More original and challenging art from one of modern music’s most creative bands
Like them or not, The Mars Volta has to be one of the most difficult bands in music to critique. Even within their fan base there is a huge divide between reactions and interpretations of each new album. This is largely due to both the band’s variety and willingness to try things that no other band will attempt, sometimes for good reason. However, it’s important to keep in mind that there are no absolutes in The Mars Volta’s music. Everything is cryptic, and no two listens are ever the same. There will always be a good chance that even the most faithful fan of the band will absolutely hate the direction of the next album, and the reason for that is largely due to different interpretations. If one were to list all of the flaws associated with a TMV album, the list would be exceptionally large, and the grade would be relatively low if that was the criteria for grading. However, if The Mars Volta are at their best, there should be a long list of flaws. More than anything, The Mars Volta take risks. It shouldn’t be easy to interpret which aspects of the sound work and which don’t, and it should be even more difficult to interpret just what their sound is. If the band ever succumbs to a particular reoccurring sound, then it is not a true Mars Volta album.
Thankfully, The Bedlam in Goliath is a flawed album that will most likely alienate a large portion of the band’s fan base. That is to say, The Mars Volta have taken significant risks in order to create this album, and the various interpretations of the brilliant lyrics will continue to be debated years from now. It’s not for everyone, but such a unique and breathtaking album should not be missed.
Right off the bat, one of the biggest misconceptions about the band is addressed. For some odd reason, one complaint of The Mars Volta has always been their lack of energy. This might be due to the slowly progressing “The Widow” being their most recognizable song, or possibly their live shows that sometimes contain more jamming than actual songs, but to say that The Mars Volta lack energy is completely ridiculous. The album grabs the listener by the throat from the very first note and never lets go. Gone are the moments of silence that plagued their past albums, and in its place comes a new and more energized Mars Volta. In its own way, each song is a fully energized jamfest that would have been enough to drive the album to greatness on just that alone. However, there is thankfully more to than just the energy, and it’s simply amazing that the lyrics and progression somehow outdo that aspect of the album. Even on songs like “Wax Simulacra,” which could very easily be considered a jumbled mess upon first listen, the energy is enough to bring things together. “Wax Simulacra,” staying with that example, is a song that packs a nearly full fledged epic into just over 2 minutes. The combination of that song’s seemingly random progression and energy is certainly staggering, but it’s also packs more into a such short time than any maybe other song of its kind.
The opener “Aberinkula” is another song that is built from The Mars Volta’s stunning energy, while the song’s cryptic lyrics make it one of the overall finest starts to a rock album in some time. The aforementioned cryptic lyrics are one of the most impressive parts of The Bedlam in Goliath, as almost every line reeks of intelligence and careful wordplay. There is a clear religious and almost supernatural theme to the lyrics, and the way they are structured is fascinating to say the least. There is somewhat of a strange story to be found that some will likely find one of the more interesting aspects of the album, while others will skip it altogether. The story and themes of the lyrics cannot be fully understood by a single listen, or even a few listens at that. The Bedlam in Goliath is a challenging work of art, and even the mystery itself that is embedded within the lyrics is difficult to fully grasp.
As is generally the case with progressive music, The Bedlam in Goliath is an album of many influences. The mixture of hard rock, punk, jazz, folk, Latin, and psychedelic experimentation makes for one of the most truly progressive combinations in music today. The band’s ability to turn such a variety of influences into unique tracks that never sound like one before it is nothing short of astonishing. The album’s sound is wonderfully refreshing and original, and the reason for that goes back to risks that The Mars Volta take. If The Mars Volta didn’t have a track record of making obscure things work, it would be absolutely insane to attempt something of the magnitude of The Bedlam of Goliath. Ever since their At the Drive-In days, Cedric Bixler-Zavala and Omar Rodriguez-Lopez have been experimenting with truly unique sounds, attempting to find something completely original and revolutionary. The Bedlam in Goliath is the closest they’ve come to achieving that, as this is truly one of the most unique albums to come along in quite some time.
The lyrical talents of The Mars Volta may arguably be their biggest strength, but the sheer talent of the musicians that worked on the album comes awfully close. Some may not be able to stomach Cedric Bixler-Zavala’s unique vocal style, but his passionate delivery and often unpredictable experimentation is one of the most refreshing aspects of the album. There isn’t a vocalist alive that sounds quite like him, just as there isn’t a band out there that sounds quite like The Mars Volta. Even more impressive than the vocals is Omar Rodriguez-Lopez’s superb guitar skills. A large portion of the album’s energy comes from Omar’s exceptionally unique playing, and it’s no secret that the man can shred with the best of them. Even the drumming is surprisingly fitting, as new drummer Thomas Pridgen sounds like he understands the band’s sound far more than what anyone could have expected of him. However, it’s not the skill of the instrumentals that makes them worthy of such praise, but instead the progression. Near epics like “Goliath” and “Cavalettas” remain mind blowing from start to finish, partially due to the band’s seemingly never ending array of different riffs and instrumentals. Even if they may not be the easiest songs in the world to follow or understand, the sheer uniqueness of the songs makes them easy to appreciate. “Goliath” in particular is an example of how to do a progressive rock song right. It all goes back to the risks again, as nothing about that song is safe. On such tracks, The Mars Volta dare to experiment, and the result is one of the most challenging and progressive songs the band has ever done. “Ilyena” is another songs that features outstanding progression, and the experience found in that song cannot be expressed in words. Just like the album itself, it draws the listener in and keeps them thoroughly intrigued until the end.
Of course, The Bedlam in Goliath would not be a Mars Volta album without a large number of flaws. Whenever a band takes such a large number of risks, there will always be shortcomings that vary from listener to listener. Particularly on the initial listen, the album seems somewhat unpolished and messy. However, that’s the trade off associated with taking risks in music. The Mars Volta try to pack so much into a single album that there is hardly ever time to breathe. Some will say that The Bedlam in Goliath has too much energy, and that it makes things a bit too difficult to follow. This is an album, however, that cannot and should not be judged based on initial reactions. There is a lot of substance to be found here, and it’s hard to image The Bedlam in Goliath being any more intelligent or unique than it already is. Instead of continuing with their softer and somewhat unfocused (at least for The Mars Volta) approach on Amputechture, they have once again taken the risk of doing something they’ve never done before. This is a heavier, more energized, and even more focused band than they have been in the past, and they deserve a large amount of praise in taking such a risk to evolve their sound.
An album like The Bedlam in Goliath should not be judged on small flaws, but instead the many things it does well. An album like this one should be praised for doing more and having minor flaws that go along with large amount of unique content than making a perfect album that doesn’t do quite as much. Not everyone is going to be able to understand it, and even many who do might find small things that perturb them. However, the risks The Mars Volta take make this one of the most original rock albums to come along in some time. To call it one of the best albums of its kind would simplifying it to an absolute, and thus selling it short, but The Bedlam in Goliath is an album that should not be missed under any circumstances.
Key tracks: Aberinkula, Ilyena, Goliath