March 08, 2005

The Mars Volta "Frances the Mute"


Let me repeat that.


My first listen to Francis The Mute left me speechless. My second listen left me speechless and emotionally drained. My third listen...well, I don't really remember it. I do remember I had to turn it off in the middle of epic "Miranda That Ghost Just Isn't Holy Anymore" because I couldn't take the onslaught any more, it was simply too much--if I continued on, I feared I wouldn't live to make it to the end. The denseness of the attack, the overwhelming force of Frances The Mute and the grandness of it all make it a record unlike anything I've heard in the last twenty years.

That's kind of an obvious thing, though, because Frances The Mute is so unlike anything that's been made in the past thirty years. It's got ties to prog rock--and artwork by Seventies-era rock legend Storm Thorgerson--but it's not prog. It's got long, epic songs--five songs in seventy-five minutes--but there's not a moment that's pompous, overblown or unnecessary. It's not indie-rock. It's not metal. It's not hard rock. It's not even really rock and roll. It doesn't really sound like anyone; it has no sonic ties whatsoever to At The Drive-In, and it doesn't really have any ties to previous Mars Volta releases, either. Strings come in and out in between blasts of guitar, while trumpets accentuate the musical attack. Cedric Bixler Zavala's singing--which flutters between Engilish and Spanish--is powerful and operatic; the nearest comparison is Jeff Buckley, but Buckley's never showed the capacity for anything quite like this, and Omar Rodriguez-Lopez's compositions are unlike any he's ever done. Compared to Frances The Mute, their debut album--the quite brilliant De-Loused In The Comatorium--utterly sucks.

A rumor a few months back indicated that the band had to concede to commerce and give the songs titles and breaks. Such a rumor sure seems true, because that's about the only compromise on Frances The Mute. Without a clear view of the CD player, you would never, ever know where each song ends and a new one begins. It's certainly true of "Cassandra Gemini," the half-hour long song that was puzzlingly divided into eight sections. Seamed together perfectly, Frances The Mute is meant to be experienced from beginning to end, and these divides really distract from the entire concept. "The Widow" is the only song that's probably suitable for radio airplay, simply because it's the only song short enough for radio play.

Okay, so Frances The Mute is not an easy listen. Why should everything be easy to grasp? Just because it's not an easy listen doesn't mean it's not an excellent record that can be enjoyed, and that's certainly true with the Mars Volta's case. I've spent the day being overwhelmed by this wonderful record, and I still feel as if I've not captured the essence of this brilliant work of art. Their songs may be dense, overwhelmingly strong and of epic length, but that doesn't take away one iota from the grand statement they're making, nor should you disregard the other most obvious thing about Frances The Mute--it's utterly beautiful.

--Joseph Kyle

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