Since making an epic splash with 2003’s De-Loused In The Comatorium, The Mars Volta has been circling around the perfect realization of its sound—and mostly failing to nail it. The group’s sixth full-length, Noctourniquet, comes after its longest break between albums, and much has changed: Some longtime contributors (notably keyboardist Isaiah Owens and Red Hot Chili Peppers alum John Frusciante) have left, and the surprise reunion of The Mars Volta’s predecessor, At The Drive-In, has been announced. None of these developments have resulted in a full-blown Mars Volta renaissance. Something’s been nudged in the right direction, though; although Noctourniquet is another disjointed hodgepodge of prog surplus, it’s also the band’s most addictive and accessible album in years.
That said, it has problems. The group pieced together Noctourniquet during many months of flux, and it shows. As with 2009’s relatively hushed Octahedron, there’s little of Omar Rodríguez-López’s intricately dense fretwork. Echoes, empty space, and acoustic guitars abound. But on tracks like the aggressively psychedelic “Molochwalker” and the sumptuous “Aegis,” a giddy poise is struck between excess and restraint. Keyboardist (and brother of Omar) Marcel Rodríguez-López doesn’t help, though. Without the far superior Owens around to rein him in, Marcel smears otherwise excellent songs such as “Dyslexicon” and “Zed And Two Naughts” with mechanical, mashed-key synth squiggles. And the hollow, brittle production only heightens the overall sense of disconnection.
Luckily, singer Cedric Bixler-Zavala sighs, croons, and screeches near the top of his game. On “The Malkin Jewel,” he pivots elegantly from a fractured, Beefheart-like verse to a snarling chorus; on “Vedamalady,” he overcomes a layer of electronic mush to mesh gorgeously with Omar’s haunting, understated guitar. To the duo’s credit, the newfound moderation they exercised on the bland Octahedron has been livened up with some classic Mars Volta bombast and melodrama. But the fresh focus on organic songwriting and sturdier, more evocative melodies renders Noctourniquet a welcome oddity in The Mars Volta’s catalog: a work that shoots not for perfection, but for balance.