First and foremost, you have to appreciate what vocalist Cedric Bixler-Zavala and guitarist, producer extraordinaire Omar A. Rodriquez-Lopez of The Mars Volta are doing in a time where mainstream music is all about dollars and cents. You might not be into the indie and prog-rock thing but you can’t ignore what this band is doing in this current day and age. They have in fact conquered the men in suits. They simply do things their way and their latest masterpiece; Francis The Mute is no different. The hot shots at Universal didn’t even hear a second of this album until it was finished. Also, to classify this album as indie rock or prog-rock would be unfair. It seems the word indie is thrown around more and more these days for bands that aren’t pop enough for radio play, but really don’t deserve to be forced into the genre when their music contains not one ounce of stimulating, thought provoking material at all. So even I’m at fault when I use those words to describe this music, but what else can I say when The Mars Volta hold a sound that is beyond unique? Well, I guess you could say their music is in a league of their own. The Mars Volta are defining their own genre of music; a genre that centers on ambition and aspiration above everything else.
While the guys in The Mars Volta claim this isn’t truly a concept album, it’s hard not to believe that everything and anything these guys play musically isn’t in fact conceptual on some level. Centered on a character from a diary that was found in the back seat of a car, you can’t help but think there is a deep, important, underlying meaning to this story. What it is, well I guess that’s the mystery and intrigue that make The Mars Volta so fascinating and interesting. The album is full of loose ends in the story but I think that’s part of what is going on.
Francis The Mute is a bewildering five-part structured, 77-minute cadenced and rhythmic composition that tells the story of our character mentioned above. The songs even contain movements in the arrangements. When your average song time is around 12 minutes and your longest track is over a half-hour long, inserting movements here and there really add to the story telling aspect of the album. Who would’ve have ever thought one song lasting around 31 minutes long would end and leave you feeling somewhat unfulfilled? That’s the magic and enchantment behind this music, you want to follow the story and you want to discover the ending. It is really arduous and challenging at times to follow the path when the vocals turn to Spanish rather than English. But what keeps you from slipping away is you can still catch on as to what is going on because the music then provides the peaks and valleys of the tale. One aspect that really lacks on this album is that the songs don’t flow as evenly into each other as they did on De-Loused in the Comatorium but the guitar work is as magnificent and peculiar as ever; very little lingering, and consistent musically all the way through.
It’s very hard to pinpoint at times whether you adore the actual music of The Mars Volta, or the ambition and willingness of the band to offer something so eccentric at times you have no clue what the hell is going on. But when it comes down to it, these guys are not just doing something different, they are doing things rarely achieved before.
Berwanger – Watching a Garden Die
Josh Berwanger continues to evolve as a songwriter
At the height of Vagrant Records’ early success in the late 90s, the label was buoyed by the incredible draw of their two biggest names- The Get Up Kids and Saves the Day. And while those two bands took a chunk of the notoriety, there were plenty of great bands that called the label home. One of those bands was The Anniversary. The Lawrence, Kansas band shared musical similarities with both TGUK and Saves the Day, but were unafraid to branch off into slightly more synthesised terrain that gave their songs an added element. Coupled with their super easy to digest harmonies and fantastic male/female vocals, songs like “The D in Detroit” still has a place in countless “favorite playlists” all these years later.
Since their initial break-up, guitarist and vocalist Josh Berwanger has been busy writing and recording a bevy of music under the moniker Berwanger. His recent discography is a talented kaleidoscope of songs that traverse genres from folk and indie, to more rock and straight forward singer/songwriter fare. There was plenty to like on his 2016 album Exorcism Rock, an album that delved into a little bit of psychedelia and fuzzed out indie rock. His 2017 album And the Star Invaders saw a gradual move away from the more electrified to the imaginative kind of singer/songwriter we’ve seen from the likes of Devendra Banhart. True to form, Berwanger continues to evolve as a songwriter, and his latest, Watching A Garden Die, is the next chapter in his thriving songwriter cabinet.
The gloomily titled record is mostly upbeat and diverse. While he may have shown a kinship to indie/folk songwriting of the Banharts and Obersts of the world previously, Watching a Garden Die features the kind of seasoned and more classic toned work you’d find on a Crosby, Stills & Nash record, or even a Paul Simon record. Songs like the softly, almost whispered “Even the Darkness Doesn’t Know”, and quietly moody, introspective “Paper Blues” (until that electric guitar solo hits) harks back to a time long ago of unfettered hair and soulful folk music. The album’s best moment is probably a combination of the wistful, pedal-steel toned Americana of “When I Was Young” and the equally effective, spacey indie rock of “The Business of Living”. The latter giving Grandaddy a run for their money in that music department. These two songs in particular showcase an artist fully aware and capable of his abilities to craft music that’s personal but exhibits the kind of draw you want from a record this close to the heart.
The album doesn’t have the more ruckus moments Berwanger exhibited in his earlier work (outside of perhaps, the more upbeat power-pop, new wavy “Bad Vibrations”). At times the album takes just a few listens to grab you. But when you listen to songs like the spritely “Friday Night” and the somber reflection of the twangy “I Keep Telling Myself” a few times more, you find the depth of the record. There are elements that reveal themselves on the second, third, fourth listen, and that’s rewarding.
Berwanger’s songwriting ability was never in doubt, and his new material continues to expand his songwriting reach. Watching a Garden Die, while not a frantic effort, is quiet composure.
Fences – Failure Sculptures
Failure Sculptures is a steady outing
Christopher Mansfield, under his alter-ego, Fences, has made himself well known through the collaborations with Macklemore and Tegan & Sara. It’s set him up with well-deserved excitement for his new album Failure Sculptures. The genre of pop scores a good reputation with artists like Fences. I wouldn’t necessarily categorize this album as pop, but Failure Sculptures has catchy songs that will appeal to a large scale, however it keeps the integrity of accomplished music. Each song provides a story that allows you to drift into your own thoughts. He also uses idioms like there is no tomorrow.
“A Mission” is a lower-toned song that launches the album with an echoing sound of voice and guitar, and it sets an example of the whimsical type of music that is shown throughout the album. Mansfield has a way with words and was definitely listening in English class. A+ for storytelling. OK, you twisted my arm, I’ll point out some idioms: “body sways like trees in a storm” sung in “Paper Route” and “lately I just pass by like a cloud” heard in “Brass Band”. It’s a great way to paint a picture in your listeners head.
“Same Blues” exposes a folk side to Fences. It has a lovely addition of cello in the background. It is enchanting and flows so well, which makes a terrific inclusion to the album. The plucking and acoustic sound of “Wooden Dove” has a powerful effect, and suits the song well. It follows the theme of echoes and storytelling. Although “War Kid” is a song about divorce, it is a pleasant way to end the album, and it features more idioms; “tears falling like bombs“.
This type of music allows you to drift and flow in and out of your own thoughts. It’s a friendly haunting and emotionally driven set of songs (and don’t forget about the idioms), and while it is quite predictable in a pleasant way, Failure Sculptures is a steady outing.