Friday, February 29

Alright, Mars Volta, You Win This Round

Artist: The Mars Volta

Album: The Bedlahm In Goliath

Comments: There are only a handful of times that music has given me a “punched in the stomach” feeling. One such time came back in 2000 when At The Drive-In, the best post-hardcore band in the history of the world, decided to break up. The news of their disbanding came on the heels of the release of their best album, Relationship of Command, the release of a successful single in “One Armed Scissor” and national recognition in Rolling Stone as a “next big thing” band.

At the tender age of 14, I was crushed. My favorite band, in the prime of its career, decided to walk away and leave me with nothing. It was the beginning of a journey that has left me a grizzled, jaded music snob of titanic proportions.

It should come as no surprise then to hear that I hate The Mars Volta, one of the two bands to rise from ATDI’s ashes (the other is Sparta, which also blows chodes).

Featuring the two most creative ATDI members, Omar Rodriguez-Lopez and Cedric Bixler-Zavala, The Mars Volta made a niche for itself making progressive rock riddled with bad Spanish ascents, imposing clouds of ambient fuzz, nonsensical and unadvised tempo changes and stream of conscious lyrics that make a lot of sense while tripping on acid.

Needless to say, I found it repulsive. The band had flashes of brilliance on all its releases, but were too in love with its concepts to let songs develop into more than jumbled collections of noise.

That’s why this new Mars Volta record, The Bedlam in Goliath, is a bit confusing for me. See, I really like this album, and think it is the group’s best work to date. At the same time, what I like about it will turn off most Mars Volta fans.

Fans aren’t going to the band for its focus. By definition, the band’s breed of prog-rock is based on spontaneous, almost violent shifts in music. This is not comfort music; this is audio chaos. But where other records thrive on this principal, Bedlam succeeds in its ability to let songs blossom.

There is focus on this album. Songs are given time and space to develop. They still shift, but the changes make more sense, and are less abrupt and jarring than on past records. The meandering solos and jam sessions, which are still present, are scaled down, allowing for more actual songs as opposed to loosely connected sections of music. Guitar, always a big focus for the band, is pushed way to the front, and produced in a big, stadiumrock style. Solos and monster riffs tower over the record, as powerful and monolithic as the album’s title character, Goliath.

It isn’t a complete shift in sound. The nonsensical, stream-of-thought lyrics are still present. Bixler-Zavala is still doing his best to be Robert Plant, keeping his vocal delivery in the glass-shattering range. The difference on Bedlam is that, where his high whine was grating on other records, it sounds at home here. And there is the guitar to thank for that.

In order for Bixler-Zavala’s cat-like wails to hold up, Rodriguez-Lopez has got to give him something play off of, which he does in spades on Bedlam. After three albums where he was content to play ambient noise, it seems Rodriguez-Lopez strapped on a spine and decided to rock, giving the album wave after wave of intense, blistering guitar solos that would make Eddie Van Halen sit up and take notice.

Also, it bears mentioning that Thomas Pridgen, the drummer blessed/doomed to play with The Mars Volta, absolutely kills on this record.

If there’s a problem with this record, it’s one that is consistent with all TVM records, and that is that it’s a bit long in the tooth. But seeing how every other indulgence has been shored down and scaled back, it’s not a big deal.

Long time fans will be dismayed at how little prog there is to be found on this prog-rock record. But in my opinion, this tightening and focusing of sound is exactly what The Mars Volta needed, and what may eventually save the act in my bitter eyes. Brace yourself people, if The Bedlam in Goliath is any indication, The Mars Volta may have gotten over itself and accepted being (gasp!) a rock band.

Rating: 7 out of 10

Key Tracks: Aberinkula, Goliath

Buy, Steal, or Skip: It pains me to say this, but you should buy this record.

Thursday, February 14

Chris Cab for Cutie

Artist: Chris Walla
Album: Field Manual

Comments: The story goes like this: while at a concert, Chris Walla, a producer, multi-instrumentalist and DJ gets into a conversation with some guy about the band Teenage Fanclub. The guy asks Walla to help him produce a cassette tape, and after it becomes successful, he asks Walla to play guitar with him on stage. Turns out “the guy” is none other than Ben Gibbard, and their live collective would eventually become Death Cab For Cutie.

Since then, Walla has been breaking hearts and rocking make-out mix tapes for years, while going unnoticed by the general public. However, rather than step out from the shadow of his full time band, Walla seems content to just churn out more of the same on his solo record, Field Manual.

While in Death Cab, Walla has long maintained the dual role of producer and guitarist, but it is the former that provides the greater distinction. Death Cab’s two most popular records, Transatlanticism and Plans, were both produced by Walla, and it would seem that his production is as much responsible for the band’s development in sound (not to mention their recent mainstream success) as Gibbard is.

So, what then, is wrong with Field Manual? Fans of the two Death Cab albums listed above will notice a similarity right away. The songs on Field Manual contain the same kind of ambient, cloudy drone that exist on, and ultimately help define, Death Cab’s most accomplished records. These songs have the same canned sounding drums, the same echo-y guitars and the same tinny vocals that have become the hallmark of Walla’s full-time band.

Rather than attempt to establish himself as a solo act, Walla seems content to simply crank out Death Cab b-sides, sugar sweet and syrup thick. Hell, even a casual fan can pick out the similarities here. “Geometry & C” plays like something off of Songs About Airplanes, “The Score” sounds like the spiritual companion to “The Sound of Settling,” and “Everyone Needs a Home” would fit in great as mid-album filler for Plans. Walla’s record is full of the kind of songs that will be instantly familiar without being endearing or substantial in the way that Death Cab can be.

Even with all the photo-copying, Walla could get a pass if his songwriting was anywhere near as good as Gibbard’s. However, without Benny G's pen to give all the swirling noise a romantic center, Walla is just another guy lost in the clouds. His lyrics, while not bad, are not noticeable. His inflection, while not distracting, does not stand out. There is no urge to explore deeper into what is being said, no metaphors to decipher, no literary prose to admire and no reason to look at the lyric sheet.

So what the listener is left with is a Death Cab For Cutie album without the good songwriting. For lifelong fans of the DCFC, the kind of people who are so hard up for a new record that they can’t go three days without spinning their copy of We Have The Facts… or listening to one of the many “Ben Gibbard and Guy X” splits, Field Manual will provide a pleasant distraction until the new Death Cab album comes out this May. However, for the rest (more sane) of us, Walla’s solo album is nothing more than a footnote in the giant tome of emotional indie-pop.

Rating: 3.5 out of 10

Buy, Steal, or Skip?: Skip.