Never underestimate The Mars Volta’s ability to surprise even their most ardent fans. Going back to the earliest days of their first band, At The Drive-In, Cedric Bixler-Zavala and Omar Rodríguez-López have been musical chameleons, shapeshifting from the artful, furious hardcore punk of that outfit to make way for the explosion of prog rock, jazz, alt-rock and Latin beats of The Mars Volta.
And now, coming a decade and a short-lived split after their last album, Noctourniquet, they have boldly and unexpectedly gone pop, with their self-titled new collection landing neatly between smooth, espradille-clad yacht rock and slinky R&B.
There’s a darkness at the heart of it all. The band came to a halt in 2013, after Bixler-Zavala joined the Church of Scientology ostensibly to try and deal with a financially crippling weed habit. He did not have a great experience, and has since been vocal in his criticism of the organisation, not least because his wife, the actor Chrissie Carnell, was among the members to accuse fellow Scientologist Danny Masterson – her former costar on The ’70s Show and one-time partner – of rape (something he denies), and to describe controlling and coercive behaviour within the church.
Bixler-Zavala’s fury at that hellish predicament is plain throughout this record. “I’ll shine the blackest light,” he sings on Blacklight Shine. “To the culprit on all fours.” In times past this sentiment would have been backed with an impenetrable wall of noise, a musical melange made to unpick over days and weeks of listening. Here, though, it’s met with a slice of MOR funk worthy of Hall & Oates, backed with slinky rattlesnake percussion.
Arguably, this is the first time in The Mars Volta that Bixler-Zavala’s voice has taken centre stage, Rodríguez-López’s firework fretwork taking a backseat for a more subtle instrumentation, not least on Shire Story. A moonlit take on R&B that owes a substantial debt to Prince, it’s romantic, even sexy, in a way that is completely new to them.
Elsewhere, the swooning 80s pop of Vigil, the Latin soul of Qué Dios De Maldiga Mí Corazón, and the heavy reggae of Equus 3 show a band stretching themselves for their own satisfaction, whatever the expectation of their usual audience. Even No Case Gain, with the spikier vocals of old, is tempered by an atmospheric musical base that suggests a love of early Talk Talk. It’s all so tasteful.
Where once they would gallop, here they lope, they slide, giving themselves all the time in the world. Hardcore fans of the weird stuff are going to hate it. It’s hard to imagine this duo of aural adventurers giving a fig about that. This is clearly the right music for this stage in their musical evolution. It’s good to see that they’re still keeping us guessing.