Over the course of his 10-year history as the chief composer/producer of the Mars Volta’s schizophrenic head-fuck psych-prog, guitarist Omar Rodriguez-Lopez has, in some ways, earned his “Little Hitler” nickname. Writing complex, sonically challenging arrangements well in advance of recording, forcing an ever-rotating gang of players to overdub their parts without musical context (in total isolation of each other and with no clear image of the final product), Rodriguez-Lopez’s dictatorial methods have — despite their rigidness — resulted in some of the previous decade’s finest, most adventurous “rock” albums, including the group’s 2003 masterpiece debut, De-Loused in the Comatorium, and its criminally underrated follow-up, 2005′s Frances the Mute.
But all good dictators must eventually fall. Rodriguez-Lopez finished recording Noctourniquet, the Mars Volta’s sixth album, nearly three years ago, but when lyricist/vocalist Cedric Bixler-Zavala felt pressured by the manic studio pace, the duo encountered their first major creative speed bump. Lopez eventually relented, allowing Zavala to have more time to patiently craft yet another surreal lyrical concept (this time inspired by the ancient nursery rhyme Solomon Grundy and the Greek myth of Hyacinth). In the meantime, they released 2009′s relatively low-key Octahedron, and now Noctourniquet is the stark, striking sound of a band whittled to its core, both sonically and physically. Absent is longtime keyboardist Ikey Owens, batshit prodigy drummer Thomas Pridgen (replaced by “human drum machine” Deantoni Parks), along with frequent guitar guest John Frusciante, and Lopez’s percussionist brother Marcel (who now plays keyboards with the band in a live setting).
But the most notable absence on Noctourniquet is Lopez himself. Prone to mass guitar overdubbing (as on 2007′s fascinating-if-slightly-overstuffed The Bedlam in Goliath) and ungodly layers of relentless wah-wah soloing, Lopez has trimmed a generous wealth of fat from his expansive arrangements, now focusing on vibrant, finger-picked melodies and spacious washes of texture. It’s an admirable “less is more” approach that offers more breathing room for alien electronics (whiplash opener “The Whip Hand,” the slow-churning “In Absentia”), glistening synths (played by Lopez himself) and perhaps most importantly, Zavala’s newly invigorated voice, which soars on heartbreaking ballads like “Vedamalady” and “Imago,” exploding with muscle on the post-blues creepy-crawly “The Malkin Jewel” and the stutter-stepping robot-punk of “Dyslexicon.”
At 13 total songs, Noctourniquet boasts the Mars Volta’s beefiest tracklist to date; yet, at just over an hour in length, it feels like their most concise, immediate statement. Zavala, widely recognized as one of rock’s most impenetrable lyricists, hasn’t mellowed to McCartney levels of clarity (“Under the aegis of cognition/ I am dead, I will escape/ Engrammic marks of ligature/ I am dead, I will escape,” goes the chorus to “Aegis”). But he remains one of the most versatile, captivating vocalists in modern music, regardless of what craziness is spewing out of his mouth. And on Noctourniquet, he’s never sounded more confident: The surging, candy-coated “Lapochka” sounds like eight choruses and no verses, webs of harmony spindled over Deantoni’s malfunctioning beats and Juan Alderete’s thick bass runs.
“I found a reason to leave you with this love,” Zavala sings on “Empty Vessels Make the Loudest Sound,” his harmonized voice reverberating over a busted web of percussion and Lopez’s echoing solo. “All I can do is forgive your broken heart.” In all its clarity, its tangible emotion, (as much because of what it doesn’t express than what it does), it just might be The Mars Volta’s most powerful moment to date.