Structure in Prog, Part 1: Pop structures in The Mars Volta’s Frances the Mute
Structure is one of the most difficult things for progressive rock bands to get right. How do you make a long, complicated song and have it all flow and cohere? Even many popular prog bands struggle with this, so I thought it would be fun to do a series on the different kind of structures used in prog and how to make each of them work.
Despite taking a lot of influence from classical music and jazz, progressive rock rarely follows structural forms from either genre, and instead is largely based on traditional rock structures. Yes, progressive rock songs can often be long, much like a classical movement, but I’ve yet to find a progressive rock song in strict sonata form. Most prog songs are based on expanded forms of the classic pop structures most commonly used in rock music (verse/chorus/verse/chorus/bridge/chorus in its most basic form).
Let’s take a look at Frances the Mute by The Mars Volta. This record is nearly 80 minutes long, and yet it only has five songs, ranging from six to 30 minutes in length. Many of these songs list multiple movements, just like you'd find on an old Yes or Genesis record. This implies that each song is more of a suite, made of disparate parts and possibly a few reprises (like “Supper's Ready” by Genesis). This is true to some extent in a few of the songs, but every song on this record is actually based around an extended pop structure. Here’s a structural map of the record:
The Mars Volta - Frances the Mute (2005)
1. “Cygnus.... Vismund Cygnus” - 13:02 (Video: 14:36 - 27:38)
A. “Sarcophagi” (0:00): a brief acoustic intro which also appears at the end of the album
B. “Umbilical Syllables”:
-Spanish intro verse & brief guitar solo (0:44)
-Verse 1 (1:18)
-Pre-Chorus 1 (1:33)
-Verse 2 (1:45)
-Pre-Chorus 2 (2:05)
-Chorus 1 (2:18)
-Verse 3 (2:32)
-Chorus 2 (3:03)
C. “Facilis Descenus Averni”: An extended bridge over a 15/4 bass ostinato
-Vocal section 1 (3:33)
-Extended guitar solo (4:16)
-Vocal section 2 (6:58)
-Shredding transition (7:58)
-Chorus 3 (double length) (Umbilical Syllables reprise) (8:16)
D. “Con Safo” (8:44): An outro that fades into ambient noise. (Fully faded by 10:34)
2. “The Widow” - 5:51 (Video: 27:39 - 33:28)
Verse 1 (0:00)
Pre-Chorus 1 (0:23)
Chorus 1 (0:33)
Verse 2 (0:55)
Pre-Chorus 2 (1:15)
Chorus 2 (1:26)
Pre-Chorus 3 (2:19)
Chorus 3 (double length) (2:30)
Ambient noise (3:10)
Ambient Intro (0:00)
-John Frusciante Solo 1 (0:40)
-Verse 1 (0:50)
-Prechorus 1 (1:27)
-Verse 2 (1:40)
-Prechorus 2 (2:19)
Chorus 1 (2:35)
-John Frusciante Solo 2 (3:37)
-Verse 3 (3:56)
-Prechorus 3 (4:33)
Chorus 2 (4:49)
-Omar Rodriguez Solo (5:51)
-Prechorus 4 (abbreviated) (7:00)
Chorus 3 (with vocal effects) (7:12)
Piano/guitar duel on chorus music (8:39)
Chorus 4 (a capella outro w/ effects) (11:05)
A. “Vade Mecum” (0:00): a four minute ambient intro
B. “Pour Another Icepick” (4:17): a four and a half minute song following a clear pop structure
-Chorus (loud & double length) (8:22)
C. “Pisacis (Phra-Men-Ma)” (8:55): a trumpet solo over a mournful string ostinato
D. “Con Safo” (11:37): a softer reprise of the outro from Cygnus, this time fading in instead of fading out.
5. “Cassandra Gemini” - 32:32 (Video: 59:01 - 01:31:32)
A. Tarantism (0:00): a brief intro which feels similar to the beginning of 'Umbilical Syllables'
B. Plant A Nail In The Navel Stream (0:39)
-Intro Verse (processed speech) (0:52)
-Brief solo (2:35)
C. Faminepulse (4:45): a long jam extending the bridge with multiple verses
D. Multiple Spouse Wounds (21:12?): instrumental jam over a bass ostinato
-Faminepulse reprise (28:54)
-Plant a Nail Chorus reprise (30:50)
E. Sarcophagi (31:37) - a reprise of the album's acoustic intro
Let’s start with “Cygnus”. The following basic structure is hidden behind all of those movement titles and transitions:
Intro / Verse (double length) / Chorus / Verse / Chorus / Bridge / Chorus / Outro
A classic pop structure, extended to 13 minutes thanks to an extended bridge and outro!
“The Widow” is a three minute pop song with 3 minutes of ambient noise appended to the end, so there’s no need to dissect that one further.
