(All Album Reviews by Epilepticgibbon)
Two years ago a couple of members of the now defunct group At The Drive-In formed The Mars Volta and released De-loused In The Comatorium, certainly one of the most talked-about albums of 2003. It gained rave reviews from many music magazines and ended up fairly the near the top of many people's albums of the year. Not mine, though; I liked the album, describing it as surprisingly fresh, experimental and inventive, but I also criticized the band for a Muse-like tendency for grandiose and unnecessary displays of technical virtuosity, sheer preposterousness and pomposity, sometimes at the expense of the songwriting. Sure, The Mars Volta were good - more interesting, creative and soulful than Muse, for example - but still lacked the balanced combination of melody, great songwriting and musicianship that all the truly great prog bands have. So now here we have the second album by TMV and the big question is, is it an improvement on the original?
And the answer is, yes… and no. In terms of their technical prowess the band are much the same as ever, i.e. the musicianship is just jaw-dropping, particularly Omar Rodriguez' increasingly frantic guitar parts and Cedric Bixler's powerful vocals. But have the band lost any of their trademark preposterousness and pomposity. Well, as I cryptically wrote before, yes and no. On the surface things are much the same as before, if not even more overblown: the album clocks in at a little under 77 minutes and there are only five tracks, four of which drag on for well over 10 minutes, and one of those is a good 30 minutes long, plus the album's lyrics all consist of yet more of Bixler's impenetrable poetry. But on the other hand this album is, I feel, definitely more accessible, diverse and melodic overall than its predecessor.
There's much the same energy that there was about De-loused In The Comatorium but for the most part Frances… is that little bit more catchy, melodic and focused. Heck, there's even a track that was released as a single - the second track, “The Widow” - which appears short compared to the rest of the album, though even that is nearly six minutes long. The musical style on display is still that broad mixture of Yes, Rush, Zeppelin and Santana meets Muse and contemporary American rock, funk, metal and nu-prog.
As with De-loused… the real strengths of this album are its originality and inventiveness, its ambitious multi-layered epics and the energetic and passionate performances.
The album starts with the rousing “Cygnus… Vismund Cygnus”, a pleasing but frenzied epic and a strong statement of intent for the rest of the album. It's followed by “The Widow”, an emotive and powerful rock song, the most straightforward track on the album (though that's not saying much) but it still fits comfortably with the other material.
Third track “L'Via L'Viaquez” is another effective epic but this one's sung mostly in Spanish and has a strong Latin influence, with Rodriguez' guitar work sounding particularly reminiscent of Santana. The fourth track, “Miranda, That Ghost Just Isn't Holy Anymore” is probably my least favourite on the album, largely because it takes four minutes just to start and then the rest of it really isn't worth that much of a wait.
The album closes with “Cassandra Geminni”, less a track and more a suite in eight parts. It actually works very effectively and it's easily one of the most adventurous things on the album. Most prog bands struggle to write 20-minute tracks that remain interesting for their entire duration but this 30-minute monster has far less superfluous moments than you might expect.
That said, the album's biggest flaw throughout is its flabbiness, its lack of discipline and restraint. Nearly every track on the album suffers from being just a little bit longer than it needs to be and TMV seem to have considerable difficulty writing sensible endings to their songs. The two clearest examples of this are “The Widow”, where this solid four minute single is stretched out annoyingly by two minutes of pointless electronic noodling, and “Miranda, That Ghost Just Isn't Holy Anymore”, which takes so long to get going that I usually lose the will to live half-way through it.
Overall, this is an album that is so ambitious, so pretentious, and madder than a pink zebra who hasn't even seen his medication in weeks let alone taken it, that you can quite easily expect some people to hear just ten minutes of it and straight away dismiss is as interminable nonsense. And yet, the album has so much energy, imagination and ferocity to it, all traits that are lacking in 95% of contemporary prog and mainstream music as a whole. This album represents a step up from De-loused In The Comatorium and if The Mars Volta just showed a little more restraint and realized that sometimes less really is more then they could yet release a progressive rock masterpiece for the 21st Century. Only time will tell.
Best tracks: “Cygnus… Vismund Cygnus”, “The Widow”, “L'Via L'Viaquez”, “Cassandra Geminni”.