The prog-punks of The Mars Volta have endured more than half a decade of criticism that they make noisy, incoherent albums, so it’s refreshing that the group’s fifth full-length is tied together by silence. Well, not silence per se, but that’s how it sounds at first. Only with the speakers cranked is it clear that the opening minute and a half of Octahedron holds a low, suspense-building hum that reappears throughout. It’s easy to get numbed by The Mars Volta’s overwrought echo-chamber jamming and lyrics lifted from chemistry textbooks, but the hum serves as a reminder of why anyone likes this band in the first place: These guys know how to create, corral, then dissipate tension.
With a few exceptions, Octahedron is an album of ballads. That’s a problem, because slow songs lean on Cedric Bixler-Zavala’s wordy, watery whine and don’t come with the structural tricks and percussive energy that differentiate The Mars Volta from more standard forms of metal. Worse, they’re poor vehicles for delivering the whiplash and catharsis that make the band’s best tracks so addictive. It’s frustrating, because even the weepy opener “Since We’ve Been Wrong” shows that Zavala can plant hooks in a sonic mess. This is a band that excels when its sing-alongs double as freak-outs; on Octahedron, they’ve largely ditched the chaos in lieu of an admirable, albeit unsatisfying, experiment in being quiet.