The Mars Volta

Let’s say some arcane branch of alchemy made it possible to distill the surrealism of painters like Salvador Dalí, Frida Kahlo,and Remedios Varo through the acid-rock filter of Blue Cheer, King Crimson, and Can; the resulting brew might give you a decent approximation of what the Mars Volta’s music sounds like.

The Mars Volta (left to right)—Juan Alderete de la Peña, Marcel Rodríguez-López, Omar Rodríguez-López, Cedric Bixler-Zavala, and Deantoni Parks.LET'S SAY some arcane branch of alchemy made it possible to distill the surrealism of painters like Salvador Dalí, Frida Kahlo, and Remedios Varo through the acid-rock filter of Blue Cheer, King Crimson, and Can; the resulting brew might give you a decent approximation of what the Mars Volta’s music sounds like. Barring that, it’s probably best to approach the band’s sixth studio album by preparing to have the top of your head sheared off.

Noctourniquet (Warner) is a turbulent slab of hard-driving rock, tempered with swirling eddies of ambient psychedelia and finely crafted electronic effects and filigrees—par for the course, longtime fans of the band will say, but as with any Mars Volta project, there’s an underlying method to the madness. This one started, according to guitarist and producer Omar Rodríguez-López, with a bit of a spat he got into with lead singer Cedric Bixler-Zavala.

“After 20 years of being friends, Cedric and I have had very few arguments,” Rodríguez- López explains. “But he wanted to take his time to work on this record, and he didn’t like me being on top of him like I usually am. So it was strange for me because I recorded the music right after Octahedron [2009], but it was about two-and-a-half years before Cedric got around to writing his lyrics. I think he accomplished what he set out to do, though— I mean, I consider a song like ‘Empty Vessels [Make the Loudest Sound]’ to be his best work to date.”

The song’s trippy intimacy makes his point, but first things first: The instrumental tracks for Noctourniquet were laid down, for the most part, at Rodríguez-López’s Pro Tools-based E-Clat studio in Guadalajara, Mexico, but unlike past Mars Volta albums, he ended up keeping a good deal of the demo parts he recorded himself (on guitars, synths and bass) instead of giving them to the rest of the band—specifically, bassist Juan Alderete and keyboardist (and younger brother) Marcel Rodríguez-López—to re-cut. “I played most of it, but Juan is a longtime ally and I didn’t want to upset him,” Rodríguez-López clarifies. “And this will be the last record where I’m the sole composer of the music or the dictator of the band, because I definitely want to open it up. A big part of that awakening was running into an artist like Deantoni Parks.”

Gifted with an almost surgical grasp of rhythm, a boatload of hard funk chops, and the instincts of a free-jazz drummer twice his age, Parks brings an energy to Noctourniquet that pushes a song like “The Whip Hand,” which opens the album, into slicedup time signatures and heady grooves that the band hasn’t really tried before. In the last few years, the Mars Volta have gone through drummers the way Jimi Hendrix went through guitars, so the importance of landing Parks, who’s known for his work with everyone from John Cale to Meshell Ndegeocello, isn’t lost on Rodríguez-López.

“He’s a kindred spirit,” he says, referring to Parks’ ability to listen just once to a demo and not only duplicate whatever drum machine pattern Rodríguez-López could throw at him, but change it up slightly with taste and precision. “I don’t think we did more than two takes on anything, and we usually took his first take. If we did more than that, it was merely for my own enjoyment because I was so blown away by what I was hearing.”

For all his hardcore roots, Rodríguez-López insists he didn’t record and mix Noctourniquet as a rock album, but looked instead to the classic dub reggae sound that he has mined in the past (starting in the late ’90s with De Facto, a dubbed out side project of the Mars Volta’s previous punk incarnation At the Drive-In). It’s the foundation, for example, of the epic “In Absentia”—a marauding beast of synthesized pads, cavernous echo-flanges, and stripped dub-style beats.

Layering a Roland SH-101, a Dave Smith Mopho, and several Doepfer A-100 patches, Rodríguez-López ran the synth parts, along with bass and Parks’ drums, through several treatments for the song’s A section, eventually bouncing nearly 20 tracks down to a stereo mix he could continue working from. For the choruses, he used a Critter & Guitari Kaleidoloop to sample and loop the effects treatments that were hanging over from the A section, creating an undulating sheet of synth washes and cascading after-effects.

“There’s no true meter to the chorus,” he says, “so I had to turn off all that sh*t and just give Cedric a click and a drone to sing over. I used to mic his voice with [an AKG] C12, but for this one—for the whole record, in fact—I used a [Neumann] U67 and sometimes a U48 to get a darker sound. Once we got the right take, I turned on all the other stuff.” In the final mix, Bixler-Zavala’s vocals were run again through SoundToys’ EchoBoy and Decapitator, pushing the song further into a disorienting, dreamlike fugue that recalls early Pink Floyd or even Pet Sounds-eraBeach Boys.

Production moves like these abound on Noctourniquet, from the quirky Critter & Guitari handheld synth that opens “Vedamalady” to the vibrato-soaked guitars (aided by a Maestro Phaser and a Boss VB-2 Vibrato) that wander through “Imago.” Working with longtime engineer and synth expert Lars Stalfors, Rodríguez- López mixed the album in L.A. with a simple plan in mind: Don’t mix it like a rock record, and don’t waste any time thinking about it.

“You can definitely get caught up in thinking some of these songs might be difficult to mix,” he says. “They can, unless you’re completely reckless, which is something I really have fun doing. I mean, I put a lot of guitar parts on right before the mix, just with my Ibanez [AX120 Custom] and whatever pedals I had lying around. But I’ve written, recorded, and mixed about 20 albums in the last three years, so I’ve done a lot of experimenting, and like I said, this was a strange record for me. I’m used to taking what I always say are snapshots— Polaroids—of where I’m at, and this was different. It was more drawn-out, but maybe that’s what needed to happen.”

Bill Murphy is a freelance writer based in New York City, and a regular contributor to Electronic Musician and Bass Player.

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