THE MARS VOLTA

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THE MARS VOLTA Octahedron (Mercury)

It’s no mean feat to be a progressive rock band in the modern rock scene and still be hip and cool but that’s exactly what The Mars Volta have managed to achieve. Combining classic prog influences, jazz fusion and Latin music inflections into a popular confection that has won favour with fans and critics, the band even have a Grammy award to their name.

After four critically acclaimed albums, The Mars Volta have released Octahedron – their latest LP – which the band have described as an “acoustic” album. Get your jaw off the ground, The Mars Volta’s concept of “acoustic” does not accord with conventional wisdom and thank goodness for that.

What it does mean is that Octahedron is slightly more straightforward rock than The Mars Volta followers may be used to. Thus, whilst certain amount of experimentalism may have put on the back burner (and time signatures remain fairly constant), Octahedron still commands your attention for its bold and muscular songwriting, inventive arrangements and lively performances.

Top that off with memorable tunes (!) in tracks like Since We Been Wrong, Halo of Nembutals and Cotopaxi, Octahedron will appeal to all rock fans (of any era). Especially when there are numerous nods to the acid rock of the 60s – certainly the spirit of Hendrix and the power of Cream – and its various revivals/incarnations in the decades since in this truly striking album.

Official site

Myspace

TRASHED ON FICTION

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TRASHED ON FICTION Words Trails Maps (ESCHE)

Trashed on Fiction sound old. That’s not meant as a derogatory description of any sorts, more a matter of fact sort of thing. On their new record, Words Trails Maps, the four-piece Brooklyn outfit play roots rock in the grand tradition of Creedance Clearwater Revival, Them and Crazy Horse. This means lots of massive sounding guitar riffs, crashing drums that sound magnificently gleeful, and a studio ethic that takes the lo-fi aesthetic of the indie scene and turns it into a manifesto of intent to bring the listener back to the days when rock and roll was fresh and vibrant instead of the tricked-out cliché it is today. The aforementioned studio ethic is a double-edged sword of sorts: at certain moments it sounds energetic, live and infectiously immediate, while at others it sounds home-made and beat-up, as if it was recorded in a music store, a kitchen, the back of a van, and two bathrooms. Oh hey, waddya know, it was!

Moving on past the sound, though, the songs are surprisingly good. Without much studio trickery to lift up the songs, Trashed on Fiction have only the palette of rock and roll’s three primary colors (drums, bass and guitar) to paint from, and they don’t disappoint. The record opens with the aptly-named January, with a tom boom and guitar explosion leading into a rollicking riff that threatens to blow open the puny mp3 file holding it together. Matador, too, is reasonably good, with a punchy middle section that is enjoyable headbangable. All high octane stuff that still manages to infuse typical indie melody into the mix. So far, so good.  By the third track, though, the band’s lo-fi home made sound is getting rather grating, which is a pity because Safety Net is a lovely number with washes of rootsy melody exemplified in the song’s nostalgic refrain, “darling, did I love you?”

Fourth track, Killing Grounds, is a relatively quiet and down-tempo country-drenched number that gets particularly mesmerizing towards the end, where the crashing cymbals and lyrical guitars intertwine to shush a throbbing bass to sleep. Seventh track Beggar sees stabs of fuzzed out guitar punctuate the air menacingly before revving up into a melodic march highlighted by humming keyboards that slowly builds up to a beautiful climax. Beatification takes an unexpected detour into bossa nova, almost sounding like a looser and rootsier version of Radiohead before firing into more familiar territory with Unfit/Unzip, a number that brings to mind early Kings of Leon. The album closes with the noise-stretching, experimental and epic sounding number One A Side, a whirlwind of distortion and howling winds that quiets down after four minutes to reveal acoustic guitars and shuffled drums at the eye of the storm.

Gutsy and vibrant, Words Trails Maps is a record that will demand your attention almost as much as it rewards it. It’s a record that captures both the heat of the sex as well as the post-coital embrace afterwards, a record that is as lived-in as it sounds. Invest a few hours into repeated listenings; you won’t be disappointed.

(Samuel C Wee)

Check out Trashed on Fiction’s Myspace page.

PoP ESSENTIALS

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Pete Townshend had himself a little dilemma – how to follow the world’s first rock opera, the highly feted Tommy?

