Francis the Mute –
The Mars Volta

by Mike D'Ariano

4/2005

Francis the Mute is the second album by the Mars Volta, a band formed from the wreckage of At The Drive In who called it quits a few years back. Basically, the band is Omar A. Rodriguez and Cedric Bixler Zavala, and whoever they get to play with them on a given day. The liner notes to the new album say "On this recording, the Mars Volta is Omar A Rodriguez, Cedric Bixler Zavala, Jon Theodore, Juan Alderte de la Pena, Isaiah Ikey Owens and Marcel Rodriguez-Lopez.", and then goes on under the heading "joining the band for selected moments" to list some twenty additional musicians most notably Jon Frusciante and Flea of the Red Hot Chili Peppers. Flea plays not the bass he is known for but rather, trumpet on two songs.

This is a concept album built around a diary that was found in the back of a cab.
I've already told you more about the album than I knew when I bought it. I had heard they were good, and I had a ten dollar store credit to Best Buy who had the album on sale for….ten dollars. I paid the sales tax and hoped from the bottom of my heart that the record was worth eighty-six cents.

The band's been labeled Prog by people that like to label things, and as a result, the comparison they get the most, is to the kings of Prog, Pink Floyd. Now, this is tricky, I get the comparison to Pink Floyd and I'll explain in a minute, but Prog? Come on man you can't do better than that? Once in a while things can be described without digging up some thirty year old phrase to do so….not everything needs to fit in a pre-existing category….but I digress.

Anyway, the band occasionally actually sounds like Pink Floyd, but for the most part they do not. The comparison to Pink Floyd makes more sense structurally than it does sonically. The album has lots of long tunes that run into each other, it has some sound effects, and much like Floyd's classic album, Animals, it begins and ends with the same piece of delicate acoustic music. What the band is actually playing however would rarely fit in Pink Floyd's musical landscape.

So who do they actually sound like? Well, at times they sound like At The Drive In, but that's too easy. At other times they sound like, Tool, and at others like Funkadelic, and at still other times like Led Zeppelin, Gov't Mule, Jethro Tull (Name me another rocker with a flute and feel free to drop their name on this list), Marilyn Manson, and Bitches Brew era Miles Davis. And that's when they're not singing in Spanish, which they do for a while on the twelve minute "L'Via L'Viaquez" or when they have an entire symphony orchestra plugging along with them near the end of the thirteen minute opener, "Cygnus…Vismund Cygnus". Those moments respectively call to mind other comparisons to the likes of the Afro-Cuban All-stars, and any big rock band you've ever heard do the symphony thing like Metallica, Kiss or Guns N Roses.

Now just so you know, even with all those different sounds going on, the album only has five songs. Granted only one of them, go figure - it's the single - is shorter than twelve and a half minutes, but it's still a lot of ground to cover in just five tunes. None of the songs really stay in the same space for long. They tend to jump from genre to genre and when you're not expecting it they double back to familiar ground and add a twist. It's somewhat spastic in a Frank Zappa, George Clinton kind of way but after you get used to the water, it's an enjoyable place to swim.

For me, the albums' greatest achievement is its finale. The song "Cassandra Geminni" which occupies the last thirty-two minutes of the disc is mind-blowing. On the back of the CD, the song is listed as being in 5 parts: Tarantism, Plant A Nail In The Navel Stream, Famine Pulse, Multiple Spouse Wounds and Sarcophagi. But on the actual disc, the song is divided into 8 parts with no notation as to which part is which. The whole thing is very late period Beatles, you know, confusing and weird just for the hell of it. It's on this beast of a song that the band really starts getting to the meat of what it seems to me they're all about - improvisation, sonic flux, and a hook, spread over thirty plus minutes of chaos.

About halfway through, on the fifth track of the song, they cut the whole thing back to just bass, guitar and drums for a while and then in track six add a horn to make the feeling of Miles' most drugged out electric work complete. Then out of nowhere the hook, and the ROCK comes crashing back in for the end of track six and all fifty seconds of track seven. Track eight (remember by the way that this is still the same damn song) comes instantly back to earth, and in an acoustic Zeppelin-esqe fashion, ends the album, as I mentioned earlier, mirroring the way it began seventy-six minutes and four songs ago. Whoa.

So, I name-dropped about a dozen acts from all over the musical spectrum and I still don't think I've quite covered the sound of this record. This disc is highly recommended if you're into music that refuses to be classified…I mean Jesus, the critics had to dig up Prog a thirty-year-old term that basically meant 'we don't know what to call this' to even come close. Yeah, it's a little weird, but so was "I am the eggman, I am the walrus coo coo cu choo". All in all this disc is excellent…well worth your ten bucks and my eighty-six cents.



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