Former The Mars Volta and At The Drive-In Pioneers Return In Concise Shocker
Frankly, The Mars Volta were in desperate danger of disappearing down the rabbit hole of overblown prog noodling by the time of 2012’s Nocturniquet. The more focused prog leaning post-hardcore blast of their first two albums, 2003’s De-loused in the Comatorium and 2005’s Frances the Mute, had long since devolved into the age old plague of prog bands, getting lost within your own ambition. As such, upon The Mars Volta’s messy and acrimonious demise there didn’t seem to be much dismay. There was a sense the band had run their course, and that their most impressive offerings where long behind them. It seemed the Rodriguez-Lopez, Bixler-Zavala twenty year collaboration had run it’s natural course and, much like a productive but volatile marriage, eventually reached it’s logical conclusion. This meant that when they announced the formation of Antemasque earlier this year, it was as surprising as it was underwhelming. The prospect of the return of the brains behind The Mars Volta and At The Drive-In seemed to promise further boring exploration of self indulgence, which makes the end result of the reunited pair all that much more of a pleasant and unexpected return to form.
In an effort to describe the album, Bixler-Zavala declared, “The Mars Volta and At The Drive-In had a baby, and it’s called Antemasque.” This is fairly accurate. The record’s concise run times and more conventional song structures hark back to the genius post-hardcore of At The Drive-In while being somewhat stripped of much of their aggression. The drums, guitars and bass are frantic, manic and complex in a manner that recalls The Mars Volta’s best work.
On first listen, opener “4am” threw me for a loop. It’s concise, direct, and focused. Catchy as all hell too. Jagged guitars are punctuated by Flea’s, of Red Hot Chili Peppers fame, signature funk bass, while roiling drums tie the whole thing together. Bixler-Zavala’s signature demented preacher vocals surf over all this with aplomb. After this, I figured the album was bound to begin to meander and lose focus, I mean each Mars Volta album had it’s moments of straightforward focus (“Inertiatic ESP”, “The Widow” etc) before disappearing up it’s own backside. However, “I Got No Remorse” and “Ride Like The Devil’s Son” pass by and everything is still pared down and to the point. It’s a kind of post hardcore melded with classic rock tendencies. Fairly infectious.
Things take a bit of major detour on “50,000 Kilowatt”, which with it’s straightforward lyrics and classic rock approach make it ample fodder for the montage scene in the big rom-com of the summer. Something starring Katherine Heigl. It evokes images of pretty people laughing while goofing off in The Gap. Weirdly, it’s a success, perhaps only due to the sheer enthusiasm of the band’s delivery of the material. After another song (“Momento Mori”) that one would expect in a mixture of At The Drive-In and The Mars Volta comes “Drown All Your Witches” and another curve ball is launched at the listener. The songs acoustic open chord strumming immediately, and I do mean immediately, calls to mind Led Zeppelin III. This is made all the more eerie by Bixler-Zavala’s vocal similarity to Robert Plant. Again, it’s bizarrely successful and demands repeated listens.
While the record has cut the excess that cluttered up the last few The Mars Volta albums, there is nothing here that can match “One Armed Scissor”, “De-loused in the Comatorium” or “The Widow” for sheer power and memorability, and as such it fails to clamber it’s way from being a really good and able record to being a totally awesome album. The strength of the album lies in the group’s technical prowess combined with their obvious, enthusiasm for the material which drags even the slightly substandard material (Bixler-Zavala’s stilted lyrical delivery in the verses of “Providence” and the tendency of some tracks to meld into another) across the finish line and in it’s brevity, as at 34 minutes, it’s impossible for an album of this quality to overstay it’s welcome. However, in spite of this, the desire for a re-united At The Drive-In or The Mars Volta will always overshadow the El Paso boys current incarnation. Overall, they’ve simply got the better tunes.
Antemasque was released on 1st July via Nadie Sound.