The psychedelic prog-rock band The Mars Volta is known for its concept albums. Its debut release, De-Loused in the Comatorium, featured a protagonist in a drug-induced coma, and its follow-up, Frances the Mute, was based on a random diary that was found in a repossessed car. The band’s latest LP, The Bedlam in Goliath, is about a malignant Ouija-esque board that began to make demands and wreak havoc on the band’s recording process – seriously.

Brian Merlos
Volta. Mars Volta. (COURTESY OF UNIVERSAL)
Brian Merlos
Can this band get any weirder? This artwork would argue yes. Volta. Mars Volta. (COURTESY OF UNIVERSAL)

The story goes that producer and guitarist Omar Rodríguez-López bought a Ouija board, later named “the Soothsayer,” at a shop in Jerusalem for vocalist Cedric Bixler-Zavala. A tale of love, lust and murder between a man, a woman and her mother was narrated through the board by a singular voice named “Goliath,” who apparently began asking the band what they had to offer and making threats. Later, Bixler-Zavala underwent foot surgery, Rodríguez-López’s home recording studio flooded and the album’s original engineer had a nervous breakdown. They blamed all of this on the Ouija board and decided to bury it.

Don’t get it? Don’t worry. What the band lacks in unambiguous themes and relatable lyrics they make up for with an electrified sound that is entirely its own, if not a little weird. Most of the tracks on Goliath are explosive and energetic, moving through diverse segments and hooks with seamless effort. “Metatron” mixes heavy guitar riffs with catchy vocals, right down to Bixler-Zavala’s falsetto interlude four minutes into the song. “Goliath” fuses psychedelic rock with Latin percussion to make the song just plain fun, without an overproduced sound we’ve come to expect from the Mars Volta.

The album also boasts the most aggressive sound we’ve heard from The Mars Volta to date. Case-in-point: “Ouroboros.” There’s no other word to describe the song as but heavy – it’s almost a metal track but with a definite Latin influence.

One major problem with the album is that nothing about it seems natural. It is hard to imagine how the band would play many of these songs live with such complex instrumentation and computerized background noise. More than a few tracks feature the same digitalized vocal effects during most of their endings. “Agadez” fades in and out with an effect that sounds like a 45 being played at 33 rpm. These effects, taking the song beyond eerie to make it downright frightening, drown the entire last minute of “Tourniquet Man.”

The fact that Goliath is the first of the band’s albums to be devoid of a song that breaks the 10-minute mark does not mean they’ve abandoned their expansive nature. Much of the wind instrumentation and distorted background noise on the album extends songs past their logical conclusions. It seems that the band is pushing boundaries with these endeavors, but in reality they are producing more of the same, with way too many sounds packed into one song. “Calvettas” fades in and out throughout the entire track behind a wall of distortion. It could, and should, end in about seven different places. With these antics the band successfully obliterates any chance that their songs might be euphonious or melodic for the purpose of remaining original.

For these reasons, The Mars Volta remains an acquired taste. If you’re not used to their cacophonous and drawn-out sound, the obscure lyrics and themes of Goliath will do nothing to add to their appeal. But for the veteran Mars Volta listener, Goliath moves through this weird tale with animated and vigorous instrumentation and performance.

Mars Volta

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

The Bedlam in Goliath

Universal

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