This fall The Mars Volta released their third full-length studio album, Amputechture. Not only has this band become a significant force in progressive music in both mainstream and underground contexts, but also their music has a certain self-commending power that transcends even their current cultural hipness. Whatever one thinks about The Mars Volta, listening to their songs is anything but a forgettable experience.
Amputechture takes the band to new heights of creativity precisely by seamlessly melding structure and improvisation. So much improvised rock music merely drags out a repetitive structure upon which it builds improvised instrumentation. Not The Mars Volta. Songs vary in length according to sensible song structures. In other words, the songs have parts, not just verse-chorus-solo plodding.
Of course, all this could be said of all the best representatives of the progressive rock genre. The difference with The Mars Volta is that they have a groove and drive that is often absent from the expansive sound-scapes of their genre-predecessors. Only King Crimson is comparable in sheer force of sound and deep sense of groove. And this grove is borne out of more than just Jazz and Latin instrumentation. Even the guitar has an earthiness to it that prevents The Mars Volta from merely being an eclectic experiment. They actually have a sound: angular yet groovy, driving yet smooth.
A significant aspect of any band's sound is its vocals. And this will be the make or break factor for many listeners. For those who have been schooled in any high-pitched vocal style and understand its juxtaposition with low-end rhythm instrumentation will find nothing objectionable in this department. But any new listener must be forewarned of the abrasiveness of the vocals.
Lastly, a general comment is in order. Does The Mars Volta signal a new era in progressive rock? Although I would welcome such a revival, I do not see any such development on the horizon. Yes, there will be a flock of bands working in this genre in the next few years. But there will be no new era of progressive rock. The co-existence of The Mars Volta alongside The White Stripes on the one side and The Killers on the other shows that rock music has the potential to sustain fragmentary and apparently contradictory genre-movements. All three bands are working within a distinct genre-revival. But these "revivals" do not work successively but simultaneously.
The point of this observation is that just fragmentation is nothing new to rock. There will be no second era of progressive rock precisely because there was no first era of progressive rock. The time of early Yes, Genesis and King Crimson was also the Singer-Songwriter revolution. There are no "periods" except those created by music critics. Genres co-exist and co-mingle with a freedom that often confuses the self-proclaimed sophisticated listener. What we need to learn is that there is no law requiring genre-loyalty. Perhaps the emergence of The Mars Volta in the midst of this decade's garage and pop revival will serve to free us from such narrowness.