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The Mars Volta progresses from ambience to... ambience

For fans of The Mars Volta, 2005's Francis the Mute was a mixed blessing. The band continued its exploration of experimental progressive rock, building upon and expanding the frantic energy of their first full-length, 2003's De-Loused in the Comatorium. They made the most of their Hispanic heritage through the inclusion of Latin rhythms and Spanish language vocals. The absence of a counterbalance to the band's musical meanderings, however, led to an indulgent and sprawling album with little coherency and even less structure.

Unfortunately The Mars Volta have yet to move away from their tendency toward disjointed noise and ambience. With their newest album, Amputechure, they have toned it down quite a bit, leaving us with an album that is far superior to Francis the Mute.

The opening track, "Vicarious Atonement," is a brooding, tension-filled seven minutes that explodes into the forceful guitar work (courtesy of the Red Hot Chili Pepper's John Frusciante) of "Tetragrammaton." It is here that the band makes one of several lapses into unnecessary noise, ambience and obtuse experimentation. To The Mars Volta's credit, at times these lapses do an excellent job of building tension for the next powerful release of energy, as is the case in the 11-minute "Meccamputecture."

There is a continuation of the Latin stylings found in Francis the Mute with both the opening guitar of "Vicarious Atonement" and a surprisingly good acoustic Spanish language track -- not unlike the single "The Widow" -- which is only held back by the distorted noise found at the end.

"Viscera Eyes" is the highlight of the album, beginning with 30 seconds of ambient noise and moving into pounding guitar rifts and frantic instrumentation. The energy is kept up through the entirety of its nine minutes, taking a brief (but tension-filled) rest toward the end. Finally, the song concludes with multiple guitar solos which sound as if they were lifted from De-Loused. In fact much of the album seems to be a combination of elements from De-Loused and Francis the Mute, a consolidation of their sound rather than an expansion.

Like The Mars Volta's previous efforts, Amputechure is more than a little inaccessible and takes repeated, careful listening to fully appreciate. Those listeners who do decide to take up the challenge will be rewarded with a record that is dense, energetic and interesting.