For an album about a mute, the latest Mars Volta opus sure has a lot to say. It’s a concept album of sorts, but since nothing with the Mars Volta is ever simple, Frances the Mute isn’t a concept easily explained. Not that the band won’t try.
Instead of looking at the upcoming album as an idea, they see it as a character, a resurrected body based on the thoughts of a stranger seeking to find his adopted parents, written in a diary found by former bandmember Jeremy Ward (who later died in 2003) while working as a repo man. The diary wasn’t finished, so Ward took it upon himself to finish it for the unknown writer. From there, the band says it’s bringing it to life, via five seamless songs called “Vismund Cygnus,” “The Widow,” “L’Via L’Viaquez,” “Miranda That Ghost Just Isn’t Holy Anymore” and “Cassandra Gemini” that together clock in at 77 minutes.
“In one way, the album serves as our own journal, our own search for our roots,” guitarist Omar Rodriguez-Lopez said. “The fact that we’re always touring, moving from place to place and encountering different culture clashes … it’s like there’s never any real beginning or an end.”
“Sometimes Frances can be about finding the missing piece, trying to look for biological family as opposed to maybe realizing your family is whoever is around you at the time,” vocalist Cedric Bixler Zavala said. “You just kind of create this corpse, and it comes to life and it becomes its own thing, this gigantic open-ended question, as opposed to a solid meaning or concept.”
That probably won’t clear things up for most people, but Zavala said that this loose theme is actually a way to invite people to come up with their own interpretations, which he concedes would probably be better than anything the band came up with. “You know you like it, but you don’t know what it really means,” he said. “Our music would probably be a really dark ocean, so you may not know where you are. It’s not so literal. It’s like a David Lynch movie.”
Actually, if you called the album a movie, you’d score major points with the Mars Volta, who are a bit disappointed they couldn’t put out a video for one of their 30-minute-long songs because that just wouldn’t be “commercial” or MTV-friendly. Not that the band’s sci-fi emo prog rock — with its mysterious, artful, aggressive, psychedelic guitar work — was ever commercial to begin with. Mars Volta made their latest video, “The Widow,” as a sort of trailer for the film of Frances the Mute — and it’s an unsettling, nightmarish piece of work about a vendor selling addictive black mush that drips out of your eyes once you’ve eaten it.
“The Widow” is partly inspired by Zavala’s mom’s vision of the devil when she was young — she told him she had gone to buy ice cream from a vendor and while she couldn’t remember his face, she couldn’t get the image of his chicken feet out of her head. Nor could Zavala, who said that it might be just a dream, but he combined her memory with a dream of his own, where he encountered his father and he smeared black pudding on his face.
“Your wheels start turning, and you start trying to figure out what is happening between him and his father,” Rodriguez-Lopez said. “People constantly ask, ‘So what is the black pudding? Is that drugs?’ If you want it to be. If you want to search deeper, search deeper. But it’s like Freud said: ‘Sometimes a pen is just a pen.’ ”