The Mars Volta‘s second album, Frances the Mute, was released March 1, 2005. Seen in retrospect, it marked the group’s creative peak. On subsequent albums, guitarist Omar Rodríguez-López‘s startling creative ambition became bound up with his desire to avoid repeating himself, and the music became increasingly alienating. The live ScabDates, 2006’s Amputechture, and 2008’s The Bedlam in Goliath all frequently felt pointlessly chaotic and arbitrary, throwing perverse challenges at the listener—”I dare you to like this.”
On their first two albums, though, Rodríguez-López and his creative partner, vocalist Cedric Bixler-Zavala, were doing something genuinely exciting. Their music, executed with a crew of phenomenally talented and open-minded players, was a breathtaking fusion of Latin rock, hardcore, postpunk, dub, electronic noise, free jazz and whatever else bubbled up out of the omnivorously listening guitarist’s brain, flavored with magical realism and the Catholicism-suffused surrealism of Alejandro Jodorowsky and Frida Kahlo. Their full-length debut, 2003’s De-Loused in the Comatorium, produced by Rick Rubin and featuring the Red Hot Chili Peppers‘ Flea on bass, was frantic and explosive, the songs tumbling over each other in a tidal wave of Led Zeppelin-meets-Santana riffs, Bixler-Zavala’s piercing near-falsetto vocals and gibberish lyrics, throbbing funk bass, and machine-gun drum fills. Rodríguez-López and Bixler-Zavala later criticized Rubin’s production, claiming he’d dumbed down the music, but De-Loused is the perfect introduction to the band’s manic, hyper-dense sound—it doesn’t sound like anything else, but it’s still comprehensible to the average hard rock fan. That wouldn’t last.
Frances the Mute was produced entirely by Rodríguez-López, and sounds it. The mix is more dense, and while there’s a core band—keyboardist Isaiah “Ikey” Owens, bassist Juan Alderete de la Peña, drummer Jon Theodore, and percussionist/keyboardist Marcel Rodríguez-López (Omar’s brother)—supporting the duo, guests abound, including Flea again (playing trumpet this time), his Red Hot Chili Peppers bandmate John Frusciante on guitar, salsa legend Larry Harlow on piano and clavinet, and a small army of horns and strings. And where De-Loused had 10 tracks, ranging from 90-second interludes to the 12:29 “Cicatriz E.S.P.”, Frances includes only five pieces of music, three of which (“Cygnus…Vismund Cygnus,” “L’Via L’Viaquez,” and “Miranda That Ghost Just Isn’t Holy Anymore”) fall in the 12-13 minute range, and one—”Cassandra Gemini”—tops out at an exhausting 32:32. The sole exception to this sprawl is the single, “The Widow,” which runs a concise 5:51. But even that includes two closing minutes of electronic noise and doodling. The title track was not included on the album, likely for reasons of space; at nearly 15 minutes, it would have required Frances to be a two-CD set, something their label was probably unwilling to go for. But it’s a crucial piece of the puzzle—at one point, it was included on the CD single of “The Widow,” and is now available as a stand-alone track from iTunes and other digital music stores.
Every track on Frances is introduced, concluded, or bridged somewhere in the middle by ambient interludes, field recordings, or other noise experiments. The songs proper are titanic, shifting epics, at times recalling Yes as much as Led Zeppelin or Santana. Rodríguez-López and, on “L’Via L’Viaquez,” Frusciante litter the landscape with wild, shredding guitar solos, as drummer Theodore absolutely demolishes his kit. On “Cassandra Gemini,” Alderete takes a mind-blowing, fuzzed-out bass solo that shifts the whole piece into a different gear. Supposedly there’s an underlying concept that unifies all the songs, but Bixler-Zavala’s lyrics are such densely knotted nonsense (whether in English or Spanish) it’s hard to know, or care, what it might be. It’s better to just let the music wash over you.
The Mars Volta are frequently described as a progressive rock band, but listening to Frances the Mute points out the hollowness of that description. There’s nothing truly “progressive” about what they were doing—indeed, they seemed to be moving backward. Every influence they threw into their sonic stew came from rock music’s peak creative era of 1969-74; the echoes of Led Zeppelin‘s Presence (De-Loused is like an album-length cover of “Achilles Last Stand”), Yes‘s Close to the Edge, Tales from Topographic Oceans and Relayer, Santana‘s white-suit period (Caravanserai, Love Devotion Surrender, Welcome, Illuminations, and Lotus), as well as the Fania All-Stars‘ Latin-Soul-Rock and Tangerine Dream‘s Atem, Alpha Centauri and Zeit are all strongly present. But the way they combined all that stuff was unique, and shocking in the context of the early 2000s. And live, they were a force of unearthly power; I saw them play New York’s now-defunct Roseland Ballroom on May 5, 2005, with a band that was nine members strong before Larry Harlow came on as a special guest. The music felt like one long piece, like a combination of the MC5, Fela Kuti‘s Afrika 70, Santana‘s Lotus-era band and Miles Davis‘s 1973-75 septet (as heard on Agharta and Pangaea). Pieces from De-Loused and Frances were transformed into massive, thermonuclear eruptions that blended together and went on and on, as though the band was attempting to lift the audience’s brains straight out of their skulls. I’m usually the first one to scoff when live music is described as “transcendent,” but the Mars Volta circa 2005 were exactly that.
Stream Frances the Mute (including its title track) on Spotify: