Some albums aren’t meant to be picked apart.
The Mars Volta’s Frances the Mute carves explosive shapes out of silence with anguished wails, Sgt. Pepper string arrangements, swelling Latin horn sections, and hyperactive rhythms that stampede ahead and then disperse. Elemental rumbles and echoes play out possibilities and double back. But the Magritte-like booklet imagery suggests a twisted narrative to be unlocked, and printing the lyrics might have been a mistake. The phrases are artfully strung together in English and Spanish, and Cedric Bixler-Zavala’s voice casts Freddie Mercury as a soul singer. But on paper the words look like placeholders—like in Paul McCartney’s legendary conception of “Yesterday” as “Scrambled Eggs.” Is Frances really mute, or just a bad communicator?
So we return to this band’s real enchantment: Suspenseful echoes of guitar effects, ambient cymbal shimmers, and street noise evolve and are gradually replaced with a repetitive synth cycle or ghosts of a singing voice, wooing you into dreamland until Jon Theodore’s drum fills and crashes jolt you awake. Guitar lines by Omar A. Rodriguez-Lopez venture from pretty arpeggiations to delay-drenched lickety-split runs, from sustained harmonic notes to high-pitched power chords that he bangs and bends relentlessly as shock treatment. Sometimes he steps around with notes that sound randomized, their queasy clash recalling Andy Summers’s style-defining solo in the Police’s “Driven to Tears.”
The vocal melodies tease with drawn-out “oh”s and “aaaah”s, but change just as soon as you’ve caught on. “All night, I’ll hunt for you”; “And when Miranda sang, everyone turned away” —at these points, the rhythms and chords and syllables align like cherries on a slot machine jackpot. In “L’ Via L’ Viaquez,” rock sung in Spanish comically switches gears into groovy salsa beats with English words.
The final third of the album is mainly instrumental; just before that, lyrical clarity finally glimmers, when a protagonist dies. An attentive fan might guess that maybe Frances is the band’s former member Jeremy Ward, who died of a drug overdose in 2003 after perhaps giving little indication of inner turmoil (thus, figuratively mute). An even more attentive fan—say, one who reads the band’s bio in order to get the backstory—would learn there’s more to it: The album was inspired by a diary that Jeremy found. Like him, the diary’s writer longed to find his birth parents.
Jeremy also haunts Omar’s solo A Manual Dexterity: Soundtrack Volume One; he plays the lead in the unreleased film. For now, A Manual Dexterity conjures a movie in your head. Siren-like sounds and rapid wah-wah evoke tricky visions of city streets that shift toward a festive Puerto Rican family gathering, then into private ruminations. Omar talks to himself with his guitar as the phone sits off the hook, beeping annoyingly to remind him there’s no one on the other end. Another song flicks in and out through a poorly connected speaker. A typewriter clacks with each letter pressed by an excruciatingly slow typist, as a guitar types out each note in parallel. (The star member of Omar’s antique typewriter collection also seems to make a cameo appearance on Frances the Mute, among the sonic explorations following “The Widow.”)
In the middle of an almost purely instrumental album, a peppy love song emerges—the type of abrupt corner turn that’s a Mars Volta signature. Written and sung in Spanish by Omar’s dad for his mom, the joyful salsa tune stands out like a scenic overlook above a lush valley. Yet, manipulated and distorted in Omar’s studio, it becomes sad and removed.
On the last track, Cedric’s familiar voice joins up, leaping in his unbelievably effortless-sounding high arcs and then ducking beneath Omar’s guitar screams. They’re the dueling divas of prog, a categorization that gets their panties in a twist. But maybe prog is just a different animal than it was 30 years ago.