If there’s any hazard in Mars Volta’s status as the world’s preeminent nerd-prog outfit, it’s that the band’s unabashedly cerebral approach doesn’t always make for good singles. Good albums? Sure. Dense, lavishly ornamented psych-rock operas constructed around Cedric Bixler Zavala’s multilingual vocal gymnastics and strange-love lyrical themes and Omar Rodriguez Lopez’s keening, eruptive guitar. But it’s those very elements that make extracting a four-minute sample out of a Volta record and playing it on the radio so untenable. It’s like excerpting passages out of a Joyce novel, or pulling sound bites from Ornette Coleman’s Free Jazz.
Until now, anyway. With Octahedron, the band has actually crafted a collection of songs—discrete compositions untethered from the rest of the album in terms of context or resolution. And thus, while Octahedron lacks the brisk chaotic propulsiveness of previous Mars Volta efforts, it compensates with digestibility. Understand, of course, that a “song” to Mars Volta isn’t the same thing as a song to, say, Brian Wilson. Think more along the lines of Yes and the Moody Blues and King Crimson. Cuts like “Since We’ve Been Wrong” and “Teflon” are marked by the kind of orchestral gravitas and melodic grandeur that elevated the best of ’70s prog. And when, on “With Twilight as My Guide,” Zavala croons mournfully about “a vault of devil daughters,” it’s as beautiful and beguiling as anything the band has laid to record. (Mike Gibson)