Tommy had turned The Who into one of the world’s most popular bands and Townshend was not willing to sit on past achievements. Out of that ambition came Lifehouse. What Lifehouse was supposed to be no one (not even Townshend, I’d wager) was exactly certain. Like Tommy it was a rock opera except that it was intended to be an interactive experience of some sort involving an album and a film, or something like that.

Like Brian Wilson’s Smile, the weight of expectation proved too much for Townshend and Lifehouse was shelved. However, unlike the Beach Boys, who had to settle for the vastly inferior Smiley Smile, what rose from the ashes of Lifehouse was an album that has proven to be one of the most enduring (and endearing) classic rock albums of all time.

On the cover of Who’s Next, the band appears to have pissed on the construct and artifice that was Lifehouse but in reality, from the jaws of near-disaster, the band pulled out a masterpiece. Made up of only nine songs, Who’s Next entrenched The Who’s reputation as the ultimate anthemic rock band as the album’s bookend tracks establish.

Both Baba O’Riley and Won’t Be Fooled Again open with a synthesized loop of notes before Townshend’s trademark power chords shear away at any arty pretence to reveal a beating rock heart. Not much to say about these iconic tracks – they have transcended the genre itself and listening to them will cause a stirring in the spirit to raise clenched fists into the sky.

But Who’s Next is more, of course. Bargain moves from tranquility to explosion and back, Love Ain’t For Keeping is a country-folk blues gem, My Wife is John Entwistle’s turn in the spotlight (with its brassy horns the obvious highlight), The Song is Over and Getting In Tune are entwined with concepts of the ultimate song/chord, being expressed in a slow rock approach that would be beaten to death in subsequent decades by inferior bands. Going Mobile is a breezy, folk-rock ditty that belies its sci-fi conceits whilst Behind Blue Eyes is a heavy examination of the nature of the villain (who may just be Townshend himself), with one of the finest melodies ever written by Townshend.

The sound on Who’s Next is muscular and punchy with each member of the band more than pulling their own weight – Daltrey comes into his own with his vocal delivery while the wildest rhythm section of Entwistle and Keith Moon continue to defy the basic laws of time and space – to support the artistic genius of Townshend.

There’s no doubt that Who Next’s was the apex of the Who’s recorded output and with Quadrophenia on, it was a slow but steady decline. Decades later, music observers still debate over what might have been (if Lifehouse had not been shelved). For me these hypothetical exercises are just that, when we have the timeless music of Who’s Next to savour.

NEIL YOUNG

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NEIL YOUNG Fork in the Road (Reprise)

Not entirely sure what to make of this latest offering from the legendary singer-songwriter. Fork in the Road is apparently a concept album about Young’s attempts together with biodiesel pioneer Johnathan Goodwin to develop a commercially viable electric power system for automobiles.  The prototype Lincvolt vehicle, Young’s own 1959 Lincoln Continental, is now completely finished, and a documentary is planned about the car’s first cross-country gasoline-free road trip to Washington, DC. for automobiles.

All well and good but what kind of album does all this make for. Better than you’d think. Without even bothering with the lyrics and themes, Fork in the Road is filled with good old fashioned rock n roll Neil Young stlye. Which is fine by me. I love the music’s pure and primal quality – it sounds like Young and band in a rehearsal jamming away. And I mean that in the best possible way.

Young’s backing band features all the usual suspects – Ben Keith, Rick Rosas, Chad Cromwell and the missus, Pegi Young. And this provides the comfortable bedrock from which Young springboards his own musical journeys. To be honest, I find the lyrics a little forced at times although in songs like the lone acoustic number Light A Cradle – “Instead of cursing the darkness/Light a candle for where we’re goin'” – rather inspirational for these depressed times.

The rest of Fork in the Road is suitably ragged with songs that pay tribute to Goodwin (“Johnny Magic”), songs about aging (“The Road”), songs chronicling Young’s trip (“When Worlds Collide”) and the current economic crisis (“Cough Up the Bucks”). It ain’t perfect but it’s still Neil Young and if you’re a fan, then you’ll know what to expect. If you’re not a fan, I’ll suggest you check out his 70s albums first and then work your way slowly to Fork in the Road.

Check out Neil Young’s Myspace page and a video of The Road below.

Neil Young – Fork In The Road