Frances the Mute sounds best in a car, either the trembling Tercel your older brother handed down to you when you were 16, rods and speaker cones blown from too much hotboxing during a Rush block on KQRS's Twofer Tuesday, or the fuel-efficient compact you idle in now, stuck in rush-hour purgatory. The Hipgnosis cover art cloaks its commuters in hangman masks the color of King Crimson. And the Mars Volta know a bit about being 21st-century schizoid men, about punk-versus-prog riffage, timbales and Bonham, the darkness hidden in Hollywood's light.
California transplants by way of El Paso (by way of Mexico and Puerto Rico), singer Cedric Bixler Zavala and guitarist-producer Omar Rodriguez-Lopez have now fully absorbed Los Angeles into their blood. They've cut off the emo tag they earned for their one-armed scissor days in At the Drive-In, and are now mislabeled prog. In a time when so many CDs top 77 minutes, this conceptual five-song suite still feels more like the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Jane's Addiction brand of funky art metal than Yes. John Frusciante and Flea, guests on the alternately tense and tedious Mars Volta debut, De-Loused in the Comatorium, return to the mix. "L'Via L'Viasquez" has Frusciante shoplift the solo from "Been Caught Stealing," a theft to match the band's "Low Rider" carjacking that idles behind Santana's Ford Lotus. As backed-up as the 110 and 10 interchange in downtown L.A., "L'Viasquez"'s 13 minutes funnel into the knotted 8-part, 32-minute "Cassandra Geminni."
Focus too intently on the salsa and meringue flares, the Fillmore West flutes, the Pacific Coast Highway ambience and Mulholland Drive skincrawl, and you'll miss that the Mars Volta sprawl like quintessential L.A. bands Love and the Doors used to, employing forever (time) changes to embody the city's Spanish undertow and using overwrought poetics to convey its dark waves of decadence and debauchery. The vague backstory (based on a journal found in the backseat of a car by deceased band member Jeremy Ward) gets conveyed in Spanglish, and it's chock-full of orphaned male hustlers, clove-scented HIV coughs, needle damage, rape, spilled blood, and the search for family amid lost angels. Such lurid details only shake loose in the fallout of tightly wound yet unstable epics that ebb rather than end. But the crescendos found either 7 or 70 minutes in are worth the wade. In the smoggy midst of such high, high school epiphanies, Volta's grandiose concepts can also take a backseat to the complex rock, making it easy to get lost in traffic.
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