“L'Via L'Viaquez” is another 12 minute song, but it is not divided into movements. The basic structure alternates rocking verses with Spanish lyrics with a mellow latin chorus with English lyrics. The bridge is based on the bass line from the pre-chorus. The structure here is very similar to Cygnus, with a double length first verse, pre-choruses, a multi-part bridge, and an extended solo section, except that the extended jam appears after the third chorus instead of in the bridge, and the outro ambience is a variation of the chorus.
The fourth song, “Miranda That Ghost Just Isn't Holy Anymore”, is another 13 minute long track with four movement titles. Unlike the energetic “Cygnus”, this song is a soft ballad, and the movements here are much more literal, with the entire pop structure contained in a single movement. The first movement is an ambient intro, the second is the core song, the third is an outro/jam section, and the fourth movement, a reprise of the outro from “Cygnus”, essentially acts as an intro to the final song.
So now, let's take a look at the final song, the 30 minute long epic 'Cassandra Gemini', which, surprisingly, also follows a pop structure. It is divided into five movements which are split across eight tracks. The first is a 40 second intro. The second movement, 'Plant a Nail in the Navel Stream', features a verse / chorus / verse / chorus / bridge structure - a pop song minus the final chorus. The next two movements, 'Multiple Stab Wounds' and 'Faminepulse', form a long jam containing many distinct sections with no reprises. Essentially, this jam acts as an extremely long extension of the bridge. 'Multiple Stab Wounds' is a faster section, driven by a drum groove and numerous vocal verses, while 'Faminepulse' is a slow and sparse instrumental jam heavily featuring the saxophone. 'Faminepulse' ends with a double-length reprise of the chorus, completing the pop form. The final movement, 'Sarcophagi', is a reprise of the album’s intro. The core form of the song is thus a simple pop structure (Intro / Verse / Chorus / Verse / Chorus / Bridge / Long jam / Chorus / Outro).
So how about the large scale structure? The Mars Volta enjoy building symmetry into their large scale album structures, and Frances the Mute is filled with it. Of its five songs, the first, third and fifth are energetic rockers, while the second and fourth songs are atmospheric ballads.
This is already a symmetrical structure (but with skewed proportions due to the length of the last two songs), but the band highlights that symmetry even further by framing the last two songs with the same music. “Cygnus” begins with 'Sarcophogi' and ends with 'Con Safo', while 'Cassandra' is preceded by a softer, slower version of 'Con Safo' and followed by a louder, more confident version of 'Sarcophogi'.
There’s one song from the Frances the Mute sessions that I have yet to discuss - the title track, which acts as a prologue to the story. It was released separately from the rest of the album, but was meant to be played before it. “Frances the Mute” is the only song from these sessions that does not follow a pop structure. It is divided into three movements, but it isn’t entirely clear which movement corresponds to which section, as there appears to be no clear rule behind how the movements are titled on this record, so here’s my best guess.
A. “In Thirteen Seconds”
-Ambient noise intro (0:00)
-Full band intro (4:31)
-Verses (strophic) (4:45)
-Guitar solo (6:44)
B. “Nineteen Sank, While Six Would Swim”
-Acoustic section (7:22)
-Angular Riff (10:32)
-Acoustic transition (10:56)
C. “Five Would Grow and One Was Dead”
-‘Chorus’ over big riff (11:11)
-Ambient Sarcophagi outro (12:14)
Unlike in “Miranda”, the four and a half minute ambient intro doesn’t have its own movement title, and instead seems to be combined with the first full band section, which is strophic (all the words are sung to the same music, and there is no contrasting chorus section). The second movement is a through-composed (non-repeating) acoustic section, followed by an angular riff and a transition into the final movement, which has two sections. The first features a big rock riff with a repeating vocal line - this is the closest the song comes to having a chorus. The second is an ambient outro featuring a filtered version of the guitar part from “Sarcophagi”, foreshadowing the intro of “Cygnus”.
This is a very different way of structuring a prog song than the band uses on the main record, and it’s much more difficult to execute well. This song was composed in a linear fashion with no reprises, built entirely out of contrasting sections (for example, the ambient noise, the full band strophic section, and the through-composed acoustic section are completely distinct musical ideas that don’t share any motives or compositional approaches).
Since the band stated that the ambient sections are meant to act as scene changes or scene setting, the text is the unifying factor here, with each contrasting section acting as text painting (for example, the central acoustic section describes a brutal murder over very hushed music). Whether or not this is enough to make this marriage of disparate parts seem coherent is up to the listener - but this concern is negated (or considerably lessened at the very least) when the structure is rooted in more traditional pop and rock forms.
The pop structures used in all the other songs provide a great anchor for the listener, and help ensure that the songs feels coherent across their full duration. Writing a prog song around a pop structure is one of the best ways to guarantee that a listener will be able to easily follow the song's structure, and it also greatly helps the song cohere. It is a safe but effective option, and as you can see on Frances the Mute, there are many different ways to do it. This album doesn’t even begin to encompass the many ways pop structures can be used in progressive music, but that's something I'll dig into in a future post. In the meantime, tell us about your favorite uses of pop structures in prog songs in the comments!
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