Though the internet’s message boards seem intent on proving otherwise, human beings are complex animals. We are creatures of many appetites, of egos and ids, attracted to erudite pursuits as well as bursts of primal energy. We are capable of feeling bored and equally capable of feeling betrayed. This is something I am forced to remind myself when presented with polemics against rock bands that have “lost touch with their roots.” All the complexities and contradictions that we readily acknowledge in our friends and loved ones somehow don’t apply to strangers tasked with being creative for a living. What is this shit? How dare they change, we think in holy outrage before pressing the button that says “Post Comment.”
Omar Rodríguez-López and Cedric Bixler-Zavala, the two-headed, curly-haired dragon behind At the Drive-In and The Mars Volta, are human beings who happen to be prolific musicians. Never was this more apparent than in January 2013, when Bixler-Zavala announced on Twitter that The Mars Volta was breaking up. His tone suggested that a rift had formed between the longtime friends and collaborators, or at least that they weren’t seeing eye-to-eye creatively anymore. This narrative persisted until April 2014, when they announced the formation of Antemasque, a new full-time project featuring former Mars Volta drummer Dave Elitch and (as a sometimes guest) bassist Flea of Red Hot Chili Peppers.
All of this sounds great on paper: Two friends and musical visionaries putting aside their differences to get back to doing what they do best. The problem, at least for a certain plurality of Mars Volta fans, is that Antemasque sounds like a drastically different band than the one that brought us De-Loused in the Comatorium or even 2012’s Noctourniquet. The band released single “4AM” with their initial announcement, and reactions were predictably mixed. Missing here are the dense architectures stacking free jazz atop salsa and krautrock, replaced by a swinging, straightforward rock sound with traces of punk and post-hardcore. Underneath it all is Flea’s pounding, persistent bass line, rushing the tune forward without any prog rock detours.
This kind of departure is especially notable because punk and prog reside, basically, at opposite poles of the rock music spectrum. Fans of these genres demand entirely different things from their music; the former is visceral, while the latter is cerebral. All of this is not to say that the two are impossible to reconcile (remember, humans are complex animals). Just look at Rodríguez-López, a prolific guitarist whose solo work is oftentimes wildly progressive but who sounds like he’s having a blast laying down primal rock riffs for Antemasque.
So long as fans know what they’re getting into when they press play on Antemasque’s self-titled debut, they’ll find a mostly enjoyable rock record with catchy choruses and a fair amount of punk swagger. “4AM” opens the record with a bang in the form of a noodly guitar line, and “I Got No Remorse” keeps the energy up with a pummeling bass line lifted right out of the Rage Against the Machine playbook. This full-steam-ahead approach is fun for a while, but it also leaves the creeping suspicion that Antemasque is merely a less dangerous, more radio-friendly version of At the Drive-In. Much of that has to do with Bixler-Zavala’s vocals. His range has certainly expanded over the years, but the ferocity of his performance on songs like “Rolodex Propaganda” is a distant memory here.
Luckily, things start to get more interesting with the one-two punch of “Ride Like the Devil’s Son” and “In the Lurch”. The former pairs a fairly tepid verse with one of the album’s best choruses, a rollicking sing-along that exemplifies the swagger so essential to Antemasque’s appeal. “In the Lurch” starts with a frenetic, punk-tinged verse that gradually evolves into one of the album’s most straightforward rock songs. The transition from verse to chorus is an impressively delicate one, and the bass-driven breakdown that starts around the 1:45 mark sounds like a band finding its groove and having fun in the studio.
That palpable sense of fun comes and goes, but it’s certainly the best thing Antemasque has going for it. “50,000 Kilowatts”, the most conventional and thus the strangest song on the album, is what you get when you cross The Mars Volta with (brace yourselves, TMV fans) Bryan Adams or John Mellencamp. Never have Rodríguez-López and Bixler-Zavala embraced the pleasures of ‘70s arena rock with such abandon; “us against the world” is an actual lyric here, and I’m pretty sure it’s not ironic. “Momento Mori”, another highlight, also bears a trace of arena rock, but it’s tempered by staccato bursts of guitar that combine the raw energy of punk and hardcore with a Police-like ska groove. As if to complete the bingo game of unexpected influences, the acoustic “Drown All Your Witches” is a Donovan-esque slice of psych folk.
For all of its bombast, the album’s last third fails to maintain much interest, especially the meandering “People Forget”, which sticks out in a group of otherwise tightly structured songs. The listener’s impression, in the end, will likely depend on whether he or she is willing to accept this kind of music from Rodríguez-López and Bixler-Zavala, of all people. There is nothing inherently offensive about Antemasque’s sound, but those tied to the post-hardcore leanings of At the Drive-In or the prog-heavy sound of The Mars Volta might not be thrilled to see their heroes wearing layman’s clothes. To them, I say this: Humans are complex animals, filled with contradictions. It’s perfectly okay to like this record for what it is, even while regretting what it is not.
Essential Tracks: “In The Lurch”, “Momento Mori”, and “Drown All Your Witches”