When a beloved band breaks up and fades away into the ether, it’s always heart breaking. In my case, I had only just discovered The Mars Volta in 2012, mere months before they put that band to bed seemingly for good. After all, few, if any bands sounded quite like The Mars Volta, and for better (and occasionally for worse), they operated on a level of sustained chaos that often birthed masterpieces even in the face of disaster and tragedy. I had missed out on something special, and it didn’t seem very likely that it would ever be back.
So fast forward to 2019, when the first rumblings of Cedric Bixler Zavala and Omar Rodriguez Lopez restarting the project started hitting music media. Given the pair’s track record of starting an eye-watering amount of bands together, it seemed like one of those things that COULD very well happen, or just as well have been them simply thinking out loud and meaning nothing. And as the next few years passed, it seemed less and less likely that anything actually was to come of those rumors (besides the impressive vinyl reissues of their back catalog). But finally, the band began to dribble out new material over the summer of 2022 with an impressive art installation that previewed their first new song in ten years, reintroducing the band to the world in the most Volta way possible.
Billing this as their “pop” record, and having heard the singles, I knew it would be boneheaded of me to expect anything like the Volta of old. Even before their break up, the band was stepping further away from the wild insanity of material like Frances the Mute and Bedlam in Goliath and into moodier, more measured work within shorter song lengths and traditional structures. And with this new self titled record, they’ve finally fully committed those impulses, shedding off all pretext of prog rock and crafting an album that’s far more focused on beautiful soundscapes, confessional lyricism, immediate melodies, and groovy hooks all drenched in Latin percussion and textures. Restraint is rarely a word that has been used to describe The Mars Volta’s music, but nowhere in their discography is that word more applicable than on this album. For one thing, only a small handful of songs even pass the four minute mark, meaning that these songs are tight, focused, and concise, and the guitar heroics of their past are essentially non-existent, replaced by subtle leads, intricate chord progressions, and effects that swirl and burble beneath the surface of Cedric’s vocal melodies. And ironically, despite the fact that these songs are very much reigned in and musically conservative, these quietly gorgeous compositions are among the band’s most meticulously constructed and detailed. Nothing here feels superfluous or out of place, and nowhere does it feel like anyone is overplaying for the sake of showing off or padding time. Everything here serves the songs, not the musicians playing them, clearing the way for Cedric to step into the foreground more than ever vocally.
Because while past Volta records were an equal balance between long, searching instrumental passages and piercing vocals, on this self titled record Cedric is the glue holding it all together. Given the turbulent few years Cedric and his wife have had in regards to dealing with the cult of Scientology and the sexual abuse perpetrated by actor Danny Masterson, Cedric has a deep well of trauma and pain to dig into on this album, and he uses these gentle musical canvases as a foil on which to spill that pain. But if you weren’t listening closely to the lyrics – which are the most straightforward and honest of Cedric’s career – you’d really never even notice the darkness at this album’s core: his vocals are some of the most gorgeous that he’s ever laid down on record, switching up his trademark yowls and piercing highs for an easy, mellifluous stroll through his upper range. Despite being nearly 50, his voice sounds absolutely pristine here, casually hitting high notes vocalists half his age would struggle with. And beyond that, he uses these clean, expansive vocals to underpin every song with stirring melodies, fully embracing the strong melodic songwriting that was always hidden at the core of Volta’s older stuff.
But for as gorgeous and well put together as this album is, there are a few nagging complaints that don’t allow it to quite rise to the high water marks of their older work. While the new direction feels earnest and real, and both the sound design and songwriting is strong, it also feels like too much of a good thing. This record suffers terribly from a lack of variety, with most of the songs sitting in a similar tempo and mood that rarely budges. Occasionally there’s a flash of energy in songs like “No Case Gain” or the sensual simmer of “Graveyard Love”, but overall, this album already starts to blend together even by the time it arrives at its back half. With Cedric already restraining himself to more laid back vocals, the melodies on each track blur, and the instrumentation suffers from the same issue. While focusing so much on creating a cohesive mood across the record, they stepped a little too far in one direction and lost some of the excitement that truly makes The Mars Volta what they are. Obviously, they don’t have to put the pedal to the metal like on The Bedlam in Goliath, but it feels like some more energy of a different kind could’ve been injected into at least a couple of these songs in order to create a little more drama and tension, especially to bolster the impact of the heavy subject matter. If they continue exploring this direction, I hope that this album is something of a starting point in which to ground a new sound, and that they use it to explore and expand the way they so adventurously did on every album before. Because as it stands, it feels like they may have already exhausted this sound as-is by the time “The Requisition” closes things out.
Despite the huge jump in sound on this new self titled album, for the most part, I feel like the band has succeeded in forging a new path for themselves. Long time fans are surely going to be divided on this record, and that’s fair. After all, it’s a big ask for fans of intense prog rock to come along willingly for a Latin inspired pop rock album, and it won’t be everyone’s thing. But for me The Mars Volta were always a band that were selfish with their vision and more than willing to follow their muse into whatever direction felt vital and necessary to them, consequences be damned. That devotion to musical self-satisfaction is what so often led to genre-defying work that thrills and excites to this day, and is the very reason the band was so dearly missed in the first place. This album might not peel the paint off of anyone’s walls with conceptual drama and musical fireworks, but it IS the result of the band doing that same thing they’ve always done: following their muse as far as it will take them. So while The Mars Volta can occasionally suffer from a bit of same-yness, it still feels essential and unique, because it offers a completely new sound and experience that can’t be found anywhere else in the band’s catalog. After a decade apart, The Mars Volta have proved that their original raison d’etre is fully intact, and I believe it more than justifies the band’s re-emergence from the ashes.
I know I can’t wait to see where it takes them next.