Review: The Mars Volta – Noctourniquet

Another illustrious labyrinth chapter unfolds in The Mars Volta's enchanting story.

Johnny Firecloudby Johnny Firecloud

The Mars Volta's long-awaited sixth album, Noctourniquet, is the final release from TMV as we know it. As guitarist and chief sound architect Omar Rodriguez-Lopez tells LA Weekly, "Something has to change drastically in it. I have to step down as a dictator."

The recording of Noctourniquet began more than three years ago, with Rodriguez-Lopez taking his zest for micromanagement to the level of playing most of the individual parts himself. It took singer Cedric Bixler-Zavala until late last year to record his parts, only after the assurance from Omar that this would be the last record they made together with the admitted control freak driving the creative process.

And so we are met with the final iteration of this era in the Mars Volta sound, but we soon find that the tectonic shifts have already begun. With a grander focus of atmospheric architecture on the mind, Omar has placed a more deliberate spotlight on the percussion throughout all of Noctourniquet, allowing relative newcomer Deantoni Parks (though he played on several of Omar's solo albums) to flourish in magnificent blizzards of beat expressionism.

The guitar's more rhythmic adherence gives new accent to the beasts coming through the portal; rather than serving as a launchpad for Rodriguez-Lopez's signature psychedelic math-blast funk solo wailing, the serpentine electric speedball of "Dyslexicon" is instead a showcase of Cedric's vocal & melody acrobatics. The menacing creep that punctuates opener "The Whip Hand" serves a seductive welcome before the buzz-funk blast of the chorus, and the entire thing seems built to induce vertigo until Deantoni's crashing polyrhythms cut to longjump gallops around the hornet swarm of Cedric's "I am a landmine… so don't you step on me". The track ends in glorious percussive dissolution, clearing the palette for the somber and gorgeous "Aegis". Rolling through in a similar dystopian unease to its predecessor, the track creeps up your spine like the onset of a powerful psychedelic, with bursts of soaring, gorgeous urgency that suddenly makes burying the speedometer needle nowhere near enough; you need toswerve as Bixler-Zavala volleys call-and-response lines between channels to see us out.

The otherworldly "In Absentia" is five full minutes of echo-laden synths and heavenly hypnosis before bursting through the clouds into a midnight sky, an ethereal renaissance. The drum patterns and arrangements of the understated "Empty Vessels" are tremendous, cymbal storms framing soft melancholia as Cedric pushes to come to grips with hard realities of the heart. Its spiritual sister is found on Imago, where sparse & regretful tones take flight over a skeletal survey of a dead desert battlefield.

In the grips of a nightmare absinthe trip, Noctourniquet's original first impression – "The Malkin Jewel" – certainly serves a greater contextual fit than a standalone representative, while "Lapochka"'s skittering mechanical spider percussion frames purgatorial longing as Bixler-Zavala calls into the darkness: "How long must I wait?"  Deantoni once again commands the energy nucleus of the song, his beat patterns alone enough to overwhelm the senses. Omar may be the grand architect in this cataclysmic nightmare rabbit-hole, but Parks has been designated as the engine, a finely-tuned machine with astonishing control and performance ability that envelops rays of electronica to match the heightened synth dimensions.

The shitkicking jetfighter blast of "Molochwalker" stands alongside "Wax Simulacra," "Frances The Mute" and "L'Via L'Viaquez" on the highlight reel of The Mars Volta's most energized and epic sensory overloads. Short enough to obliterate radio without edits, the track encapsulates the intense strengths of the band at their aggressively untethered finest. In juxtaposition, if someone were to use a Mars Volta song in a Tolkien film, "Trinkets Pale of Moon" would be at the ready, a moonlight seduction on a backdrop of tribesmen talking in alien tongues.

Noctourniquet is another illustrious labyrinth chapter in The Mars Volta's enchanting story, but in the end, it doesn't matter what we think – at least not to those responsible for the sounds. "Whatever people think about the record is irrelevant," Omar has decided. "The only important thing is the process. Making this record got me and Cedric to that point in our relationship and that point in the band, and that's what's important." Listening to it now, he says, the music on Noctourniquet "sounds like an old friend, but it sounds dated to me."

If Noctourniquet is the bridge by which The Mars Volta travel to a new dimension, then we're thankful to have witnessed the crossing, with an excited eye on what's to come.