If you’ve been fortunate enough to hear The Mars Volta’s full-length debut, De-Loused in the Comatorium, you won’t be surprised by Frances the Mute—which is to say you’ll expect an endless stream of surprises. Every few minutes, the band undergoes a stylistic metamorphosis, whips out a shiny new instrument or halts abruptly to make room for, say, ambient street noise. A nonstop 77-minute ride—beginning and ending on the same thematic device—Frances bursts at the jewel-case hinges with Comatorium’s trademarks: musical inventiveness and wildly emotive vocals.
Though the group apparently based Frances on a diary now-deceased band member Jeremy Michael Ward found in the backseat of a car while working as a repo man—and which bears uncanny parallels to Ward’s life— it’s hard to tell what Cedric Bixler-Zavala is singing about half the time; vocal affectations frequently render his singing more instrument than communication tool. It’s the bed of category-exploding music on which the lyrics rest where the magic happens. One moment the band is channeling Zeppelin with a driving, bombastic stomp, and the next it’s laying down a slow salsa groove. Saxophones, flutes and trumpets make special appearances amidst frantic rockers and acoustic ballads.
Bixler-Zavala and guitarist Omar Rodriguez-Lopez, formerly members of art-punk outfit At The Drive-In, founded Mars Volta a few years ago in order to create music crackling with unbridled imagination. They’ve clearly succeeded.