Album: Frances the Mute
Artist: The Mars Volta
Released: March 1st, 2005
Highlights: Cygnus….Vismund Cygnus, The Widow, Cassandra Gemini
The nature of “De-Loused in the Comatorium”, the debut album by The Mars Volta, comes as a rather nice surprise when the context that surrounded rock music at the turn of the century is taken into account. While the bands that were supposedly revitalizing the genre and presenting it to a new audience sourced much of their inspiration from a back-to-basics approach, like The Strokes and The White Stripes, to name a few, the 2003 record constructed by the Texan sextet was anything but simple. Its long multi-phased tunes, conceptual grandeur, and jazz looseness – in fact – made the work land on one of the rhythm’s most inherently complex variations: progressive rock. And true to the style’s forward-looking name and boundary-pushing heart, the band repackaged it originally with a layer of Latin influences that were true to their heritage as well as a shell of volume, speed, and modern sound manipulation techniques that were extracted from various musical movements that unfolded after the genre’s peak in the 1970s.
In spite of its idiosyncrasies, and perhaps partially due to them, “De-Loused in the Comatorium” was a commercial and critical hit. And so, for its sequel, “Frances the Mute”, the band opted to keep the course to see what else they could pull off within the same scope. Consequently, much like the debut, “Frances the Mute” gravitates around a concept; one that, once again, revolves around the group’s deceased sound technician, Jeremy Ward. While carrying out repossession orders, he allegedly found, in the backseat of a car, a diary containing the memories of an adopted man’s search for his real parents. Noticing he had a lot in common with the guy, Jeremy kept the diary, and the material in it would eventually inspire his bandmates’ development of the thematic chain that keeps the tracks of “Frances the Mute” together.
People mentioned in the book had their names used for the characters that appear in the plot as well as for the songs’ titles themselves. And as the album rolls on, the protagonist – Vismund – gets ever closer to the truth, with each person that shows up revealing extra bits of information. Cohesiveness aside, it is worthy to point out that “Frances the Mute” suffers from the same problem that held back “De-Loused in the Comatorium”; that is, its lyrics are so cryptic that it is unlikely listeners would figure out what the record is talking about if its creators had not revealed it. Truth be told, this sophomore effort is, to a degree, clearer than the prior release, as one can pin down references to a disturbing tale that involves Vismund’s mother, a rape, one or more priests, a murder, a child deformed whether as a result of the violence of its birth or as an outcome of the natural biological roulette, and an attempt by the woman’s sister and mother to speak out against the crime.
The stream of dumbfounding verses is not as extreme as the one seen in “De-Loused in the Comatorium”, which housed linguistic oddities such as “Transient jet lag / Ecto mimed bison / This is the haunt of roulette dares / Ruse of metacarpi”. Therefore, the feeling that the writing is trying so hard to be smart that the only target it is hitting is that of silliness is not so constant. Yet, in spite of clear evolution, lyricist Cedric Bixler-Zavala still struggles to make words sound good side by side, as seen in “My nails peel back / When the taxidermist ruined / Goose stepped the freckling impatience”. His tendency to opt for flowery vocabulary has two negative consequences: firstly, it invariably implodes the fluidity of the lines, which is a quality one would expect to gain from employing odd words; secondly, it punctually makes the verses so indecipherable that their meaning becomes lost and the plot’s impact is diminished.
The joy of listening to The Mars Volta, however, mostly stems from the band’s daring and inventive instrumentation. On that front, a few complaints can be made, since “Frances the Mute” features some electronic interludes that do not build interesting ideas and, in comparison to “De-Loused in the Comatorium”, the record does not create spectacular melodic moments with the same consistency. Nevertheless, most of what its five tracks and seventy-six minutes offer is satisfying. As opener “Cygnus….Vismund Cygnus” evidences, the group is still heavily toying with dynamics. Starting with a quiet acoustic intro of guitar and voice, it does not take more than one minute for the band to explode out of the gate with ferocity, as the rhythm section of Jon Theodore and Juan Alderete de la Peña lock onto an impossibly fast groove adorned by the hyperactive guitar of Omar Rodríguez-López and the high-pitched voice of Cedric. As the tune evolves, though, the band stops for a calm and seemingly improvised instrumental break, rises back up to an orchestra-backed apex, reaches a coda where the song implodes, and finally makes the piece evaporate into a mass of electronic beeps.
Out of the other four cuts, two follow a similar pattern of loudness and quietness. “L’Via L’Viaquez”, narrating the protagonist’s encounter with his aunt, plays with the band’s mixture of American and Hispanic heritage, possibly ranking as the most obvious example in the group’s discography of that blend. Its fierce hard rock verses are sung in Spanish; contrarily, its choruses, which turn down the volume to fall into the sway of Caribbean percussion and piano, are written in English. Meanwhile, closer “Cassandra Gemini” is – in all of its thirty-two-minute glory – a giant among other stars of progressive rock. Carrying the record’s best chorus, whose lyrics nicely encapsulate the journey of Vismund, it feels massive, and as it goes through its multiple phases, it makes good use of an orchestra, a brass section, electronic elements, and – of course – a whole lot of fast hard rock madness to barely let listeners breathe.
Differing from these tracks, the pair of “The Widow” and “Miranda That Ghost Just Isn’t Holy Anymore” show other, more accessible, facets of The Mars Volta. Rightfully chosen as the first single, the former is – surprisingly – sheer pop rock goodness: clocking in at three minutes, when its dull electronic outro is discounted, it is a ballad with acoustic picking in its verses, a beautiful melodic explosion in its chorus, and a blistering guitar solo. In turn, the latter, is slow mass of echoing guitars, noises, and horns that seems to be floating in outer space, threatening to come back to the ground in its dramatic brass-infused chorus, and building to a climatic final part.
Even with its reduced, but not totally eliminated, lyrical problems, “Frances the Mute” winds up not being as enjoyable as “De-Loused in the Comatorium”. From a musical perspective, it is not as significant of a revelation as that record, regardless of its stronger Latin roots and its duo of calmer tracks. Furthermore, though great, its heavier, fast-paced, and more expansive tunes – which are, in the end, the heart and soul of the band – for the most part do not exhibit the major hooks boasted by nearly all the songs from its predecessor. Still, the album remains as further proof that, in the peak of their powers, The Mars Volta were an excellent progressive rock act; one that, to a degree, showed the trappings of the genre, but that – at the same time – was good enough to give a generation without many contemporary examples of the style their own musically adventurous idols to admire.