Saturday, 24 March 2012

The Mars Volta – “Noctourniquet”

When Omar and Cedric 'broke up' At the Drive in, one of the most under rated bands of the past generation, many including me couldn't fathom it ... They had just delivered the seminal "Relationship of Command' and clearly had more in their locker ... Why?

We then established that the follow up project, The Mars Volta, would be more experiential, more complex, more rewarding ... Some hope, most (read ‘me') thought ...

Then the debut "De-Loused in the Comatorium" landed in 2003, it was complex, it was challenging, it was a bit mental to be honest!  But, and most importantly, it was clearly borne of shear genius and the realisation of the limitations of the ATDI 'sound' became clear ... This was special (a tad prog, but special none the less).

The follow up, 2005’s "Frances the Mute" took 'mental' to a new level but confirmed the genius of the 'project'.  Subsequent releases lost the element of shock and awe but largely retained their quality and on 2009’s "Octahedron", things were starting to sound "normal" with the band becoming accessible to the average Joe.  The fear was that edge had gone and the announcement earlier this year that ATDI were to reform for some gigs hinted at an abandonment of the avant-garde progressive mission.

Then we quickly hear that The Mars Volta were to release "Noctourniqet" before ATDI were planning to play Coachella just to confuse us all that little bit more ... And here it is, but what do we have?  Complex prog or accessible normality?

Answer is that it's largely the latter but with a caveat, that being that I would contend that most first time listeners to the band would still consider this collection downright weird!

The reality is that we have a loosely themed collection of great tracks that hang together superbly to deliver a work of some genius that will likely not be fully recognised due to the aforementioned "mentalness" of it's predecessors.

Take the first half trio of tracks "Dyslexicon", "Empty Vessels ..." and the Jack White sounding "The Malkin Jewel" ... These would not sit well on "Comatorium" or ""France's" but match anything on them from a quality perspective IMHO.

This is, to any standard, a stunning album ... I completely appreciate that a certain wing of the Volta fan base will disagree and I understand why, but any fan who thinks the band lost their way on recent offerings should revisit the genius, it has restructured, but it's still genius.

Anyone who has let The Mars Volta pass them by up to now should give this some serious ear time ...

... And if At The Drive In play anywhere near you this year, think yourself lucky, go see them and then feel free to challenge my contention that "Relationship of Command" should have been bigger than "Nevermind" as it was clearly the better record.

9.5 / 10

Saturday, 10 March 2012

The Wedding Present - "Valentina"

Firstly, it has to be said that The Wedding Present are up there as one of my top 3 favorite bands of all time and I augment that with the fact that I've been a fan since I heard the jingle jangle guitar indie-perfection of "Anyone Can Make A Mistake" on Radio Scotland's 'Friday Rock Show' circa 1986.

I've also seen the band live more times than I can remember, have enjoyed mosh pits that range from the Reading Festival main stage to Aberdeen's Tunnels and have spoken to David on many occasions with the confidence of a nervous teen meeting their idol for the first time.

There's a lot of crap written about the band and main man David Gedge's catalogue since the debut “George Best” in 86, mainly based on theories of 'all the songs sound the same', lack of progression etc.  Anyone who has lived and breathed this band for as long as I have (and there are many) will laugh in the face of such accusers in the sound knowledge that they haven't really listened before they commented and such behavior is unlikely to be limited to Mr. D Gedge esquire ie ‘see you, your opinions means nothing to me’ :-)

Now, this isn’t intended to be a justification of the band, it's an (early) comment on the latest offering.  For those who do appreciate the musical nuances of Gedge’s chronology, it's important to comment on where this collection sits relative to its predecessors.  I contend that we are listening here to the first true Wedding Present album since 1996's "Saturnalia” ... Justify you say?  OK ...

When David first put the band on hiatus after “Saturnalia”, he embarked on his new project, Cinerama, with a view to changing direction and exploring new musical dimensions to accompany his now legendary indie-angst songwriting ability.  Cinerama delivers all this and more (see what I did there?) and progressed significantly within its 3-album discography.  When The Wedding Present 'returned' in 2005 with “Take Fountain”, it was really the fourth Cinerama offering given the fact that the lineup was basically the same as those who toured Cinerama’s brilliant third offering  "Torino" ... Musically and lyrically this claim stands up, what also stands up is the clam that it is one of Gedge's career highlights, paralleled only by 1991's behemoth "Seamonsters" IMHO.

2008s "El Rey" sounded confused, David knew he was making a Wedding Present record but the subtle beauty of Cinerama just wouldn’t let go; hence leaving a nice but messy offering.

So, to “Valenina” ... What we appear to have here is the natural progression from “Watusi” and “Saturnalia” but with a fair bit of the edge and enthusiasm that the latter in particular missed ie it really is a Wedding Present album, and a bloody good one at that!

Many of the chord progressions and arrangements we've heard before but there's something new here 'You Jane' aside, which is not really a signpost for the album despite its choice as lead 'single'.

From the opening phase shifts of "You’re Dead" to the stunning (really, really stunning) closer “Mystery Date”, we are offered a potential classic from Mr Gedge.  I don't often say such crazy things on the first date but when I first met my, now, wife some 16 years ago I knew instantly it could have longevity; I'm thinking “Valentina” might just stick around a while too !!!

9.0 / 10 (first listen qualified)