Let’s be honest: the Mars Volta could’ve used an editor. As that band burrowed ever deeper into its neoprog aesthetic during the course of a prolific decade-plus run, co-leaders Omar Rodríguez-López and Cedric Bixler-Zavala delivered records, like their final LP, 2012′s Noctourniquet, that mingled brilliance with bloat. What registered on their extraordinary 2003 debut, De-Loused in the Comatorium, as a visceral reclamation of a bygone style came to seem more like a rudderless vision quest.
Rodríguez-López and Bixler-Zavala haven’t given an interview since they reconvened this past spring after a seemingly bitter 2013 split and launched their latest joint venture, Antemasque. So we can only guess whom or what we can thank for the band’s self-titled debut, the most compact, replayable and sheerly fun album these two have ever made together. (And yes, that includes the forward-thinking post-hardcore classics of their pre-Mars Volta band, At the Drive-In.)
Seemingly free of any outside influence, the once major-label-backed, now independent pair have decided to think small. Antemasque focuses not on their (in)famously boundless ambition, but on their skill at crafting stylish, bracingly immediate alt-rock, the only term that seems general enough to encompass Rodríguez-López and Bixler-Zavala’s voracious synthesis of punk, funk, glam, prog and arena-scale pop. The 35-minute record recaptures the delirious bombast of De-Loused and the explosive majesty of At the Drive-In’s Relationship of Command. Like those records, it’s the work of a band chucking tedious notions of under-/overground hierarchy and answering only to their own hyperactive muse.
At least seven of the 10 songs on Antemasque feel like instant hits — tracks that blast out of the gate, zoom through ecstatic choruses and stop short minutes later, leaving the listener giddy and buzzed. The record’s first half sticks almost exclusively to uptempo material, and there isn’t a boring passage to be found. “I Got No Remorse” snarls like a rock ‘n’ roll-ized At the Drive-In, powered by Rodríguez-López’s twisty, shimmying riffs and Bixler-Zavala’s octave-jumping vocal daredevilry. “Momento Mori” charges ahead in furious double time, with drummer Dave Elitch’s speed-demon hi-hat work propelling the band to a soaring refrain. And “50,000 Kilowatts” — a necessary inclusion on any future Omar/Cedric career retrospective, next to classics such as “One Armed Scissor” and “Roulette Dares (The Haunt Of)” — finds the band trying on shamelessly sentimental bubblegum-rock moves and sounding like Cheap Trick gone post-hardcore. Yes, the song is that good, and “In the Lurch,” “People Forget” and “Rome Armed to the Teeth” are only marginally less electrifying.
The rhythm section of De-Loused bassist Flea and former Mars Volta touring drummer Elitch is a juggernaut, funky and flattening. But the stars here are clearly Rodríguez-López — his agile rhythm picking on “4AM” reminds you what a meticulous pop craftsman he is — and Bixler-Zavala, whose unmistakable tenor gets a rare workout on Antemasque. Listen to the poignant grain in his voice during the verse turnarounds in “50,000 Kilowatts” or his throaty yowls on the “Providence” chorus. And while the record features plenty of the frontman’s patented lyrical obscurantism, it also contains some of his most playful, accessible wordplay to date, such as the “Can you read my palm?/ Can you read my heart?/ Can you read my lips?” refrain of “Ride Like the Devil’s Son.”
This otherwise-outstanding record does have a couple minor weak points. “Drown Your Witches” is Antemasque‘s sore thumb, a strummy, stylized folk-rock tune that suggests Led Zeppelin III as filtered through Blind Melon. The song is perfectly sturdy and even fleetingly gorgeous, but it slows the breathless momentum of the record’s first half. And the album’s oddly brittle, trebly production — especially evident in the drums — occasionally seems ill-suited to the songs’ unabashed bombast.
It’s impossible to say whether Rodríguez-López and Bixler-Zavala intended Antemasque as a corrective to the excesses of the Mars Volta, but that’s how it plays. Even through the longueurs, there was never any doubt that these two were extraordinary talents, and that their gifts complemented each other’s beautifully. What wasn’t certain was whether they would ever again channel that potential into an album like Relationship or De-Loused, an LP you could play on repeat, scream along to, and appreciate for both its staunch eccentricity and its pervasive catchiness. Somehow, some way, Antemasque is that record.