When I started this project four years ago, I said Maybe by the time I finish, the Mars Volta will have confirmed their reunion, complete with a triple-album release and world tour starting with a week’s residency in London. I can dream!

IT’S HAPPENING! Reunion – confirmed. Album – confirmed dropping on 16 September, and although it’s (obviously) not a triple-album, it is a pop record, and I am stupidly happy. Those of us who follow ORL’s solo career are well-versed in his very polished pop output (hello, Umbrella Mistress), and this new material is fucking beautiful. So far, there are only US tour dates, but a European tour must be in the cards, and I am already pre-excited / planning for it.

In the meantime, I find myself wanting to listen to the earlier funny music, when ORL solo albums oftentimes felt like vessels for Volta spillover material. Megaritual is a classic example of early-era ORL and one I wasn’t very familiar with. The cover artwork, like most from that era, is by digital collage artist Sonny Kay, although this cover is relatively stark compared with other more frenetic and cluttered pieces. It’s hard to extrapolate emotions from figures with so much makeup, but I’ve assigned a fraternal narrative through a psychobilly lens via the quote that the album was “an exercise to be closer to my brother”.

Megaritual is also entirely instrumental, another commonality with the material from this time, with ORL performing most instruments and Marcel featured on drums/percussion and piano/synthesiser. Keeping with early-era traditions and based on contemporaneous reviews, the apparatchiks were in heaven and the usual  persnickety refuseniks cried, “Dude needs an editor!” This attitude never fails to confuse me. I can’t deny that there are a few records that I will only willingly listen to as part of my tailored Bad Place punishment / torture package, but how hard is it to give something a miss? I’ll grant that it does suck to drop your hard-earned bell on something you wind up hating (I’m still mildly resentful that back in 2002, I wasted an entire £15 HMV voucher on Blur’s Think Tank and only listened to it once, filled with disgust*), but surely the more material there is, the higher the ratio for greatness?

The overlay of Cedric Bixler-Zavala’s vocals would instantly turn this into a Mars Volta record; it’s saturated with 2009 vibes – pop this ain’t, and the wheel remains firmly outside the realms of reinvention. Although I do frequently get Old Money déjà vu, on the whole, Megaritual feels a lot less structured than that and more like the best bits of a jam session; the perfect kind of soothing aural wallpaper I love so much.

It also helps that right off the bat, we’re given a long piece split across three tracks to make up the title “A Device Imagined To Turn / Screaming Babies Inside Out / At The Push Of A Button”. Who among us hasn’t wished for such a device during a transatlantic flight? It’s a delightful ten-minute journey through squelchy discord, building in intensity before launching into drunk Old Money guitar, gently guided home with shakers and set down on the couch to sink into fleecy layers and settle into a sizzling salsa groove.

“Bells At The Slipstream” serves as a microcosm of Megaritual, as well as a faithful representation of its overall textual journey. It occasionally wanders off track with thoughtful interruptions while never losing purpose, like a long meandering chat with a friend where you eagerly plunge into various conversational rabbit holes far from the original topic but eventually return via a series of hilarious non-sequiturs. This song is incredibly tight, with no room for vocals, which is the case throughout.

The lack of vocals often brings to mind intermittent parts of the Volta show where Cedric leaps off speaker stacks, sashays around swinging his taped-up mic, and gargles with Robotussin; this image is sharpest during “Good Is Repaid With Evil”, a short and bordering on stark interlude-like piece, hints of backstage whispers drifting through the gap in thick velvet stage curtains.

“Panta Section”, the vegan meat substitute-and-potatoes of the album is, at seven minutes, still pretty short compared to historically epic jams. The extended noise-outro’s delayed and discordant guitar sonically ushers the last drunk out of the party with a firm shove out the door and an abrupt drawing of the deadbolt. “Hands Vs. Helix” may be the weakest track, with a perfectly cromulent bassline drowning in unfortunately mixed layers. Having said that, this is me with my nit-picking comb – the mix is a bit awkward but nothing like the infuriating mud of some mid-era work. “Dispanec Triage” meanders between soft, slow and sad, a plinky mournfulness occasionally spliced with raspy undertones. This is the kind of background music with emotional heft that one can choose to listen to attentively / mindfully but that isn’t too bullishly intrusive. 

“Dead Hisses To Match Our Own” concludes with upbeat twanginess. I first heard this years ago via Telesterion, a compilation/acting “best-of”, and I definitely hear/feel the benefit of context here. While I appreciate the curation of music that that project capably demonstrates, the flow is much smoother when placed at the end of this cohesive piece. Each layer is allowed to shine, and weird(ish) effects that might feel randomly slotted outside of Megaritual are more obviously connected to previously heard motifs. 

In many ways, this is my ideal ORL instrumental album: a psychedelic swirl of varying textural elements that consistently delivers upon repeated listening. I tend to go straight to Old Money when I need instrumental comfort, but Megaritual is its brother from another mother and fast becoming a reliable favourite, especially when working. I’m pleased it took me so long to discover, because it’s like getting a free new/old Mars Volta record as I anticipate the release of the pop-drenched eponymous album.

*I recently pulled this up on Spotify, and tbh, I don’t understand my instant hatred. It’s not my favourite, and I haven’t bothered to listen again, but it’s not irredeemably awful, as I had thought it was. Go figure, past Bec!

Track listing:
A Device Imagined To Turn
Screaming Babies Inside Out
At The Push Of A Button
Bells At The Slipstream
Good Is Repaid With Evil
Panta Section
Hands Vs. Helix
Dispanec Triage
Dead Hisses To Match Our Own