There are the essential albums that need to be in everyone’s collection. There are the personal favorites, the ones that aren’t highly acclaimed but still get played every once in a while. And then there are the albums that you stick in the back of your collection because you want to forget that you spent money on them. “Own It or Disown It” gives the writer the opportunity to look at such discarded albums and determine if they are diamonds in the rough or if they deserve to be used as mini-frisbees.
I used to be a huge fan of The Mars Volta. I like Tremulant, I spent birthday money on De-Loused In the Comatorium, and after being impressed with a burned copy of Frances the Mute, I bought the extended version of the album at Best Buy so that I could hear the title track, which the band promised would decode most of the album’s secrets (spoiler: it doesn’t). Then Amputechture happened. Now I hate The Mars Volta. It was that bad.
To put this in perspective, I’m not the kind of person who loses interest in a band or musician just because they put out a bad album. Among Doseone’s twelve million albums are a handful that I simply don’t care for, and though I would put Sage Francis near the top of a list of my favorite rappers, his last “great” album came out nine years ago (discounting the last Sick Of… release, which is probably fair since I don’t know that most of his fans even know that it exists). Most of the albums put out by ultra-emo band Thursday were pretty bad, but I still consider myself a fan of their work (yes, I’m aware that they have broken up, but work with me here). Heck, Atmosphere’s most celebrated work is pretty bad but I still keep an ear out for them. Amputechture, though, takes a torch to what came before it and so thoroughly trashes its genre that I’m not sure I can respect anyone who identifies as a fan of this group. I would compare it to R. Kelly and Pissgate, but Kelly at least understood that no one with good taste would take him seriously anymore and embraced his remaining fucked-up audience. In contrast, The Mars Volta believes that they are making great art. Joy.
I’ve previously referred to this album as the second-worst album of the first decade of the new millennium (and yes, I know that I will have to do a column on Relapse at some point), but I haven’t listened to the whole thing in one sitting in six years. I remember sending an e-mail to the generalissimo at Cokemachineglow expressing hope that they would trash the album—one excerpt, “I WANT BLOOD”, was their headline quote for a week—but much like someone with PTSD, I have yet to revisit this atrocity for fear of losing a crucial part of myself. With National Novel Writing Month around the corner, though, I figured that going over Amputechture track-by-track would be small potatoes compared to the writing task on the horizon. Surely, this album cannot be as bad as I remember it…right?
1.) Vicarious Atonement
To be fair, I think I appreciate this song a lot more now than I did when this was initially released because I’ve educated myself on the merits of drone music, which The Mars Volta borrow many elements from in the course of this song. The thing is, though, that The Mars Volta isn’t well-versed in this style. A band like, say, Sunn O))) knows enough to have a song in this style build onto itself, making their longer compositions palatable. “Vicarious Atonement” picks a weak note and stays with it, and while some of the noodling is impressive, it only sustains itself for two minutes, making its seven-minute runtime feel torturous. Still, I get what they were going for, but the song just isn’t good at all.
Hmmm…how to best express my dissatisfaction with a song that includes the line “The kiosk in my temporal lobe is shaped like Roselyn Carter”…
Folks, Led Zeppelin is considered to be one of the best rock’n’roll bands of all time. Also, they tended to write long songs. They are not celebrated because they made long songs, they are celebrated because they made great songs, many of which happen to be long. Every member of that band could play the shit out of their instruments, but they knew enough to rein in their tendencies for the sake of the overall song. They were fantastic technical musicians, sure, but it is their songwriting skills that keep people coming back to their music.
If there is one lesson to be learned from the experiment that is The Mars Volta, it is that being technically proficient at performing music and being a good songwriter are two separate elements. Most people cannot perform the music that these guys play, but that doesn’t mean that they make good music. “Tetragrammaton” is sixteen minutes long and contains enough material for three or four kickass songs, but instead of expanding on these themes or giving them space to breathe within the context of this song, they are all smashed together in a way that makes the overall song far less than the sum of its parts. “Oh, hey, they are going into a quiet section now. I wonder what will come next? Oh, hey, a passage where they smash on their instruments as loudly as they can! How wonderfully predictable!” Two songs in and I’m already starting to regret listening to this filth. This is going to get messy. I just know it.
Okay, that was actually kind of good. The band finds a nice groove and rides it for the length of the song, and that this is both one of the most conventional TMV songs I can recall as well being one of the most bearable is no coincidence. They keep things simple for once, and had the band not fucked with things in the song’s last minute, I would have no problems putting this up there with the band’s best work. I wouldn’t call this “great”, but it is worlds better than I expected to hear on this album. Then again, one good song on an album is not enough to redeem it—after all, Relapse had “Beautiful”.
