I waited ten years for a new Mars Volta record, and when it finally arrived, I began anticipating a follow-up ORL solo release. But wait – there’s more Volta! Que Dios Te Maldiga Mi Corazón is a total reworking of the self-titled album as acoustic Puerto Rican folk music. Their label and recording studio Clouds Hill describes it as Much more than a simple “unplugged” reading of The Mars Volta’s 14 songs, this acoustic rendition furthers the mission of the source music, which drew into sharper focus the traditional Latin influences that have always inspired their music. This is, says Rodríguez-López, The Mars Volta’s version of a “folk record”, tracing the melodies and rhythms of the parent album back to their traditional Caribbean roots and challenging listeners to hear the group in an entirely new light.

Two lead singles were released in advance, “Blank Condolences” and “Palm Full of Crux”. I first heard the latter on a morning where I had woken up particularly early and was inhabiting a gluey-brained liminal space where I was still processing batshit dreams. The aching vulnerability in Cedric’s soft falsetto reduced me to a proper boo-hoo cry, and I was still sniffling a wee bit in the background of my 10am stand-up (thank various infant deities our Teams meetings are sans camera). 

But even his more aggressive vocals get straight to my soft, marshmallowy, piglety parts, and have done so from the first time I heard them. I recall stanking my bedroom out with Richmond fags while guzzling 2-for-£5 plonk and blaring De-loused in the Comatorium, a CD burned for me and posted all the way from Los Angeles by my new LiveJournal friend Glynnis*. Naturally, I was floored by the guitar solo on “Roulette Dares (The Haunt of)” but just as equally moved by the belted chorus ‘exoskeletal junction at the railroad delayed’. I still don’t know what that means, and I’m entirely okay with that; I know what it feels, how the syllables sashay in parlance with that blistering solo (which still has the power to make me stop whatever I’m doing so I can let it wash over me). Ever since, I’ve loved every iteration of CBZ vocal styles – husky drawls, earsplitting shrieks, staccato stutters, and sweet lullabies. As I gear up to experience them in person for the 6th time, I’m returning to the Mars Volta and MV-aligned music from The Bedlam in Goliath era when I first became a fan. 

Calibration (Is Pushing Luck And Key Too Far) is a quintessentially Volta album for that period, perhaps best demonstrated by the classification of random items like TVs and tea kettles as musical instruments. In fact, if Cedric were lead vocalist on all songs, I’d consider Calibration to be an unofficial yet canon Mars Volta record for the same reasons that Cryptomnesia qualifies, mainly its Mars Volta-with-a-few-literal-musical-chairs-swaps personnel.

Having said that, it does have all the hallmarks of a classic ORL side project, and one that contemporaneous fan reviews were divided on. All Music thought Calibration [wa]s Omar’s most adventurous yet most realized moment as a solo artist thus far, and given his other work, and especially the Mars Volta’s Bedlam in Goliath, that’s saying plenty. A few fan reviews on Prog Archives call it ‘chaotic’ (presumably chaotic bad-to-neutral), ‘a bunch of half-finished ideas’ and ‘uninspired’. 

I don’t entirely disagree, but I do agree that while Calibration is a mixed bag, it firmly falls into the chaotic-good category. Some of the instrumental pieces appeal to my love of Pixies’ well-renowned quiet-thrash-quiet combo as on “Mexico”’s deceptively light intro and volte-face towards a bass-heavy crashfest. “Una Ced Lacerante” is exactly the kind of funky guitar-led interlude I’m never mad at, and the violin on “Grey (Cancion Para El)” and “Cortar El Cuello” juxtapose a starkness that gradually segues into spacerocky dreamspaces and back again in ways reminiscent of the taffy-stretched between-songs jamming during live shows. I do love those moments, even when they border on tedious, because it’s a sign that something brilliant is about to explode, and even if not, it’s always a pure delight to watch ORL & co simply playing, in the childlike fun sense of playing as opposed to performing.

Though I initially turned to this album for a Mars Volta circa 2008 experience, I do think it’s rather telling that I’m picking an ORL vocal track as lead favourite. “El Monte T’aï” really does feel like a Universe B version of the band, with Marcel Rodríguez-López drumming and with Money Mark instead of Ikey Owens on keyboards. The vocal effects blend a pleasingly snowy texture into bursts of synthy weirdness without being grating or obfuscating the lyrics. Violin cuts in throughout to soften the edges of the weirdness. It almost hurts me that there are no comments on this video and a mere 22 likes (including mine), and I’m almost tempted to leave a series of heart-based emojis to rep for it. 

Both “Calibration” and its extended coda “…Is Pushing Luck” give strong Bedlam in Goliath b-side vibes as seen through the rose-tinted glasses of my early fandom. The controlled chaos structured around Marcel’s intense dub-adjacent drumming (itself a different pant leg of the De Facto Trousers of Time or possibly a lost track from Universe B’s Old Money), a ribbon of delicate woodwinds and ORL’s shred slay me every damn time. While “Calibration” is anachronistically short for this time period, “…Is Pushing Luck” concludes the joyful mayhem via CBZ’s always impressive falsetto and cryptic lyrics. I freely admit the sheer density of these layers are overwrought and the quixotic outro lingers just a touch too long. But they work like an aural weighted blanket custom-knit for my creature comforts, containing all the elements that inspire my love. When I highlighted these songs to Glynnis, she also understood this deep well of comfort, noting ‘I keep coming back to the question of WHY I love the Mars Volta possibly best of all bands, and at least part of the answer does have to do with comfort, even when they’re singing about maggots falling from sties’. 

Around the halfway mark, a few incongruous tracks stand out somewhat awkwardly. The semi-squally “Glosa Picaresca Wou Mên” aligns thematically with the rest of the album, but the combination of John Frusicante’s vocals and the abrupt cut-off ending make it feel randomly shoved in without much thought, like receipts in Bernard Black’s pocket-based ‘filing’ system. “Sidewalk Fins” tends towards the uncomfortably discordant; the vocal effects are too much, and the track could easily be half the length and still drag. “Lick the Tilting Poppies” is the good version of this – not too long, actual detectable emotion present in the vocals through luscious fudgy layers of bass and synth.

The extended outro of “Las Lagrimas De Arakuine” is a touch too repetitive and rather overstays its welcome, but it does tug at my Thomas Pridgen-loving heartstrings. It’s an apt conclusion to what I’ll freely admit is a glorious self-indulgence. If Calibration had been released as a Mars Volta album, it definitely would have felt a bit lacking within the context of their discography due to the absence of a cohesive theme. It is also borderline grandstanding of the ‘every scrap of my precious recordings shall be gifted upon the masses’ ilk. But if there ever was a target audience for Calibration, it’s me, because I do want to hear (nearly) every scrap of ORL’s precious recordings. Besides, surely the point of having a side solo career is so these kinds of projects can sit alongside the (for want of a better word) Mars Volta brand (sorry sorry sorry). This album’s strengths equalise the weaker parts, and while I count the days to the Troxy show, I’ll continue to crank up the volume on my favourite tracks.

*I still have this, and although it is, in a very real sense, a bit of plastic crap, to me it’s precious plastic crap that I will always treasure.

Track listing:
El Monte T’aï
Una Ced Lacerante
Grey (Cancion Para El)
Glosa Picaresca Wou Mên
Sidewalk Fins
Lick the Tilting Poppies
Cortar El Cuello
…Is Pushing Luck
Las Lagrimas De Arakuine