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The Mars Volta, ‘Noctourniquet’ (Warner Bros.)

The Mars Volta
SPIN Rating: 7 of 10
Release Date: March 27, 2012
Label: Warner Bros.

Omar Rodriguez-Lopez of the Mars Volta has spoken recently with atypical clarity about the reunion of his old band, At the Drive-In, which is set to play Coachella alongside the Black Keys and Swedish House Mafia. “We’re not getting any younger, and there’s been an offer of money every year,” the guitarist told England’s NME. “You can’t avoid that.” To the metalheads at Kerrang!, Rodriguez-Lopez went one better, batting away the notion of a new studio album thusly: “At the Drive-In is more of a nostalgia thing.”

Contrast those straightforward sound bites with a random lyrical sample from any of the Mars Volta’s records — “Flinched the cocooned meat / Infra-recon forgets,” let’s say — and you might wonder if this Left Coast prog-punk ensemble might be ready to straighten out some of their kinks for this sixth album. Even the wordplay-ful title seems to suggest a conscious dial-down from the byzantine heights of their debut, De-Loused in the Comatorium, and tracks like “Take the Veil Cerpin Taxt.”

Usually, this is the point in the review where I’d roll out a particularly egregious bit of counter-evidence and assure that you that, despite the notable quotables, the Mars Volta remain committed to plumbing the depths of topographic oceans. And, sure, Noctourniquet arrives equipped with its share of diving gear: On “Molochwalker,” for instance, Rodriguez-Lopez busts out at least three guitar solos before 30 seconds have passed, while “Trinkets Pale of Moon” finds singer Cedric Bixler-Zavala pondering “amnesia fumes and little twists of silk” over a bed of backmasked crowd noise. (According to the band’s PR, Bixler-Zavala’s words were “inspired by disparate elements including ’80s U.K. alt-rockers the Godfathers, Superman comic nemesis Solomon Grundy, and the Greek myth of Hyacinthus,” which I can totally hear.)

Taken as an hourlong whole, though, Noctourniquet really does feel like the band’s most accessible effort in years — and not just the three years since Octahedron, itself a relatively concise set with only one track longer than eight minutes. (The longest cut here, “In Absentia,” clocks in at 7:26.) Rodriguez-Lopez and Bixler-Zavala have shown themselves capable of kicking out catchy jams in the past, of course; “The Widow,” from 2005’s Frances the Mute, even cracked the Top 10 of Billboard’s modern-rock chart. But they’ve never packed as many of ’em on a single album as they do here, beginning at the top with the powerful one-two punch of “The Whip Hand” and “Aegis,” both eerie and slinky-crunchy à la Hail to the Thief-era Radiohead. Then it’s on to “Dyslexion” (more puns!), which satisfies in two distinct ways: It cribs the vocal melody from Heart’s “Magic Man,” and it entrusts human beat machine Deantoni Parks with propelling the music forward, not with attracting the attention of an associate editor at Modern Drummer.

Elsewhere, the Mars Volta — rounded out these days by bassist Juan Alderete de le Pena and keyboardist Marcel Rodriguez-Lopez — offer lean psychedelic funk (“Lapochka”), several surprisingly pretty ballads (“Imago,” “Empty Vessels Make the Loudest Sound”), and a stomping blues-garage gem (“The Malkin Jewel”) in which Rodriguez-Lopez gives physical shape to Bixler-Zavala’s description of traps in the cellar going clickety-clack. Toward record’s end, as “Vedamalady” floats into view on a cloud of mad-scientist synth arpeggios, you start to fear that things might be heading south (or whichever direction Siberian Khatru lies). But soon enough, Bixler-Zavala busts out some close-harmony Beach Boys action, and we’re back on track for a strong finish with the dreamy “Noctourniquet” and “Zed and Two Naughts.” The title of the latter appears to spell “zoo,” and maybe that’s a clue to what the Mars Volta are up to: It’s wildness under wraps, chaos in a cage.