For five years now, the Mars Volta has colored the alternative rock scene with their hardcore-prog-jazz hybrid. They’ve represented the point where hippies, metalheads and avant-garde fans could meet in the middle. Even if none of that was your thing — and for many it isn’t — at the very least, they proved interesting to listen to, which was enough to justify their existence in the sonic landscape. However, with the Bedlam in Goliath, their fourth full length, the Mars Volta has done the unthinkable: they’ve made a boring album.
In the past, the Mars Volta has been more dynamic than anything, a musical chameleon that could easily shift between genres, tempos, tone colors, instruments. Now, there’s no shifting; everything is full throttle. As the landscape bleeds together from the window of a car that’s moving too fast, the songs on Bedlam in Goliath run into each other. It’s progressing too quickly to hear not only what’s going on within a minute or two, but what’s going on over an entire song. It’s not the craziness that hurts this album (fans should be used to that), but the frenzy. It’s exhausting to listen to a single song, let alone the entire thing.
The Mars Volta – Metatron (download)
Ultimately, it lacks focus, which is disappointing from a band that nearly mastered the concept of organized chaos. Rarely does a moment exist that’s not dense and overly complex. They used to sound like a band that could honorably pay tribute to experimental genres like prog and free jazz. Now they just sound like a drunken thrash band doing bad imitations of both. The Mars Volta have always been self-indulgent and over the top — it’s what makes them what they are. But this is too much, even for a band that’s made its name on too much.
There are a few redeeming moments that make this album worth hearing, at least for existing fans. “Goliath” recalls the earlier days of the band and hints at what this album could’ve been, making it an almost agonizing listen. The stand-out surprise is “Agadez,” a relatively unusual composition for them, with lyrics that nod slightly to the romantic poets, leaving us to wonder if someone’s been reading a lot of Byron. Frontman Cedric Bixler-Zavala certainly has been reading his Aesop lately, as the first verse is awfully reminiscent of the classic tale of the scorpion and the frog:
“I should have known
You’d always scratch that itch
When you asked me for safe passage
On my shoulders where we slid
And just before you laid
Dead weight upon its shores
I stung you in the face
For that’s the nature of my core.”
The Mars Volta – Agadez (download)
At their show at New York City’s Terminal 5 a few weeks ago, Bixler-Zavala dedicated a song to ”all the people who don’t want us to keep writing the first two albums all over and over again.” It sounded like a good sign that the band was continuing to evolve. Evolve they did, but unfortunately, not for the better. It’s not that Bedlam in Goliath is a bad album, per se. It’s certainly better than a lot of the mainstream alternative rock tripe that graces the sales charts. It’s just that it’s so beneath what they’re capable of, and in a way, that’s worse.