Listening to the Mars Volta is a lot like trying to piece together a jigsaw puzzle in the middle of a hurricane. The band’s explosive compositions are equal parts mathematical logic and natural disaster, a constant zigzag between focused polyrhythmic breakdowns and the spastic drone of buzz-saw guitars. “The Bedlam in Goliath,” the band’s latest —and perhaps most appropriately titled — release, overflows with a near-virtuosic grip on this controlled chaos.
Unlike previous Mars Volta albums, “Bedlam” ignites immediately. “Aberinkula,” the first track, is a rabid fistfight of modulated shrieks, odd-time twists and squealing saxophone. It’s a departure from the spacious subtleties that floated through the sonic borders of 2005’s “Frances the Mute” and foreshadows a return to the focused ferocity that propelled 2003’s masterpiece “De-Loused in the Comatorium.”
By the time listeners stumble into the eye of the storm — the third track provides a minute of melodic refuge before exploding again into syncopated dissonance — they are either overwhelmed, invigorated or a dizzy combination of the two.
Motion sickness aside, “Bedlam” stands out as the most instrumentally impressive Mars Volta album to date. Doubts about the band’s musical sustainability, raised with the departure of drummer Jon Theodore in 2006, are battered ruthlessly into submission by percussive whiz Thomas Pridgen. Omar Rodriguez-Lopez’s guitar lines howl with previously untapped Eastern exotica. The production is certainly denser, but what is lacking in immediate accessibility is easily recovered in richness. Even the shortest tracks like “Tourniquet Man,” a haunting ballad which runs well under three minutes, require repeated listening.
The album’s theme, framed with singer Cedric Bixler-Zavala’s characteristically cryptic lyrics, was supposedly derived from a Ouija-type board the band purchased in Jerusalem. “The Soothsayer,” as it came to be called, reportedly spouted detailed character descriptions and is believed (by the band, as well as by many fans) to be responsible for a slew of disasters that plagued the album’s production.
“The Bedlam in Goliath” is steeped in intrigue and definitely a difficult album to define. Listeners seeking consistent, catchy hooks, danceability or lyrical clarity will be ground to fine mincemeat in its gnashing teeth. Picky progressive connoisseurs on the other end of the musical spectrum will lament the absence of order in the band’s often-spastic compositions. For those in between and not afraid to step out into its hurricane, “Bedlam” is certainly a puzzle worth assembling — that is, if you don’t mind flying debris.
“The Bedlam in Goliath” by Mars Volta received three out of four stars.