To say that tongues are wagging in anticipation of The Mars Volta’s second full-length release, Frances The Mute, is an understatement so shockingly under-proportioned that it makes me sick. My tongue’s rolled out like some kind of fleshy red carpet, such is my eagerness to douse my ears in prog-rock bombast. Frances The Mute doesn’t disappoint. In fact, pencil it in now for the end-of-2005 honours.
Here’s how it breaks down:
The album was recorded all over the place, from Byron Bay to New York City. Yet despite the disparate surroundings it was recorded in, Frances The Mute sounds utterly coherent and fully realised. Yes, it’s essentially one, long song drawn out over some six tracks, many of which are then divided into different parts again. Actually, it’s all a little Yes, isn’t it? For those that care about such things, it features guest appearances from Larry Harlow on piano and Flea on trumpet, as well as fellow Chili John Frusciante on guitar, Lenny Castro on percussion and Adrian Terrazas on saxophone and flute. Strings and horns, of which there are many, are arranged by David Campbell. The whole thing’s produced by Omar Rodriguez-Lopez himself.
And here’s what happened when muggins here heard it:
The album’s opened by Cygnus… Vismund Cygnus, which is in turn quartered into Sarcophagi, Umbillical Syllables, Facilis Descenus Averni and Con Safo. You might have already guessed that parts of it are sung in Spanish. The song opens quietly, but the drums that kick in alongside the first Spanish vocals are nothing short of amazing. They make your heart skip a beat, so out-of-the-blue are they. Later in the song, the band incorporate multi-layered vocals, coming on like some kind of Queen-meets-Zeppelin supergroup. Repeated lyrics include “Who do you trust?” One thing’s certain: trust and faith in The Mars Volta are totally restored after this opening alone.
The first song fades into noises akin to a jet engine slowing; a space rocket descending. A pulsating beat emerges from the white noise, peppered with street sounds and engines revving. Then track two, The Widow begins. It’ll be released as a single, and is by far the most commercially viable track on the record, not least of all because it doesn’t clock in at over 15 minutes or so. Again, the song is punctuated by huge drums (I really can’t stress enough how big they are), and strings come to the fore on the song’s chorus, ending with the line “Cuz I’ll never sleep alone…”. Presumably there’ll be a single edit, as after the last clear vocal fades the song collapses into more noise, like a child’s music box slowly breaking down, distorted and disjointed vocals permeating through. Another repetitive beat begins.
As does L’Via L’Viaquez, sung mostly in Spanish, some spoken-word segments aside. It possesses a strong latino/flamenco vibe (Flamenco-core, anyone?), with lots of Spanish guitar work, and features jazz pianist Larry Harlow. The song opens with a totally indulgent guitar riff that harks back to a bygone age of endless solos, replete with fretwork wankery that’d have the prog-rock masters crying in admiration. The beats that complement the opening remind me of the Head Automatica album.
We could be in some dusty cantina, only it’d be on the moon and drinks would be served by spacesuit-wearing chimps. I’m starting to think this is the best album I’m going to hear in an age.
Distorted vocals, again, close the song, only this time they’re positively evil, like a cartoon villain or something. Twittering noises, akin to birds at dawn or a number of squeaking wheels fill the speakers. The ambient drone slows and quickens, like a 45 being switched to 33 over and over again. It heralds the start of Miranda, That Ghost Just Isn’t Holy Anymore. Again, it’s a song broken into sections - Vade Mecum, Pour Another Icepick, Pisacis (Phra-Men-Ma) and Con Safo (note the last part shares its name with the first song – anyone know Spanish?). A trumpet runs circles around the squealing guitars, and the whole thing builds and builds until there’s no place else to go but down. And that’s where it goes, the vocals kicking in some five minutes in: “I’ve always wanted to eat glass with you again”. The background noises, all intricate and snake-like, threaten to suck you in deeper, but Cedric’s yelping keeps you at a safe distance. The song almost plods along for some minutes, only to pick up speed again at eight and a half minutes, and those drums (oh, those drums) return with a vengeance. Whilst the song’s playing, Televators comes on MTV2 (it’s on mute). Weird.
And to the centrepiece, the crowning glory of Frances The Mute - Cassandra Geminni. Broken into at least five sections - Tarantism, Plant A Nail In The Naval Stream, Faminepulse, Multiple Spouse Wounds and Sarcophagi, it twists and turns for some 30 minutes. Maybe. Truth be told, I’m lost in it. “I think I’ve become like one of the others” yelps Cedric. Err, I don’t think so.
Spoken word is used for the second time on the album, prominently at least, in the first few minutes. “She was a mink handjob in sarcophagus heels” whispers a Thriller-like voice. Oooh errr missus. Proggy guitars not heard since pigs floated over Battersea litter the track like spent papers on the tube come 10 o’clock. Everything reeks of over indulgence – this is The Mars Volta having their cake, eating it, and regurgitating it for their freakish offspring. Cedric’s possessed with a fury not heard since ATD-I, and…
…oh wait, those Queens of Noize hags are on the TV. I feel a little queasy…
…Anyway. A piano is pushed off a particularly tall building some way into the song (by this time I can’t tell when a track begins or finishes – the album’s a sprawling monster with a mind of its own), whilst Cedric repeats the line “Twenty five wives in the lake tonight”. Another guitar riff comes on like the Chilis gone absolutely mental – complete funk madness.
…fucking Kasabian are on the TV fuck fuck fuck…
As the track/song/whatever nears its conclusion, it turns into an epic, Pink Floyd-like number, so much so that I’m expecting Dave Gilmour to start whittering on mindlessly. Saxophone and a meat-ball bass play Swingball with each other. I’m playing air sax with my pen. Lines might be improvised. Where is my mind?
And then we’re done. The track Frances The Mute isn’t on this copy. It’ll be a delectable dessert come release time in March. The verdict? Like you need me to spell it out. I’ll leave you with what just might be the last line of the greatest album of 2005:
“This never happened, but I saw you leave, and crawl into a bed of broken windows”