Outside of Dream Theater, The Mars Volta is the only band making a case for virtuosic, high-concept progressive rock as a mainstream crossover tool. Granted, it helps that the group's core—singer Cedric Bixler-Zavala and guitarist/chief songwriter Omar Rodriguez-Lopez—first conquered the mainstream in '90s punk superhero At The Drive-In. But five years into their present incarnation, the two are so far removed from punk-rock proper, you'd need DNA analysis to trace them to it. In fact, with Amputechture, it's as if they'd prefer to erase their past completely—recent output included.
Understanding the influence of The Mars Volta's previous studio albums (2003's De-loused In The Comatorium and 2005's Frances The Mute) only requires a quick look at present punk-rock. Today, it's nearly impossible to find an upstart punk band that isn't writing "an ambitious new concept album" that tests the limits of CD capacity. Amputechture, like all The Mars Volta's albums, does that as well—it's really long—but it also jettisons conceptual narrative in favor of loosely connected lyrical vignettes. And Rodriguez-Lopez and Bixler-Zavala are playing and singing well beyond punk's limits, in effect daring the upstarts to approach them this time.
Unfortunately, while that bravado makes for some amazing moments—the bent Martian funk of "Tetragrammaton," the Frank Zappa-meets-John McLaughlin guitar fireworks of "Vermicide"—it doesn't translate to compelling songs. Sequenced into one long, continuous piece of music, most of Amputechture's tracks arrive at impressive jazz-fusion pit stops that are all too brief. Listeners anticipating moments that actually rock will find solace in the angular, muscular two-fer of "Viscera Eyes" and "Day Of The Baphomets," but these are mere fragments in a massive piece of work. For the most part, Amputechture is just filigree.