The record is pretension, but it's also ambition. At 77 minutes long, only the slightest edge of the CD lacks data. Most people mentally check out of songs at three minutes and 30 seconds thanks to the cultural programming of the old 45 format, so it seems unlikely that anyone would tolerate an album of this length that doesn't have more than 20 songs crammed onto it.
Rodriguez-Lopez, the band's conceptualist and architect, says society's interest in "continuous orgasms" guides mass musical taste. In the age of downloads and iPods, pleasure is sought in quick doses, not regimen. But the Mars Volta is about tantra. The band's music alternately soothes, jars, rests, scrapes, thrusts, placates, bites, massages, swerves - you getting the point yet? - and ultimately delivers a fully developed experience that is perplexing in parts and only slightly more understandable as a whole.
Regardless of what the public or label Strummer may want, the Mars Volta have not compromised on either of their full-lengths. De-Loused in the Comatorium, a slightly more reasonable 61 minutes long, was a fever dream of existential ponderings inspired by the attempted suicide and subsequent death of the band's artist friend, Julio Venegas. De-Loused is the hyperactive little brother of Frances, a continuous piece that flows from one amped-up, math-inflected, free-jazz bamboozle to the next, combining elements of the Mars Volta's precursor bands - the post-hardcore ear-beaters At the Drive-In and the short-lived salsa-dub project De Facto. There are moments of respite - a sudden halt, an atmospheric interlude, even a ballad - but the intensity is never dialed-down to a point where it risks losing the listener's attention.
Frances is much more esoteric than De-Loused. The band created the album after its sound manipulator, Jeremy Ward, died from a cocaine overdose. The subject matter revolves around another emotion-draining earthly parting, as well as alienation and incompleteness. While working as a repo-man, Ward found the diary of a man who had grown up without knowing his biological parents. An orphan himself, Ward kept the journal and filled in some of its blanks with his own thoughts. After several reinterpretations, Rodriguez-Lopez and Bixler-Zavala recreate the story of the diary's author and their friend's relationship to the book.
Frances doesn't woo the listener with sweet nothings or flash, but instead relies on technical prowess and surrendering one's ingrained desire to hit the "forward" button. Bixler-Zavala's high-pitched cooing lays out the welcome mat and 40 seconds later, Rodriguez-Lopez steps on one of the nearly 200 effects pedals that went into the album's creation, and drops a trap door of stuttering white-hot electric funk guitar that challenges both his vocalist and the listeners to keep up with its disjointed pace. After 11 minutes of ebb and flow, each movement is as jarring as a roller coaster after an eight-course meal: There's a drop into a haunting forest of fairy nymphs and then a slow-building loop of electronic sound, which builds for two minutes. And that's just the first song. Incidentally, the album is divided into five tracks, with the last two subdivided into four and five suites, respectively.
Bixler-Zavala's lyrics of oft-unpleasant imagery - "His orifice icicles hemorrhaged by combing her torso to a pile" - interweave English, Spanish and Latin. The music starts and stops on a dime, returning as salsafied swing, noodling nerd rock, pounding metal or chilling ambience. The ambience lingers too long at points: There are more than four minutes of whale sounds and the like that open the sprawling opus "Miranda That Ghost Just Isn't Holy Anymore," which is asking a lot of even the most patient audiophile or loyal fan. Finally, trumpets break the tension.
Not surprisingly, the studied anti-pop music has curried heaps of praise from critics, who are quick to hop onto anything left-of-center, especially on a major-label's bill. And while the Mars Volta challenges the rules of pop song structure - like a host of bands they don't like being mentioned with including Rush, Yes and King Crimson - the band also challenges the listener to stick with them through a vast work that's so cerebral, it can be off-putting. Frances is anything but immediate, a musical version of David Lynch's Mulholland Dr. It is water-cooler fodder for the few who can make it through without losing heart.
But how many of us can do that?