Progressive Returns: The Mars Volta A most unlikely CD has been close to the top of the Billboard charts recently. The Mars Volta, from Texas, somehow missed the news that progressive rock was nearly extinct. Their new CD, Frances the Mute, is a saga based on the diary of a child in search of a birth mother.


Music Reviews

Progressive Returns: The Mars Volta

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Somehow, The Mars Volta missed the news that progressive rock is dead. The group specializes in sprawling music that recalls progressive bands from the 1970s. Our critic Tom Moon has a review of their second album, "Frances the Mute."

TOM MOON reporting:

Listen to what recently debuted at number four on the Billboard Top 200 Album Chart.

(Soundbite of music)

THE MARS VOLTA: (Singing in foreign language)

MOON: Now this isn't the kind of thing that usually appears next to Britney Spears or Green Day on the charts at all. In fact, the often astounding and frequently confounding "Frances the Mute" can hardly be considered pop music. It doesn't have the endlessly repeated hooks. It doesn't talk about missing that no-good lover. It has virtually nothing in common with the whiny boys school of modern rock.

(Soundbite of music)

THE MARS VOLTA: (Singing) He's got fasting black lungs...

MOON: The story goes like this. When he was working as a repo man, Jeremy Ward, the band's sound manipulator, found a diary written by an adopted teen-ager. It tells of a search for his birth parents. Ward, who was adopted himself, hung on to the diary. When Ward died of an alleged drug overdose in 2003, the remaining members of his band found themselves drawn to the characters in the diary. They form the cast of "Frances the Mute."

(Soundbite of music)

THE MARS VOLTA: (Singing) ...every time he just makes me warm. Freeze without an answer, free from all the shame must I hide, 'cause I'll never, never sleep alone. Look at how they flock to him from an isle of open sores.

MOON: The CD by The Mars Volta has its share of shrill cries from the mountaintop. Apparently you can't resurrect progressive rock without those. But its narrative is spread out over wildly imaginative instrumental excursions, and its energy comes from deliberately pancultural syncopations. Listen to the way this Cuban song montuna rhythm, the same one that anchors the Santana hit "Smooth," morphs into a high-energy rock chase.

(Soundbite of music)

THE MARS VOLTA: (Singing) ...and with everybody that I find and with every claymore that they mine, I won't forget who they're looking for. Oh, mother, help me, I'm looking for...

MOON: The Mars Volta isn't merely flipping progressive rock on its pointy head. Its clever update to that bygone style, the constantly shifting time signatures, the epic 10-minute songs, expose the dimwittedness that defines so much current rock. The lyrics can be inscrutable--that's another hallmark of progressive music--but at least they're striving to tell stories.

(Soundbite of music)

THE MARS VOLTA: (Singing in foreign language)

MOON: Even people who usually hate anything labeled progressive should be encouraged by the success of The Mars Volta, because on an ordinary week in late March, over 100,000 people plunk down their dollars, not to hear another generically angry rock band chip away at the same hacked-up stone, but to take this cerebral ride to the far reaches of the stratosphere, the strangest trip offered by a major label this year. Now that's mind-blowing.

(Soundbite of music)

THE MARS VOLTA: (Singing) ...(Unintelligible)...

SIEGEL: The CD is "Frances the Mute" by The Mars Volta. Our reviewer, Tom Moon, writes about music for the Philadelphia Inquirer.

(Soundbite of music)

THE MARS VOLTA: (Singing) ...let me die, 'cause I'll never, never sleep alone.

MELISSA BLOCK (Host): You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

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