The Hang of Music: Tira Me Up, Tira Me Down

Did I say that the last album was going to be serious madness? I must have lied, because the crazy shit is right here.

That’s right, it’s The Mars Volta, with “Deloused in the Comatorium”.z3d3xsyío8

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OK, maybe I’m playing it up a bit. You may not think so, from that video, but I am. But more on that later. The point is that The Mars Volta are weird. I don’t think I’ve ever had to describe a band’s genre as being latin prog-rock, but that is still definitely and certainly what they are.*

That’s kind of one of the things that I often like about the Mars Volta, actually – Prog, but with tunes that you can dance to. And the very fact that I can say that may imply that I have brain damage, because if you’ve listened to any MV, you’ll know that if they’re anything, they’re difficult.

So yeah, this is apparently a concept album. And to be fair, it sounds more like a concept album than the only other work by the band that I have heard. (That being “Frances The Mute”, album number two after this ‘un.)  And yet I find it strange that this is some of the most like music I’ve ever heard them sound. They actually sound like a heavy, slightly indie band, rather than a mashup of every single genre of music ever. They sound as far from being as impenetrable as (for example) Tool** as I think they (The Mars Volta) could possibly hope to achieve.

For no discernable reason beyond the eerie vibe it lets off, this is all I watched for the first half of the album.

As with most prog rock bands – and especially the concept albums – all of the tracks merge from one to the next. The merge from track one to track two is particularly good. I have to admit though; either they’re trying to be off-putting, or some of them just had to force. Consider, for example, the merge from “Drunkship of Lanterns” to “Eriatarka”, where the slow rhythmic thudding of the first instantly jumps into the mid pace ballad that is the second.***

I dare you not to be surprised by the jump back in after a long fade out in “Cicatriz ESP”. I mean <spoilers> the first one, not the second </spoilers> because that is one long song. Far too long to not even be divided into suites, but hey, you know – that’s just me. I have a real Suite-tooth.

Musically, there’s a lot to love. All the musicianship and weird folk elements that should not work are well combined. Great drumming (see “Roulette Dares (The Haunt of)”) and bass playing (for which I am a sucker – check out “Drunkship of Lanterns”) are in attendance. And “Tira Me A Las Aranas” sounds like the alternate, creepy universe, of the incredible string band; like someone gave the band a synth, a saw, and an ear infection. They pull it off with style.

So far, though, this really sounds a lot less like a concept album than I would expect of the band.**** That’s partly because, from what I’ve heard, none of it seems designed to **evoke** anything. The only thing that seems to connect the songs is that two of the word salad titles have the phrase ESP in them. Really, that’s all.

I know this is meant to be a concept album. The band themselves say that. It’s based on a short story the lead singer wrote. But it’s not. The lead singer may say that it is, but I politely disagree. Here is an (admittedly non-exhaustive) list of things that concept albums have:

  • Recurring riffs
  • Recurring characters
  • Recurring themes

Listen to “Comatorium”. It does none of these things. I suppose a couple of the songs sound sort of similar; but they would, they’re written by the same band. And maybe a couple of the lyrics concern sadness and beautiful imagery. But so does “Frances The Mute”, and I imagine a lot of their songs. So no, this is not a concept album in any meaningful sense.

To describe the actual music, I’m going to borrow a phrase that came into my head when I first heard L’Via Viaquez, off of “Frances The Mute”. I’ve listenened to a lot of MV since then, and it has not yet become any less true. [quote]. And that has all the advantages and disadvantages you would expect.

It’s brilliant, and memorable, and highly emotive, but once you’ve heard one song by them, it’s all very predictable. Like radioactive atoms, you don’t know when they’ll decay/change key/bpm/riff. But you know that they’re going to, and it will be almost entirely arbitrary. And that’s really cool! But really predictably weird and cool. Kinda like Lady Gaga *shudder* releasing a song about sex, parties and individualism – it’s par for the course.

Where did it even go?

I’ve been building up to this album for months. I’ve been waiting to get myself ready to tackle it. But now that I’ve played it, I’m almost disappointed, as it’s far less unlistenable than I was expecting. And by that I mean it’s very listenable. Now that I’ve heard it, “De-Loused in the Comatorium” is actually very fun, and possibly more enjoyable than “Frances the Mute”. It’s certainly got more songs that I can pick out individually and say “I like this”.

So I don’t know what gave me the impression that this would be a herculean feat. Sure, it’s not exactly pop – you need to think about it a bit. But why did it seem so alien? Do I have a faulty impression of them as some band trying to make unlistenable black noise? Does the concept of “an album about a man who OD’d on morphine and rat poison and slips into a coma” put me off? Have I been letting other people’s opinions colour my own again? Have I just put them on a pedestal? Do I ask too many questions?

All of this navel gazing is irrelevant. This is a really fun album, so long as you’re prepared to buy an extra plane ticket so your brain can come along, and on the grounds that you’re not expecting easy – just good.

* It’s not the number or adjectives you use to describe the genre that makes it particularly odd, it’s what those words are.

** Not that that’s a bad thing, he said quickly, raising his hands to protect his face.

*** Or at least as mid pace as any Mars Volta song, where BPM shifts come as standard.

**** I know now, in retrospect, that so was “Frances The Mute”. Really, I shouldn’t have to be told that, years on, by reading the Wikipedia article of another album. Really, that says it all.


Posted on August 10, 2012, in Music, The Hang of Music and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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