Written by: Goran Child, Special to CC2K
Mars Volta's latest album is not a grower or a shower.
What words, what humble signifiers to describe Octahedron, the fifth album from At the Drive-In’s more intoxicated faction (plus sundry-other formidable musicians) the Mars Volta? Does language even stretch far enough to articulate what the collective who teased us with the Tremulant EP, before battering us into mute appreciation with De-Loused in the Comatorium, and overwhelmed us into aphasic awestruck grunts with Frances the Mute (and then, admittedly, went a bit average with Amputechture and The Bedlam in Goliath) has just released?
Yes, words do suffice for once, and here are a few: tedious, prosaic, comfortable.
A ‘grower’? A ‘slow-burner’? Nah, only ardent apologists would try those euphemisms. For an LP to be a ‘grower’, it has to hint at latent sincerities, subterranean profundities of theme, narrative, or sound. Richard and Linda Thompson’s I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight is a “slow-burner;” Blood Brothers’ …Burn, Piano Island, Burn is a “grower.” Octahedron is neither: it gives up its meagre secrets on the first listen, when at least there is the flickering hope of an impending gush of wow (this is the Mars Volta, after all) to half-nelson the listener to the floor.
But the album is also curiously pretentious, with a song titled “With Twilight as My Guide” leading to the presumption that Cliff Richard must share writing credit somewhere in the liner notes. All self-pitying acoustic guitar, cheap-sounding atmospherics lifted straight off of guitarist Omar Rodriguez-Lopez’s almost embarrassingly cumbersome solo output (or, indeed, that of collaborator John Frusciante), and sporadic bits of vocal histrionics that try in vain to raise the pulse. One can only assume that the band’s record label thought, “Oh, forget actually listening to this: everybody who was originally going to buy this record will buy it regardless of its quality, probably on its release date, and then loudly discuss its merits at college/in the street/on public transport,” and left it at that.
Ordinarily, a track like “Cotopaxi,” a three-minute burst of unremarkable post-hardcore which beguiles at first, but is quickly discovered to be a bit of a one-trick pony, or “Teflon,” which is sporadically engaging but labours embarrassingly over what is a transparently short stock of ideas, would be the weakest songs on a Mars Volta album—but here they are amongst the best, especially when one considers that the former is followed by the almost unbearably bland “Desperate Graves,” which in turn gives way to “Copernicus,” whose seven-minute length doesn’t nearly describe the positively biblical length of time for which it seems to drag on (like this sentence). Octahedron works off the assumption that, left to its own devices and given a liberal amount of time, an uninspiring set of melodies will organically gel into a sum far greater than its paltry constituents. But this theory proves bunk, as one forgettable aural endurance test passes limply into the next with absolutely no flash of anything approaching ingenuity.
As closer “Luciforms” contorts itself like an impoverished hooker before an oil baron, unspeakably desperate to wring some degree of posterity for this record (and, to be fair, succeeding in doing so far, far more than any of Octahedron’s seven other moribund limbs), one has to wonder whether this ruptured, useless gallbladder of an album, in making it three anti-climactic CDs on the bounce for the group, might just have temporarily emasculated their long-held status as an automatically ‘good band’ whose range of merchandise is cool to own.
Octahedron, much like the band itself, is often permeated by unruliness. This trait has always been present in the band’s sound, but more frequently as a creative aid. Here, however, it is a hindrance preventing the album from becoming anything other than a chore to experience. 2009 probably won’t hear as flaccid, lazy, and possibly even arrogant a 50 minutes.