The Mars Volta – Noctourniquet
To many At The Drive-In fans (me included) The Mars Volta have always been the sideshow to the main event. Past albums have seen Cedric and Omar unleash their proggy and indulgent sides away from the restraints and pressures of the massively popular post-hardcore of At The Drive-In – which naturally led to some very strange and often inaccessible stuff.
All that seems to have changed with Noctourniquet though, which keeps the prog-rock template of previous Mars Volta efforts but redefines it for the iPod age. So out go the heavy, 15 minute long songs-within-songs-within-songs, and in come more structured, accessible and (whisper it) commercial songs. Not that this is any way a straight-up rock/pop album – some song titles still resemble CAPTCHA codes and there is more than enough spaced out interludes to keep the prog fans happy. It just feels like Cedric and Omar have made a conscious decision to rein in the crazy a bit – and the result is an almost perfectly crafted, absorbing and at times electric album.
‘The Whip Hand’ opens the album and quickly establishes Cedric’s vocals as the focal point, going from melodic and controlled to manic and intense wailing (“I am a landmine… so don’t you step on me!”) – all underpinned by a dark and brooding groove. As a statement of intent after three years away it does the job perfectly and sets the tone for the rest of the album.
‘Aegis’ and ‘Dyslexicon’ add a bit more rock into Noctourniquet and include the kind of riff and vocal pay-off that makes At The Drive-In such an exhilarating band.
Ironically for The Mars Volta’s first real ‘commercial’ album, it’s the more proggy and textured songs that make the biggest impact. ‘Empty Vessels Make The Loudest Sound’ is Noctourniqet’s first stand-out track, which builds on a delicate melody and soulful vocals and grows into an emotional juggernaut. It’s brilliance is only enhanced by it’s juxtaposition with the dark, Nick Cave-esque ‘The Malkin Jewel’ – which shows these guys can pretty much master whatever they care to try their hand at:
The Mars Volta – ‘The Malkin Jewel’
The next prog highlight comes in the shape of the seven-minute long ‘In Absentia’, which has Cedric getting busy with the vocoder over clashing drums and menacing sci-fi synths during a claustrophobic and unsettling first five minutes – before it opens up into a glorious two minutes of that familiar Cedric wail.
The controlled and subtle ‘Imago’ calms things down a bit and sets the scene for Noctourniquet’s final act, which includes the frantic blast of ‘Molochwalker’ and the beautifully melodic pairing of ‘Trinkets Pale Of Moon’ (which tries a bit too hard with the unnecessary Pink Floyd-esque crowd noises) and ‘Vedamalady’.
Rather than peter out from here, Noctourniquet still has time for another stand out moment in the form of the title track – a dense, synth-heavy prog-rock stormer that leads nicely into the energetic album closer ‘Zed And Two Naughts’:
With Noctourniquet, Cedric and Omar have brilliantly and infuriatingly turned The Mars Volta into an accessible and inventive rock band – just at the point when they leave it and return to At The Drive-In. If it is to be the final Mars Volta album though, it will act as the perfect send-off.