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Octahedron is nasty (good nasty)

October 21, 2009

The Mars Volta
Warner Bros.
June 23, 2009

Rating: 7.0/10

There’s an awkward scene in “Meet the Parents” when Ben Stiller’s character is talking to his fiancée’s brother and he calls Lil’ Kim ‘phat.’ The poor guy just wants to appear hip to his younger, more street-wise, future brother-in-law but can’t quite pull it off.

I have no clever way of spelling nasty (I suppose I could use a silent ‘g,’ like in gnarly) but it’s the best word I can think of for The Mars Volta’s latest album Octahedron. And dammit, I’m just trying to appear cool to a music scene I don’t exactly fit in with.

My personal musical tastes have taken me down a path that does not include the works of The Mars Volta. So, by my own admission, I am a bit out of place in this review, and lacking the required vast wealth of pre-existing knowledge of MV’s music.

That said, I do know their origins from At The Drive-In’s ashes, and I am familiar with their larger-than-life sound and intense progressive guitar licks.

With this album MV retain their big sound, but replace their blistering pace with a (slightly) slower rhythm. However, their decision to slow things down and make this “acoustic” album is a bit puzzling.

Lead singer Cedric Bixler-Zavala’s shrill falsetto is haunting and gorgeous, but it lacks the subtlety on this album to go along with the slightly more tender sound that accompanies acoustic songs.

I hesitate to even use the term acoustic for the songs on this album, though opening track “Since We’ve Been Wrong” is almost completely acoustic. These songs, while softer by MV standards, are still rich with fuzz and overdrive. However, it seems as though this is the closest that the band will ever come to releasing a proper slow song.

The Mars Volta have incredible musical talent; this is not news. Their talent is displayed in all of its glory on songs like “Cotopaxi,” which feature manic rhythm changes that stand as a testament to the songwriters’ fervor for jazz-fusion.

‘Nasty’ really feels poignant at this point based upon the layers of guitar and the sheer speed and technical ability Omar Rodriguez-López is able to create on this album. As an adjective, it also does justice for the lyrics on Octahedron.

The conflict that I feel about this being a “soft” or “acoustic” album probably stems from imagining how hard it is to make a sweet, tender song about homicide.

“Let the wheels burn, let the wheels burn, Stack the tires to the neck with a body inside,” Bixler-Zavala cries above the maelstrom on the song “Teflon.” It’s a disturbing image to recreate mentally, and it certainly seems to have no place in a song that would encapsulate the gentle nature of an acoustic song.

Yet I’m not sure I would want to hear this Mars Volta-specific brand of progressive rock without such disconcerting lyrics, though I am still somewhat new to their music.

Octahedron isn’t going to make any end of the year lists for me, mostly because it’s just not my style. But 2009 has produced quite a bit of unfriendly albums, and I’ve even been disappointed by some of my favorite artists this year.

So this album gets the title of being ‘nasty.’ The same way Lil’ Kim is ‘phat;’ an awkward, out of place kind of way.

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