ALBUM REVIEW: The Mars Volta – The Mars Volta


It’s 2022, September already, a busy time for album releases, a welter of “product” and, more importantly, a feast of music. And I can safely say that – until now – I haven’t heard an album quite like The Mars Volta.

This self-titled long-player (Clouds Hill Music) showcases a series of intense and emotional vocal performances from Cedric Bixler-Zavala. Which is not to say this isn’t a proper band showing, as masterful guitarist/composer Omar Rodriguez-Lopez, drummer Willy Rodriguez Quinones, superb throughout, and others take their opportunities to shine.


The Mars Volta were formed in 2001 from the remnants of El Paso, Texas, post-hardcore band At The Drive-In. This, their seventh long player and their first for ten years, has been called their “pop” album – singer/lyricist Bixler-Zavala said so in interview. It’s soulful, relatively succinct, thoughtful and melancholy. It would be fair to say it qualifies as their most “accessible” album to date. The songs are built on more traditional structures, eschewing the extended proggy work-outs. Is it “pop”, though? The whole scenario is rather more complicated than that, without even mentioning Scientology (“That’s enough Scientology,” – Ed).

Stand-outs are the Steely Dan-esque ‘Blacklight Shine’, the throbbing, melodic ‘Graveyard Love’ and the sublime, hymnal ‘Vigil’. ‘Shore Story’ is spectral and suspenseful, ‘Tourmaline’ bold and tragic. ‘Flash Burns From Flashbacks’ could be a fugitive from the soundtrack of a Michael Mann crime epic and ‘Equus 3’ opens with a doomy electro riff that builds and soars above another sonically interesting landscape. ‘No Case Gain’ picks up the pace, perhaps coming closest to a proper rocker, while ‘Collapsible Shoulders’ is also among the more “straightforward” tracks.


In the mix of styles are jazz, ambient music, Latin and Caribbean rhythms, funk and R&B. Bowie, Peter Gabriel and King Crimson seem to be influences and, to these ears, there are echoes of the minimalist and experimental Radiohead and the grandly developed, layered sound of The National. The lyrics remain dense, often poetic and metaphorical, if not quite as impenetrable as before. Whatever it’s all about, it sounds like some kind of therapy. But it’s Cedric’s voice that grabs and holds the attention, his high tenor reaching to falsetto, several songs including lyrics in Spanish as well as English.


Bixler-Zavala and Rodriguez-Lopez do, of course, have every right to experiment. ‘Vigil’ tells us: “The past has a way of coming clean,” and I’m reminded that At The Drive-In’s Relationship Of Command was a key album for me. I had a young family at the time, was working hard. I needed release, and RoC helped give me that.


Few musicians have changed more since that time, from At The Drive-In to The Mars Volta, to Antemasque and back to At The Drive-In, to The Mars Volta again, from punk to prog to “pop”, from hardcore to what we have here now. Any fans out there who somehow feel “let down” or even “betrayed” will just have to come to terms with the fact the core duo have moved on and developed, while demonstrating a rare and commendable longevity through the ups and downs. Keep the faith.


Buy the album here:


8 / 10