The Mars Volta hit the jackpot with their debut — a thrashing, hypnotic, hallucinatory sprawl of prog-rock. People loved it, and many said it was genius. Which, of course, makes the expectations for Album No. 2 even higher — how can you capture lightning in a bottle more than once?
“Frances the Mute” does a pretty good job of doing just that. Without sacrificing the creepy overtones and wild sound, the Mars Volta opts for a new, stranger sound that is a bit less rock and a bit more prog. “L’Via L’Viaquez” has a sizzling riff that is louder than anything else on the album, while “Cygnus…Vismund Cygnus” sounds like a metal band going slowly insane.
Not that they’ve lost their metal/funk/punk/Latin/experimental edge — some parts of it are just more prominent. Mostly it’s the prog and funk… and just try to imagine what that sounds like. Songs like the half-hour “Cassandra Gemini” happily flit from one style to another, with a sense of true rock grandeur, while songs like “Miranda that Ghost Just Isn’t Holy Anymore” has an ambient flavor.
Perhaps the one problem is that instead of one sprawling concept album, like their first, this is apparently multiple “acts” put together. A few songs simply putter out, like lackluster “The Widow.” But the explosive energy of almost every other song is enough to make up for “The Widow’s” flaws.
In a nutshell, you don’t know what to expect from the Mars Volta in any given song. They can draw you in with a simple riff or quiet melody, before launching into a screaming, frenetic jumble of Latin-prog-psychedelica-acid-jazz. It’s dizzying; the instrumentation is as wild and abstract as their dark, bizarre songwriting. Their lyrics are a bit reminiscent of Burroughs, and deliver a visceral punch even if they don’t make sense.
One thing that has changed is the song length; if the Mars Volta keeps this up, their future albums will have to be double or triple discs. Many songs are over ten minutes, and one is over half an hour. A few songs could definitely have used some trimming, and it has a somewhat looser feel than their first album. But most of the songs manage to do justice to their length — lots of explosive riffs and sharp drumming, paired with some weird keyboard noises and wailing vocals.
“De-loused in the Comatorium” was an outstanding space-prog-Latin-jazz-rock album, and “Frances the Mute” does a good job of following up on it. It lacks the tightness of the Mars Volta’s first album, but is a good collection in its own right.