When El Paso buddies Cedric Bixler-Zavala and Omar Rodriguez-Lopez dismantled the increasingly successful At The Drive In in 2001 to form the Mars Volta, it touched off what would become a firestorm of activity for their new project. By embracing a robust yet nebulous form of musical experimentalism and eschewing nearly all precepts for mainstream acceptance, the new band had laid down the blueprint for several albums worth of head spinning metal freakouts, made even edgier with nearly unpronounceable song titles and song structures that were occasionally bookended by exhausting stretches of brooding ambience. 2007’s The Bedlam In Goliath saw the extremes pushed even further, thanks to an alleged Ouija board spirit whose spectral presence nearly turned the entire creative process into turmoil.
The Mars Volta had indeed reached new heights of intense complexity on Goliath, and it was soon thereafter that Rodriguez-Lopez began making implications of a more acoustic-based Mars Volta sound. With the band’s cerebral and anxious style of music making neatly codified into four hastily released albums, the timing was certainly right for a shift in direction.
The latest offering from the twisted pair that brought you cathartic blasts of progressive metal with songs like “Vermicide” and “Wax Simulacra” finds itself in the unusual position of being shockingly accessible. Featuring some of the band’s most formulaic song structures and least esoteric themes yet, Octahedron doesn’t demand repeated listens for your enjoyment. The most devoted fans need not fret, however; not even the existence of an acoustic guitar (used liberally on only two of the eight tracks) or the absence of any 20-minute song cycles can completely derail the WTF-moments for which diehard Mars Volta purists live.
Bixler-Zavala’s helium-styled vocals in the psychedelic “Teflon” are cringe inducing when he sings, “Let the wheels burn / let the wheels burn / stack the tires to the neck / with the body inside.” The tune also features reverb soaked howls from Rodriguez-Lopez’s guitar and odd time signatures that keep the chorus from ever truly achieving balance. “Cotopaxi” is a metal barnburner in 11/8 time with a terrific bridge of pummeling drums and bass. For the impatient, the song is even less than four minutes in length. Pitted against some seismic drumming and FX-treated guitars, “Halo Of Nembutals” has some of the most disturbing imagery of all: “They sent in the necrophiliacs / carcinogen tar / turns to smoldering asp.” Yikes.
In the end, though, the true instances of sublime beauty on Octahedron are found in those songs that emphasize simplicity over volatility. “With Twilight As My Guide” is the album’s finest moment, all awash in lush acoustic guitar arpeggios, ghostly harmonized vocals, and background atmospherics that make for a chilling walk through the forest. The bridge alone will give you goosebumps. Album opener “Since We’ve Been Wrong,” is a slowburner that employs the acoustic guitar in a similar fashion as the previously mentioned song; the mammoth drums (which don’t even enter until the 5:00 mark) and piercing guitar leads come close to shattering the tune’s fragile sense of darkened beauty, but to no avail.
At the other end of the album are “Copernicus” and “Luciforms,” two epics for two modern day guitar heroes. The former allows Rodriguez-Lopez and semi-permanent Chili Pepper collaborator John Frusciante to show off their signature tones and textures, while the latter, in expectedly drawn out fashion, devolves into an unhinged facemelter of a solo from Rodriguez-Lopez.
Octahedron is most certainly not a wish for Top 40 stardom, but compared to past efforts by this collective, it’s probably the surest means of attracting a larger batch of casual listeners without completely rejecting the heady desires of Mars Volta obsessives. No matter where you fall in the spectrum, it’s worth your time and money.