Blast from the Past: The Mars Volta “Frances the Mute”

A young man sits in his 1973 Chevrolet Corvette convertible, driving down a road in the middle of an outer-space desert. The road will not cease to unravel into a straight route that seems to go on for an eternity. He’s darting down this never ending highway at a constant speed of 90 mph, with a look of determination on his face that is indifferent to the sand kicking back. Despite this badass aura, underneath his exterior being, he is desperate, suffering, and travels with a mercurial sense of hope that he will ever find his biological parents. He is obdurate nonetheless, as the colossal marigold sun blazes upon the vast dry landscape, the silvery moons glimmer, and the violent cosmos above swirl obstreperously, he drives. And drives…and drives…and drives…. That is Frances the Mute.

Almost every adjective, positive or negative in the English language can be used to describe the mammoth that is the second album of El Paso prog rockers The Mars Volta. Most critics and the general public could dismiss a band like TMV as progressive rock bands always have been: pretentious, bombastic, deluded creators of the most ridiculously convoluted and masturbatory exercises in music. But that merely reflects not only the dearth of exceptional musicianship present in music today, but the unwillingness of artists to expand boundaries in such a bona fide fashion, alike the prog greats of the 1970s, the jazz fusionists, and the natural experimenters in Krautrock. We are just used to hearing this combination as often as to which we allow ourselves.

I am by no means hailing Frances the Mute as some sort of messianic gold standard of modern music. But there’s no denying all the elements that make this a great record in the first place. In the midst of 2000s, when hip hop and R&B were dominating the charts, and rock music hit an artistic nadir with nu-metal and pop punk, TMV, even utilizing elements from these genres and others, spat back with a profoundly refreshing musical statement for the time that immediately established itself as one of the most challenging epics in progressive music. From the majesty of Led Zeppelin that envelops the 77-minute listening experience, to jams reminiscent of Santana, Miles Davis, and Lenny Harlow, Frances the Mute is a phenomenal amalgamation of metal, punk, Latin, and jazz. If you are not one for movie length albums, progressive rock, or just wickedly long music in general, I would not blame you for not taking a chance. But for those who are up for the journey, listen to this thing. Like, NOW. Even the formerly mentioned group, try it out. You might surprise yourself. And TMV might surprise you.

By Aaron D. Rubin