Given the decidedly pharmaceutical bent of the Mars Volta’s output (their first two full-lengths were both concept albums inspired by the separate overdose deaths of two of the band’s associates), it’s a wonder that no one at their record label has tried to slip them some Adderall. Alternatively, maybe they’re just taking wayyy too much of America’s favorite amphetamine. In either case, the song remains the same: If any band ever cried out for focus, blessed focus, it’s this one. The differences between the Mars Volta and its magesterial, seminal predecessor, At the Drive-In, from whose ashes they rose like some sort of epically distracted pigeon, have been documented to death, but that doesn’t make them easier to get past. It’s no longer news that where ATDI rocked, Mars Volta wanks, but that’s no reason to stop with the ridicule.
But what wanking! It’s true that all of the playing on The Bedlam in Goliath, their fourth LP, is tremendously solid. In fact, the main thing that they transmit here is overwhelming technical proficiency. You can’t say that their homebrewed prog-punk-metal-free jazz sounds easy on the ole carpal tunnels, and there is a market for this kind of thing. Still, let’s accept the premise that favorable comparisons to Steve Vai and Joe Satriani are a low bar. Virtuosity in service of vision: awesome, dude. Virtuosity in search of purpose: tiring. But let’s give credit where credit is due. Some songs, like the butterfly-bee hybridized funk of “Ilyena” and the throwback wah-wah-whomp of “Goliath” are, actually, songs.
Sadly, most of these songs are not really songs, because that’s not what the Mars Volta do. Braintrust members Omar Rodriguez-Lopez and Cedric Bixler-Zavala have never lacked for ideas, but their output screams so consistently for an editor’s loving scalpel as to approach absurdity. Take, for instance, “Cavalettas,” which at 9:32 is the album’s longest track by a good, uh, 24 seconds. We start with a crushing burst of guitar and percussion that quickly gives way to a swinging, frenetic double-time stomp. Most of the instrumentation then drops out in favor of an insistent riff, over which Bixler-Zavala scats urgently while gradually being subsumed in a squall of digital effects. The whole thing then fades away rather abruptly in favor of a drunkenly soloing flute. At the three-minute mark, there’s a sound that can only be described as the sound of a recording studio actually screaming, and the whole affair shifts, abruptly, again, back toward where it started. Then we wash, rinse, repeat, with plenty of improvised-sounding flute and trumpet and the repeatedly emphasized lyric, “I am a deaf con of angora goats.” Fade out over dubbed-out piano and the sound of madding crowds.
One of the problems is that the band’s preferred hyperactive-paranoid-fractured mode is perhaps best when applied, as it was on their first two albums, to questions of life and death and other gravities, though, let’s face it, the caterwauling and fickle attitude toward song structure could be pretty grating then too. Sadly, this album takes sound and fury, signifying nothing, to new depths, as it is—seriously—a concept cycle concerning a ouija board-like divination toy that Rodriguez-Lopez bought that was possessed by an evil spirit. The press kit features a completely insane six-page brief by Bizarro fiction author Jeremy Robert Johnson detailing all the various sadness/coincidence allegedly caused by the haunted board game: How it tested the band’s resolve and nearly broke their spirits, but once they buried it and tossed off its star-crossed influence, they emerged stronger than ever. If there were any acknowledgment, on any level, that any of this—the sprawling, brutal nonsensicality, the batshit magical realism, the flute—were meant to be taken some way other than dead bloody seriously, maybe that would be okay. Maybe it would be an excellent jest. As it is, though, the joke is unintentional, and on them.