It's hard to believe The Mars Volta could make an album more aggressively proggy than its debut, De-Loused In The Comatorium, which was memorably loaded with nonsensically titled multi-part jams. But sure enough, Frances The Mute goes even further out, propelled by 13-minute tracks like "Cygnus… Vismund Cygnus," which defy logic as they rocket from atonal drone to furious thrash to whipcrack polyrhythms. It's even harder to believe that The Mars Volta could make such epic pretension listenable, but damned if the band hasn't done it again, finding a flow that neo-prog outfits like Fantômas scarcely attempt. Frances The Mute is challenging, but rarely off-putting.
The Mars Volta is co-led by singer Cedric Bixler-Zavala and guitarist Omar Rodriguez-Lopez, both refugees from the raging revolutionary-punk band At The Drive In. The duo's decades on the hardcore-punk circuit obviously made them restless to do more with sound than just alternate "fast and loud" with "temporarily hushed." The Mars Volta plays with degrees of silence and degrees of noise. Thirty years ago, Yes or Santana could get away with inserting a long, almost pastoral guitar solo in the middle of an album-side-length suite like "Cygnus," but not even the prog bands of yesteryear built from lengthy passages of noodling to screeching, machine-gun-style post-hardcore.
Frances The Mute is far from seamless. The soft passages are rarely convincing or even lyrical, and too many of the songs—if "songs" is the right word—end predictably, with a minute or two of tuneless hum. On the whole, the record sounds more like the blueprint for a stunning live show than like a viable document of a top-flight hard rock band. But listeners with imagination and a sense of adventure should be able to hear the possibilities and follow the band through its hour-plus of salsa rhythms and blitzkrieg guitars. Frances The Mute is an album for those who believe fervently that rock needs more ambitious deviants.