The Mars Volta makes rock exciting again with ‘Frances the Mute’

Jon Dieringer

Mars Volta’s latest album, Frances The Mute,

features 75 minutes of music but only five songs.

Credit: Beth Rankin

Since At the Drive-In broke up and split into two other groups, one thing is clear: Sparta may have gotten three-fifths of the band, but The Mars Volta got 100 percent of the talent.

Like Refused before them, as soon as Omar Rodriguez-Lopez and Cedric Bixler Zavala forged the shape of punk to come, they grew tired of the format’s restraints and audiences’ expectations.

With The Mars Volta, they lose none of their earlier band’s unconventional chord structures and atmospheric, effects-laden solos but are now free to experiment with song structures, bilingual lyrics and Afro-Cuban beats — think King Crimson jamming with Fugazi, and that’s a good start.

On Frances the Mute, The Mars Volta has managed the difficult task of making its last album sound tight and focused. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but the textural experiments and extended periods of ambient noise aren’t for the casual listener.

The lyrics are largely inspired by film, and Rodriguez-Lopez’s suggestions of man grafting to machinery are very much along the lines of a David Cronenberg film, while the stranger with “fasting black lungs made of clove splintered shards” of “The Widow” fits the Yojimbo anti-hero archetype nicely.

I remember reading an article once that said The Who made Tommy before there was such a thing as “pretentious rock ‘n’ roll.” Listening to Frances the Mute, you wouldn’t know it ever existed in the first place, and you’d be better for it.

Contact Pop Arts reporter Jon Dieringer at [email protected].