This song starts with an even better groove, and the band rides it out as well. What makes “Vermicide” good and “Meccamputechture” the anti-fun, though, is how much space each occupies. “Vermicide” is a four-minute long song that feels like it needed four minutes to get its point across. “Meccamputechture” is an eleven-minute long song that feels as though it needed, at most, six minutes to get its point across. This isn’t to say that ending it at the six-minute mark would make it a better song, but a better producer would know to tell these guys to pick their best ideas and put them into one killer rock song (in fact, I’m willing to bet that this process was how “Eriatarka” was made). Omar Rodriguez-Lopez knows restraint like a Paranormal Activity film knows subtlety, and it is too easy to imagine him trying to throw someone into oncoming traffic for trying to touch his art. This song resembles something that a jam band would compose, and I think that jam bands are fucking worthless, so of course I would hate this. It is hard to swallow that these guys fucked up what should have been a masterpiece, but they found a way.
Oh, and the song is about something religious, too. Knowing this doesn’t help the song’s worth, but I think the band believed otherwise. They are stupid like that.
5.) Asilos Magdalena
“Frusciante, listen up, this is Omar. What I need you to do today is play two different guitar lines. The first one needs to be done with the acoustic guitar to your right. I haven’t written anything for you, but really, all I want you to do is just play notes. Pluck strings in any order you wish. Feel free to experiment with a melody, but seriously, just keep plucking. Cedric is going to be singing something in Spanish over it, so it will sound vaguely deep to some dummy out there. The second guitar line needs to be done with the electric to your left. Again, all you need to do is play notes. I’ll distort it all in post anyway, so it doesn’t exactly matter what you play, but I just need a sound to work with.
“What’s that? …No, I don’t know what these knobs do, but I’m sure I can figure it out. Are you ready? …Uh, I’ll ask, but I doubt that anyone will hold your bowl to your face for you while you play. …No, I won’t do it. I’m trying to be drug-free. It is the only way that I can compose my masterpiece.
“…Hey, fuck you, man. If you won’t do it, John Mayer is just a phone call away, and he is easier to bribe than you think. …Alright, that’s what I wanted to hear. Just hold up until I find which button starts the recording. Fuck, it’s not that one…”
6.) Viscera Eyes
Oh, hey, another song that spoils its momentum by running itself into the ground. You may as well reread what I had to say about “Tetragrammaton” and “Meccamputechture” because this song suffers from the same afflictions as both of those tunes. Goodness, this album sucks.
7.) Day of the Baphomets
“Day of the Baphomets” is one of the worst fucking songs I have ever heard in my entire life. For the first nine minutes or so, it plays out like the band ate a shit-ton of paint chips and decided to rewrite “Bonehead” so that it fit in more with their immature bullshit sound. This is the song in which the band decides to sound like a bunch of two-year-olds strung out on cocaine and running around a house, and for the most part, it is merely shitty. Then the worst ever happens—a bongo solo.
No, really. There’s a fucking bongo solo in this song. It occurs about nine minutes in, too. It comes right the fuck out of nowhere, it contributes nothing to the overall sound, and its existence suggests that the band literally ran out of things to give solos to. The bongo solo is the exact moment when I, and any rational person, stopped caring about this band. Fuck this song, and fuck the people who like this song, too.
8.) El Ciervo Vulnerado
Nothing happens in this song. Good.
To summarize, this album is a fucking waste of time and space, and it has only worsened with age. It represents everything that is wrong with this band, and that I sat through the whole thing has either taken a year or two off of my life, made me a dumber person, or both.
[Here is where John spends an entire paragraph dressing down fans of The Mars Volta, specifically targeting those who consider this album to be one of their favorites. In short, John insults them a lot, questions their level of intellect, and eventually suggests creative methods of castration. Though it was slightly amusing, both the tone and the spirit of the writing were shockingly mean-spirited and cruel, and that’s saying something given what we’ve let him get away with in the past. After a brief conversation with John over this passage, he agreed that he may have crossed the line, though he suggested that an editor’s note be written as he did not want to rephrase his writing, saying that he didn’t believe that he could rewrite the passage in a sanitary way while expressing his negative feelings towards this album and its “apologists”. Trust me, if you had read what he initially put down, you would already be composing a complaint, regardless of your feelings towards this album. -Ed]
Anyway, this album is just as bad as I remember it, and I would sooner eat a sock than ever listen to it again. I need a drink.
Due to me participating in NaNoWriMo (and probably taking it way too seriously this year), expect to see other members of the Earbuddy crew giving their takes on albums they may have overlooked. You can follow my progress here—you know, if you want to.
Read past editions of Own It or Disown It
Read past editions of Own It or Disown It.