The Mars Volta have never done things by half. Omar Rodríguez-López and Cedric Bixler-Zavala have consistently experimented with both what can be done in the confines of an album and with the patience of listeners. So it’s no surprise that, 11 years after the release of De-Loused in the Comatorium, Noctourniquet represents the biggest change in philosophy from the band since Frances the Mute sent heads spinning.
Noctourniquet has had a tumultuous gestation. Camp Volta has never been the most secure place for a musician to ply their trade (drummers taking the brunt of “director” Rodríguez-López’s frustrations), but this release saw even vocalist Bixler-Zavala struggling with his director’s creative zeal. Interviews suggested the singer was on the brink of burning out, one psychedelic trip too many.
Perhaps that would go some way to explaining the more gentle vocals that are omnipresent throughout Noctourniquet. To go through the Mars Volta’s back catalogue in chronological order is to come close to witnessing what happens to a man who replaces lungs for helium balloons. Here, that irritating progression shows signs of faltering.
‘Aegis’ opens like a forgotten Radiohead song, conjuring images of a darkened, smoky room where a creepy Bixler-Zavala delights in performing a tug of war on the audience, while ‘Empty Vessels Make the Loudest Sound’ simmers like a gentle lullaby, the singer teasing out a delicate ebb and flow from verse to chorus.
That’s not to say that hallucinogenic warbling has no place on Noctourniquet. The delirious repetition of “I am a landmine/I am a landmine/So don’t you step on me” towards the end of opener ‘The Whip Hand’ is delivered in such a distressed manner that you can’t help but think Bixler-Zavala’s voice perfectly embodies the twitchy, paranoid nature that a prone explosive might express, were it able to emote.
The album’s highlight is ‘The Malkin Jewel’, which oozes laid back malevolence thanks to its loose, jammed production. Considering this is a band that has been known to hurtle from one disjointed moment to the next with no pause, it’s refreshing to hear the songs allowed to breathe and evolve at a more natural pace. It pays off, too. After its dreamy opening minutes, the track’s final throes build to a panicked conclusion that quickens the heart and delivers a powerful emotional punch.
Noctourniquet comes at a peculiar time for the two men synonymous with both The Mars Volta and outrageous hair styling. The feverish reaction to the reformation of At the Drive-In suggests that many fans have just been waiting for the afro kings to get back to their post-punk relationship of command, so it’ll be interesting to see if the out-there machinations of The Volta will still tempt Rodríguez-López and Bixler-Zavala in the near future.
The name, Noctourniquet, proves a perfect accompaniment to the music within. This is The Mars Volta when the sun goes down; it’s creepy, delicate and tetchy. That the word tourniquet is so prominent shows a band aware that it is attempting to hold back some of the impulses that have made previous albums a trial. Perhaps The Mars Volta are looking to choke off the blood supply to their more ludicrous elements, and in return discover a new temperament. Noctourniquet is an inventive and promising change in attitude, and one that counterbalances the band’s future commitments to At The Drive-In expertly.