Surrounded as they are in the modern music scene by a sea of watered-down corporate tripe, The Mars Volta have stood out since their formation for their (at times excessive) ambition, and their latest album, Amputechture, is certainly no exception. Anyone who liked their first two albums would be pretty hard-pressed not to like this one, as all the prominent features of the previous De-Loused in the Comatorium and Frances the Mute-the snaky lead guitar lines of Omar Rodriguez-Lopez; the frenetic, jazzy drumming of Jon Theodore; the instantly recognizable, ear-splitting wail of Cedric Bixler-Zavala; the fusion of styles and frequent inclusion of seemingly non-rocking instrumentation-are all very much in evidence. That said, some of the more aimless and long-winded elements of Frances the Mute have been toned down here, with this album falling about halfway between that one and the more accessible and song-oriented De-Loused in overall approach. Most of the songs make at least token nods to conventional song structure, but eventually descend into the band’s trademark chaotic sprawl of quasi-psychedelic experimentalism, with every member going all-out to overload your senses. Many of the songs on Amputechture can admittedly be heavy on the build-up, but once they hit fever pitch the wait is more than justified.
The album is bookended by two crawling, eerily atmospheric mood pieces in Vicarious Atonement and El Ciervo Vulnerado, both of which honestly drag on too long for their own good, but even with many of the songs hitting ten minutes or more, the rest of Amputechture is largely filler-free. That’s not to say the band has done away with their intricate, meandering song structures; there just seems to be a bit more of a purpose this time around than on Frances. The first “proper” song, Tetragrammaton, is perhaps the best example yet of the band’s wildly grandiose, genre-ducking tendencies, with a sixteen-minute run-time that sees it hopping without warning from languid, relatively quiet verses to a choppy, lockstep chorus highly conducive to headbanging, to an eyebrow-singing guitar solo, and grows increasingly manic in its latter half, constantly coming back for more just when it appears to be winding down. There’s a bit of a reprieve with the tight, efficient rocker Vermicide, which is notable mainly for the highly infectious stuttering main guitar riff in the chorus, but the band comes right back for more sonic brain scrambling with the abrasive noises and pile-driving rhythms of the incredibly intense epic Meccamputechture. The band throws a little curveball next with the quiet reflective Asilos Magdalena, an acoustic guitar number sung entirely in Spanish, but thankfully the calm is quickly shattered by the overbearing insanity of the next two tracks, Viscera Eyes and Day of the Baphomets. The latter is especially addictive, a hallucinogenic mantra delivered by Cedric with monumental urgency and fleshed out with ample doses of acid jazz and latin percussion.
Well, that’s pretty much it. The Omar-Cedric pairing still has yet to match the greatness of At the Drive-In’s Relationship of Command, but I’d put this one right up there with De-Loused as TMV’s best. Any best of 2006 list would be incomplete without it.