The Mars Volta’s second album, “Frances The Mute”, is an incredibly accomplished record, a true testament to the band’s imagination, intellectual curiosity and outrageous musical talent. It has more ideas, more moments of wild abandon and explosive creativity than most HMVs have filed between “A and D”. Unfortunately, “Frances The Mute” is also awful.
It isn’t the fact that it’s a prog record (which it is, to the point of ridiculousness). Ever since the punk wars, the slur “prog” has been used as a cheap shot against any band who has dared to try and stretch pop music beyond the four minute, six chords blueprint. Without prog, we wouldn’t have records as astonishing as Radiohead’s “The Bends”, Mercury Rev’s “All Is Dream”, or Smashing Pumpkins’ “Siamese Dream”.
No, it isn’t the fact that it’s prog. It’s the fact that it’s such a mess, the sound of six million monkeys let loose in a state of the art studio. There may be moments of brilliance (and there are many), but the overall effect is one of gibberish, of Attention Deficit Syndrome with a record company advance. Worse still, while “Frances The Mute” is undoubtedly imaginative, most of the music here isn’t even very original, sounding like '70s rock and '80s hair metal chewed up and spat out undigested.
The Latin song titles wouldn’t matter, the fact that it is recorded in “suites” wouldn’t matter, even the fact that one track is named “Pour Another Icepick” wouldn’t matter, if just one of the hundred songs scrabbling desperately under the guitar solos and wibbling electronica was allowed the space to blossom. Single “The Widow” is the closest thing there is here to a fully realised song, and the fact that it’s so dynamic and tight makes the overall lack of those qualities even more frustrating.
Given that this is a record made up of dozens of snatched moments without any structure, perhaps that is also the only way to review it. A Guns 'N Roses rock out. A Pink Floyd slow burn. A Muse squeal. A little bossanova. A Yes moment of keyboard squiggling. Free jazz. A little crunchy Metallica. Vocals fed through cheesegraters. Kate Bush atmospherics. Jeff Lynne.
But that’s not very satisfying and neither is this record. The Mars Volta are to be applauded for releasing an album which is so obviously designed to please themselves. But the rest of us are not obliged to join them.