Antemasque - s/t

Cedric Bixler Zavala and Omar Rodriguez-Lopez have collaborated on a huge amount of music in many different genres. Their first release together was the 1997 EP El Gran Orgo by El Paso post hardcore band At the Drive-In. Since then, they appeared together in the dub group De Facto and the progressive rock band The Mars Volta in addition to performing on each other’s solo work.


In 2012, The Mars Volta released their final album, Noctourniquet. It seemed that the working relationship and friendship between these two men had finally come to an end, and each left to pursue their own projects without the other for the first time in more than a decade.


Thankfully, it seems that all of the bitterness between them has been resolved, as the duo are back with a new project called Antemasque. The group is rounded out by Deantoni Parks (the drummer from Noctourniquet) and some contributions from frequent collaborator Flea (the bassist from The Red Hot Chili Peppers). Every member of this band has played with The Mars Volta, but if you’re expecting their self-titled debut to sound like that band, then you’re in for a surprise.


The Mars Volta played salsa and jazz-laced progressive rock of the most bombastic variety - long songs, long records, odd time signatures, big arrangements, and obtuse lyrics. Antemasque feels like a conscious attempt to escape all of that and return to the duo’s post hardcore roots (albeit with some added New Wave influences). The album is very brief - 10 songs clocking in at under 35 minutes total, with only one song breaking the four minute mark. Gone are the horn sections, string orchestras and extensive overdubs of The Mars Volta’s studio records - the arrangements on Antemasque are stripped down to the basics, featuring only vocals, guitar, bass, drums, and the occasional synthesizer.


Listening to Antemasque, I get the sense that this was a very spontaneous record. After leaving The Mars Volta, Rodriguez-Lopez frequently publicly reflected on how he was far too much of a dictator in that band, which prevented it from being fun for anyone involved. While I have no idea whether or not the band is actually having fun on this album, it certainly feels like they’re trying to, perhaps in order to ease back into working together with a project that’s a little more democratic and less demanding. 


Unfortunately, that makes it far less interesting to listen to than any album by The Mars Volta or any of the later records by At the Drive-In. These songs feel designed for live performance, and are likely to be much more effective in that environment, as the pacing and production of this record prevents it from ever really taking off. 


The albums lacks the raw energy and punk aesthetic of At the Drive-In, largely thanks to the production. The mastering is particularly problematic, as the album is so loud that the clipping is audible. You’re likely to get ear fatigue and possibly a headache very early on in the album’s brief runtime. Since the loud master destroys any sense of dynamics, it becomes a rather monotonous and difficult listen. I can only hope that the album will be remixed and remastered for the upcoming CD release.


Which brings me to the album’s second major flaw: the lack of variety, especially in the record’s first half. The first five songs are practically copies of each other - all five are in the same key and time signature, at the same tempos (most of the album hovers around 90BPM), the same length, and with the same pop structure. You won’t find any of the unpredictability that made the duo’s previous work so exciting here.


The second half is far more varied and enjoyable. ‘Memento Mori’ features an atmospheric bridge that brings some much-needed variety to the table. ‘Drown All Your Witches’ is the album’s only ballad, and it sounds like it could have pulled directly from Led Zeppelin III or IV.


‘Providence’ is the closest the album comes to Mars Volta territory. It is the album’s strongest song, defined by sudden mood swings from chill-inducing eerie atmospheric verses to screamed choruses with some wonderfully creepy lyrics (“You’d better burn me at the stake, because Providence.... she don’t live here anymore”). Clocking in at a little under five minutes, it is also the album’s longest song, proving that the duo are at their most powerful when they focus on contrasts and give themselves room to stretch out. They really stretch this song out at their live shows, turning it into a 20 minute jam a la The Mars Volta.


The following song, ‘People Forget’, is also quite strong. It begins similarly to most of the other songs here, but the verse is followed by a drum fill which decelerates into a catchy swung chorus. This unexpected tempo change provides another strong contrast to break up the monotony.


Unfortunately, these four songs aren’t enough to keep me coming back to an otherwise quite repetitive and lamentably headache-inducing record, but I suspect that this album is just a warm up to something greater. This is not a replacement for The Mars Volta, or even At the Drive-In - instead, it sounds like very ambitious musicians scaling back and having a rare moment of fun. If that sounds appealing to you, then you will probably find this album enjoyable for at least a few listens.


Stream the album here:

RIP Ikey Owens.