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Frances The Mute is 10 years old

The Mars Volta - Frances The Mute album art
Release date: 1st March 2005
01. Cygnus….Vismund Cygnus
02. The Widow
03. L’Via L’Viaquez
04. Miranda That Ghost Just Isn’t Holy Anymore
05. Cassandra Gemini

The Mars Volta‘s Frances The Mute turned 10 years old this weekend. That’s something quite special on a personal level, as it also marks about 10 years since I became a proper music fan. It was probably my first ever ‘favourite’ album and held that spot for quite some time – but it was also an important record on the prog landscape. Wild but cohesive, weird yet emotional, and experimental but reverent of its influences, I’d never heard anything like it before, and haven’t really since – not of the same consistent quality, at any rate.

The Mars Volta were a curious band, so it should come as no surprise that Frances The Mute, their second album, was something of an oddity. That’s probably part of why I liked it so much, and it was a quality that would come to define the band across their later discography, but it had its roots in this record. Whilst their debut De-Loused In The Comatorium was chock full of the same mysterious, almost nonsensical lyrics, it was a proggy rock album, with more standard, definable tracks. Frances The Mute was where they dropped the charade and went fully pretentious.

The approach to recording was the first exercise in pageantry. Omar wrote the whole thing while touring for De-Loused In The Comatorium, and then arranged individual sessions with each member to learn and record their parts, separately from each other – and the music is incredibly complex, so this was no small feat. Who does that, really?

Nevertheless, drawing influences from prog classics, latino rock, dub, jazz and ambient styles, he created something courageous and powerful. Each part is infused with each musician’s own verve, but the groundwork was spectacular. It’s been accused of wandering off at times, but for me the disjointed samples of kids playing (at the end of “Cygnus….Vismund Cygnus“) and slow ambient build-ups and fade-outs (“Miranda That Ghost Just Isn’t Holy Anymore“) make the record unique, and these days are pretty common-place – in fact, it’s almost par for the course with post-rock now.

It was originally only 5 tracks long, but thanks to payment disputes with label Universal Music over the number of tracks versus the overall length of the album, “Cassandra Gemini” was split into eight separate parts to ensure the band got their dues. Nevertheless, each is a unique piece of art in its own right. From casual favourite “The Widow“, with its “Televators“-style acoustic guitar to the visceral soloing of “L’via L’Viaquez” and sprawling, schizophrenic “Cassandra Gemini“, there is personality and compositional savvy in absolute spades.

But it’s the album’s conceptual background that was the most immediately fascinating for me. Sparked in part by a diary deceased member Jerermy Ward found in a car whilst working as a repo man – with names like Cassandra, Miranda and the titular Frances coming from that document – and in part by a sort of stream of consciousness, gibberish approach to lyric writing, informed by guitarist Omar Rodriguez-Lopez’s wall of televisions that he set up whilst Cedric was writing, they range from needing a dictionary to a degree in philosophy or a couple of tabs of acid to understand: lines like “My nails peel back // when the taxidermist ruined // goose stepped the freckling impatience” and “There was a frail syrup dripping off his lap danced lapel // punctuated by her decrepit prowl // she washed down the hatching gizzard, soft as a mane of needles” are either so deep you need a flashlight to see the bottom, or so overblown there’s a trio of little piggies seeking an insurance payout. Your perspective on this depends on your openness to this kind of thing, but for 17 year-old me, it was a revelation.

In short, both the intense instrumentation and fanciful concepts combine to make one of the progressive rock masterpieces of the noughties. If you’ve never heard it, check it out on Spotify below, and please let us know your thoughts on it – for good or ill.

Red Hot Chili Peppers fans are advised to keep a look out for cameos from both bassist Flea (who plays trumpet on “The Widow” and “Miranda That Ghost Just Isn’t Holy Anymore“ and former guitarist John Frusciante (who contributed two solos on ”L’ Via L’ Viaquez“). Both return after performing various roles on De-Loused.

We’ll be publishing more retrospectives like this in the future. Let us know any outstanding albums with important anniversaries coming up this year, and we’d be glad to look into covering them for this series.