“Frances the Mute” is the second album from The Mars Volta
, which is made up of two main members, former At the Drive-In
members Cedric Bixler
and Omar Rodriguez
, and has a rotating lineup, thus having the words “On this record The Mars Volta is…” printed in the liner notes of their first two releases. Although their second release features nearly every musician that appears on their previous album, “De-Loused in the Comatorium
,” some are featured in much more limited roles. The only two musicians who don’t return are Medicine
bass player Justin Meldal-Johnsen and the incredibly versatile Jeremy Ward
, who passed away shortly before the release of “De-Loused” of a drug overdose at age 27.
Yet Ward’s spirit most definitely lives on throughout “Frances the Mute,” as yet again, the band found inspiration through the death of a close friend. Cedric Bixler has stated that the entire album is based on a diary that Ward found in the backseat of a car and as he began reading, Ward found the parallels between his life and the life of the person who had written in the diary to be incredibly striking. The person was on a search for their biological parents, as Ward once was, and along the way the writer of the diary seems to meet various people who help point him in the direction of his actual parents. He shared this with Bixler and Rodriguez “Frances the Mute” is entirely based on that diary, with each song title telling the story of a character taken directly from that diary.
First off, there has been a bit of confusion about the track listing of “Frances the Mute.” The back of the album reads like this:
B. Umbilical Syllables
C. Facilis Descenus Averni
D. Con Safo
Miranda That Ghost Just Isn't Holy Anymore
A. Vade Mecum
B. Pour Another Icepick
C. Pisacis (Phra-Men-Ma)
D. Con Safo
B. Plant a Nail in the Navel Stream
D. Multiple Spouse Wounds
Yet after my first listen, I was incredibly confused. I wondered why the third track was seemingly labeled “Facilis Descenus Averni” yet seemed to be about “L’Via l'Viaquez,” and I thought the 6th track of the album was supposed to be “L’Via l'Viaquez,” Not to mention that one would think the CD would have fifteen tracks, as it appears to list fifteen tracks on the back, yet they’re only 12. Adding to the confusion is the mention of another song titled “Frances the Mute,” which is listed on the inside cover listing three movements (“In Thirteen Seconds”, “Nineteen Sank, While Six Would Swim” and “Five Would Grow and One Was Dead.”) while in reality, the title song was cut from the album. Yet after sorting things over with the lyrical content in terms to which character seems to be the focal point of each songs, the tracklisting made much more sense. In conventional terms of tracklisting, the tracklist for “Francis the Mute” is:
1. Cygnus...Vismund Cygnus
2. The Widow
3. L'Via l'Viaquez
4. Miranda, That Ghost Just Isn't Holy Anymore
5. Cassandra Gemini
6. Cassandra Gemini
7. Cassandra Gemini
8. Cassandra Gemini
9. Cassandra Gemini
10. Cassandra Gemini
11. Cassandra Gemini
12. Cygnus...Vismund Cygnus (reprise)
It’s quite possible the band may have been trying to get some point across with this track listing, as they once wanted the album to be listened to as a 77-minute one track album. Yet as it is now, the album tracklist is listed by the character, and then by a letter, which has caused quite a bit of confusion over this rather unconventional fashion of song labeling, resulting in a variety of members of the press having lines such as “Cassandra Gemini, the album’s closer clocks in at barely two minutes,” in their reviews of the album.
As for the relevance of the “movements” listed for each song on the back of the album, such as “Sarcophagi” and “Pour Another Icepick,” they are very open to interpretation. Each song does have the correct amount of movements as listed (example: “Miranda, That Ghost Just Isn't Holy Anymore” movements are (1) from start to about 5:10 (2) from 5:10 to 7:41, (3) from 7:41 to 8:23 and (4) from 8:23 to the end of the song). Yet the significance of their titles and the significance of the lyrics of “Frances the Mute” seem very open to interpretation. Similar to how it seemed everyone who listened closely to “De-Loused In The Comatorium” seemed to have varying opinions on which part of the album finds the main character that “De-Loused” revolves around, Julio Venegas, jumping off a hospital to his death.
With all that aside, “Frances the Mute” very well could be the first great album of 2005. Just like on De-Loused in the Comatorium, “Frances the Mute” success can be attributed to a tired cliché which, although overused, I find applies very much so with these albums, they take me to a totally different place. The beautifully urgent guitars and percussion, the tastily melodic bass lines and the distinct and clear falsetto of Cedric Bixler makes me feel as if I’m traveling someplace at a thousand miles per hour, even though I’m just sitting around with my headphones on. The long periods of sound that consist on both albums, which are often categorized as white noise, make me feel as if I’m simply floating around in the totally different space that I’ve been taken to.
Yet, the reason I love “Frances the Mute” is much more than it takes me to places in my mind and allows me to enjoy these places. Although that’s pretty much the thick of it all, The Mars Volta have an incredible knack for writing solid musical compositions that are often lengthy, yet never drag on due to the fact that they freely jump all over the place. Going from hard rock, to funk, to meringue and beyond, often multiple times in one song! “L'Via l'Viaquez” perhaps serves as the best example of such “jumps” in their music as well as the epic 31-minute-long masterpiece "Cassandra Gemini". Yet throughout all of this, their lyrics, which could easily be written off as nonsensical gibberish, demand the attention of the listener and challenges one to put the pieces together and figure out what exactly the meaning of their songs and the entire concept of their albums are. While every concept album requires a certain amount of “decoding,” (al la, does the “piggy” character have any Christian ties on The Downward Spiral? Are Jesus and Jimmy the same person in American Idiot?), yet with The Mars Volta, once the pieces are fit, the outcome is a delight and makes each listen of the album better than the next.
They are some great bands out there right now who create, epic, complex, genre-bending music. Just nobody seems to do it anything like The Mars Volta does, and Frances the Mute is a striking example of that.