I’ll cop to a handful of choice guitar moments. Lopez is at his finest when spitting single-string fire, as he does on Goliath’s spasmodic opener, “Aberinkula.” But his frenetic licks require room to breathe, a luxury they’re rarely afforded. More often, Rodriguez is pushed to the sidelines by Zavala’s relentless caterwauling. It doesn’t help that the band’s other members (eight? 10? 20?) are engaged in a battle of their own, with gobs of post-production goo slathered on top. Bob Dylan would say this record has “sound all over it,” and he’d be right.

The biggest disappointment about the Mars Volta is that they’re actually great players, who seem keen to explore. The band has probably the tightest rhythm section around, and the front line displays at least a passing understanding of the noise/experimental/ambient worlds. They just have trouble putting the pieces together in a compelling way.

And by God, the lyrics are terrible. “It’s only a matter of folding time and space before I become your epidemic,” Zavala sings on “Cavelettas.” Although Goliath is the first TMV release not to have a central theme, it was informed by a “haunting” involving a cursed Ouija board that Rodriguez picked up in Jerusalem. I’m not about to taunt the supernatural, but it sounds like they were communicating with the ghost of a 14-year-old Dungeon Master with a thing for bad adjectives.

This nonsense has gone on long enough. Mars Volta, it’s time to shit or get off the prog-rock pot.

By Casey Rae-Hunter

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