There are few tasks more daunting to a music critic than writing about The Mars Volta. For over a decade the band haven’t so much made albums as psychological tests, works that stretch far beyond mere collections of notes and vocals to take on the qualities of madness. From the drunken-sci-fi song titles through to the stream-of-consciousness themes and the jarring, erratic time changes theirs is not a template given to placating the listener with easy melodies and radio narratives, nor offering the writer any obvious inroad into describing what they do.
Which is a task made harder still on these first days of spring. Like baby Damien screaming at the entrance to the church The Mars Volta’s music recoils from the sun, hissing and snarling until the blackouts are back in place and the air hangs heavy with smoke. Sixth album Noctourniquet doesn’t shift the format far, its songs unfurling though a mesh of densely-coiled riffs and frantic percussion, swells of noise at points overwhelming Cedric Bixler-Zavala’s vocals. The overall effect is feverish and introverted all at once, discordant and epic and compulsively hypnotic.
It’s also exhausting, opener The Whip Hand a dense and slightly suffocating assemblage of reverb and synths, stuttered drums and plaintive howls. There’s little let-up until the album’s quarter-point, Empty Vessels Make The Loudest Sound a shadowed and mournful build into white noise, and nothing here at all that could be considered ‘calming.’
But then no-one heads into a Mars Volta album looking to wind down. Nor, hopefully, whilst driving, or operating heavy machinery, or hosting a dinner party. And certainly not whilst having sex. Noctourniquet does not tolerate distractions: it demands, and requires, your full attention. And don’t even think about putting it through an iPhone speaker.
For those with the stamina, it’s tremendous. From the broken guitar work of The Malkin Jewel to the electronica dancing at the fringes of In Absentia, it’s the layers beneath that snag and pull, a devil’s snare of half-heard melodies and frenetic drum rolls that doesn’t let go. Sure, some may miss the brass of earlier albums – and this is a darker, more caustic listen for the omission – but this is just as ambitious, technically astounding and doggedly uncompromising as anything the band have put out over the last eleven years.
A shame, then, that with April’s Coachella reformation of TMV’s Cedric and Omar’s previous band At The Drive In imminent, Noctourniquet is unlikely to get the attention it deserves. But then maybe that’s the point: if we’re to take the album’s cover as any kind of sign, with its inscrutable geometrics and shadowed, fading edges, then The Mars Volta are quite happy remaining out of the light, dancing solipsistically in the world of their own making.