The Mars Volta return in 2012 with their sixth full-length studio album, Noctourniquet. As with most of their work many people will have made up their mind about whether they'll like it beforehand anyway, based on whether or not they like how the band keeps changing away from its early style. This time there is also a bit of interesting non-musical context surrounding the album that explains how and why Noctourniquet is the record that it is.
Firstly, the band have been known in the past for having somewhat exacting standards of quality and timing and so if they aren't happy with something it doesn't come out under their name. This has lead to a live album and at least two full studio albums being scrapped or put on hold so far. During their previous album Octahedron's cycle the band claimed that the follow up album was already recorded, but soon after they decided to make this yet newer album instead. Now however it is unclear whether they actually did or not.
It is also interesting that the band would put out a new studio album so close to when the At The Drive In reunion is going on, almost like either the band or the record company don't want fans to forget about The Mars Volta.
Finally, the line-up has seen a change; Isaiah Ikey Owens is absent from the keyboard position for the first time, John Frusciante doesn't contribute any guitar and Deantoni Parks makes his studio debut as the band's new drummer. Interestingly; despite the album being made without their long time keys player Owens, Noctourniquet seems to be driven primarily by Synths. Of course, The Mars Volta have always made use of keys and synths but this album features them even more than usual.
Context is interesting and can unfairly doom or raise an album more than it deserves, but the fairest way to judge an album is on the music. Musically, this album is very different from previous Mars Volta efforts. If you have been paying any attention to the band's career trajectory however you would expect that already as the band always take a new direction and never repeat the same thing twice.
This wasn't the record anyone expected the band to put out, which is exactly what makes the band so great in the first place. The band have come a long way since their classic debut album De-Loused In The Comatorium, both shedding and making thousands of fans with each release. As long as there is weird and creative music with Cedric's voice and Omar's guitar style it'll feel acceptable to call it The Mars Volta. Just to make things a little easier however, Noctourniquet is another concept album like most of their previous works which helps it to fit in a little better too.
With Noctourniquet the music has taken a distinctly more electronic turn. Additionally, the music is a lost less explosive and brash than their heaviest works and a lot less complex and jazzy than their most Progressive Rock influenced works. The band almost seems to be channeling later-day Radiohead at times, or at least some of the same influences.
At first listen the album can feel like it is off on a wild tangent deliberately trying to be different, but it is a grower as always and repeat listens will help it to make sense within the band's overall catalogue. Cedric has described the sound as "Future Punk" and you can get what that was supposed to mean when listening to tracks like `In Absentia,' `The Whip Hand' or lead single `The Malakin Jewel,' but if you don't like the idea of "Future Punk" don't worry however, as this isn't the whole picture.
Tracks like `Aegis' `Empty Vessels Make The Loudest Sounds' and quieter songs like `Trinkets Pale Of Moon' feel a bit more like previous Mars Volta work and wouldn't have been that drastically out of place on Octahedron or Bedlam In Goliath. These songs are perhaps the most instantly enjoyable, if you don't like too much change.
Overall; evolution and drastically changing is business as usual for The Mars Volta. Noctourniquet feels like it might be half trying to do something genuinely new and half trying to keep one foot in their previous style. As always with The Mars Volta a lot of fans will hate this album just because it isn't like their debut, a lot of fans will blindly love the album no matter what and a lot of people will feel initially confused before it eventually grows on them. Chose which category you usually fall into and chances are that will probably be a good indicator of how you feel about this record too.