The Mars Volta’s “Octahedron” may very well be the most electronic “acoustic” album ever made. When mastermind Omar Rodriguez-Lopez told reporters shortly after completing “The Bedlam in Goliath” that their next album would be an acoustic affair, he didn’t mean for that to be taken so literally. Perhaps choosing to say “stripped down” would have been more appropriate, as any long time fan will notice upon first listen. The Mars Volta has always been a love or hate band, with some fans jumping back and forth with each prolific release. Generally, those who lie on the hate side are there due to the constant noodling, over stimulation, and all around lack of restraint in their music. For all those who have hoped they would reign in their sound and write more concise songs, this album is for you. Those who love their spastic Latin-prog freak-outs will still find elements to excite, but with a severely subdued aggression. While in scaling back mode, “Octahedron” clocks in at just fifty minutes, a significant departure from their usual eighty. The day when a Mars Volta album could be considered calm and soothing has arrived, and all those willing to listen are in for a surprise.
“Since We’ve Been Wrong,” the album’s lead single opens the record with a telling start for the tone of the album. A quiet, nearly inaudible atmospheric hum washes in for over a minute and half before the semi-acoustic Latin tinged finger picked guitars make their presence known. Cedric Bixlar Zavala’s voice is given more than its chance to shine on this album, due to the majority of slow churning ballads. With the usual effects taken off the vocals, Zavala proves he has one of the best and most unique voices in rock music. The somber mood mystically wanders, as the song eventually picks up a bit of volume toward the middle of the five minute mark. To everyone waiting for the next radio friendly track ala “The Widow,” your time has arrived. “Teflon” picks up the tempo just slightly with the usual constant pounding drum fills of Thomas Pridgen deeply restrained; a testament to his talent as a drummer. Still holding down tight rhythmic presence, it is a far cry from the free jazz explosions fans are used to. There are several instances with the band briefly stretching into its usual chaos, only instead of the entire band bursting out at once; it is singularly manifested by one musician at a time. Zavala’s lyrics remain as cryptic as ever with tales of abduction, abuse, and foreboding danger at every turn. “Halo of Nembutals” delivers a simplistic atmosphere from the guitars while the rhythm section once again controls the “accessible” structuring from a band that rarely seems to know the word. Keep in mind this is still very much The Mars Volta, so all uses of “accessibility” are relative. The track progresses into a mild whirlwind towards the end of the track that features small doses of the spastic energy of their earlier efforts, but never seems to take off.
“With Twilight as my Guide” continues the feverishly slow tempo, as Rodriguez-Lopez displays he’s more than the hyperactively dizzying composer, as he sits back in the atmospheric calm. Completely drum free, the track is soothing with Zavala’s mysterious lyrics, “The devil makes me dream, like no other mortal dreams”. Musical variety has never been a problem, but with the tempo at a constant lull, “Octahedron” lives in a constant Prozac-esque state before “Cotopaxi”. This breath of fresh air slams right into the typical Volta fashion with the entire band kicking back into a structured yet frenzied jam. The change in pace is greatly welcome, as their familiar bombastic stomp adds some much needed texture. Zavala passionately sings “don’t stop dragging the lake,” with the forceful attitude and swagger of the raucous prog-funk outburst of the music. The return to form is however fleeting, with “Desperate Graves” winding back towards the relatively mellow. Pridgen does dazzle with interesting timing and free form exploration on the drums, leading to a beautifully gradual build and release. The lyrics of the entire album truly leave multiple listens and a fare share of research required to gain any insight as to their meanings, with Zavala switching between the victim and the antagonist with seemingly no warning. On “Copernicus” he delicately croons “the solution inhaled from the rag I hold, holds a maximum vacancy,” over sparse guitar and bass down tempo plucks. Electronic fuzz and rhythmic trickling add some texture but the song ultimately doesn’t depart from where it begins.
“Luciforms,” the only track to break the eight minute mark closes the album with an intro of more endlessly quiet atmospherics. When the vocals drop however, it becomes apparent they’re going out with a bang, as the filtered effects of the past two albums control the wavy tone of Zavala’s delivery. Pridgen’s animated drums storm overtop of Omar’s blistering solo as the band hit the climax for the record, directly at its end. The explosion is a long time coming, as opposed to the usual stranglehold from the opening notes of the album until the very last measure of music, but in part feels all the more refreshing. The Mars Volta has proven they can write “songs” just as well as their usual psychedelic jamming and aural carnage. Depending on the listener, it is hard to say whether the majority of this album and its review are positive or negative. Where the band will go from here is anyone’s guess, but personally I’m hoping its back towards the sonic mayhem only they can produce.