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Antemasque: S/T (Album Review)

The messy disbandment of The Mars Volta in 2012 built a wall between the group’s founders. While guitarist Omar Rodriguez-Lopez continued his Bosnian Rainbows project, vocalist Cedric Bixler-Zavala set his sights on a new group called Zavalaz. But despite the perceived animosity the members had with each other’s decisions, the two guys couldn’t hate each other forever. Even though it had only been a couple years since The Mars Volta’s end, the duo tore down the wall and formed a new band together called Antemasque, with former Mars Volta drummer Dave Elitch handling the kit. Antemasque wasn’t just surprising for showing Rodriguez-Lopez’s and Bixler-Zavala’s fast mending; it also displayed a sound that hadn’t been heard before from the duo. The members were notorious for challenging convention and throwing everyone for a loop. Oddly enough, the #1 convention Antemasque and their self-titled debut challenge is The Mars Volta itself.

Cedric Bixler-Zavala has gone through a rather large number of vocal transformations through his musical career. The tenor screams of At the Drive-in contrasted the rocketing falsetto of The Mars Volta. This time around, Bixler-Zavala strikes a balance, with a slightly stronger grip on The Bedlam in Goliath era Mars Volta. His singing sounds raspier and more abrasive than what he performed on the final Mars Volta recording Noctourniquet, which benefits the songwriting considerably. Opener “4AM” is a perfect balance between Bixler-Zavala’s cleaner croons and his rougher snarls; in shift, “50,000 Kilowatts” follows the former pattern and the snickering “In the Lurch” (formerly “Hanging in the Lurch) follows the latter. Though he jumps around the spectrum a lot, Bixler-Zavala doesn’t reach too far, staying within a tight, controlled range.

Omar Rodriguez-Lopez has always been an abstract guitarist. From At the Drive-in and well into The Mars Volta, his guitar playing has bordered on completely improvisational. As The Mars Volta continued, the abrasive, over-the-top soloing was tamed down, and on Antemasque, he’s all but abandoned that level of loose-as-hell intricacy. This is not the Omar we grew to know…and that’s not bad. Rodriguez-Lopez’s guitars split the difference between Led Zeppelin extravagance and more traditional melodic rock riffs. He almost never goes into full “wankery” mode on his axe, but still provides virtuosity. “In the Lurch” has a Red Hot Chili Peppers-style funk to it early on before breaking into jangly punk in the chorus. “People Forget” has a nice solo, one that draws more from classic rock than the speedball prog that Rodriguez-Lopez brought in The Mars Volta. “Drown All Your Witches” slows things down a bit, letting Bixler-Zavala croon and wave more, a strong companion to Omar’s softer guitars.

The songwriting is undeniably tamer on Antemasque; the album never goes into the kind of fever dream prog that the guys became famous for. Only one song on the album breaks four minutes in length and some songs, like the lifting “50,000 Kilowatts”, actually reach pop levels of accessibility. Saying the word “pop” to describe anything these guys have released is awkward to say for sure, but despite their connotation with impenetrable avant-garde prog-punk, Antemasque sound bizarrely comfortable with this sound. That being said, there are some songs that still hit close to their home. “Providence” sounds like the better parts of Noctourniquet, with jangly guitars and Bixler-Zavala belting out a snarling yell before quelling down to eerie echoes, but the song has a slightly more erratic rhythm that draws inspiration from the steadier parts of Frances the Mute. “I Got No Remorse” and “In the Lurch” are more punk-inspired, with drummer Dave Elitch railgunning his snares with bottomless adrenaline. And while some songs like “Momento Mori” don’t possess nearly as much creativity as others on the album, Antemasque is actually an album with more appeal than many might have expected. It’s so unsettling how a band with such an experimental background can make something as accessible as this. Even more so, they can actually make it sound good.

Antemasque is about as far away from The Mars Volta as you can get. With such great, catchy, accessible tracks like “Drown All Your Witches” and “50,000 Kilowatts”, you’d think these guys were making this kind of music all their lives instead of 32-minute-long prog marathons. But at the same time, Bixler-Zavala’s voice and Rodriguez-Lopez’s guitars still manage to sound like themselves. They tame down the intricacy, while still developing a sound just obtuse enough to keep from alienating the long-time followers. The classic rock inspiration is clear as day, usurping the throne from the massively experimental art punk. Antemasque is unsettlingly accessible, especially coming from these veterans of spacey prog, but it’s so well-written and so well-performed that it really doesn’t matter. As the official reunion of two of the most bizarre musicians in their class, Antemasque challenges all precognition. It’s the perfect way to go against the grain of something already so far against-the-grain.