Rest assured this album isn’t the meandering, formless, teeth-grindingly dull affair it seems to be upon first, second, third, fourth, fifth, sixth and seventh listens. After all, A Manual Dexterity is a concept album, the (get ready) Soundtrack to a Film That Doesn’t Yet Exist (and maybe never will, though they say it should be released this spring). Therefore, the ambient ebb and guitar-spazz flow of these ten tracks signifies on a level beyond mere studio doodle: just roll a J, put on some big headphones, close your eyes and let the cinematic pretensions of the music wash over you. Right?
Before I respond to that question (really, just look at the fucking rating), some context. Omar Rodriguez-Lopez was one of the guitar players in the very great, very loud, very tuneful late-’90s rock band At the Drive-In. That band released four albums on four different labels between 1996 and 2000, culminating in their major-label debut, Relationship of Command, their greatest, loudest, tuneful-est record ever. As it turned out, it was also their swan song, so Rodriguez-Lopez and At the Drive-In singer Cedric Bixler-Zavala formed the Mars Volta, a proggier version of their old band (Mars Volta : PiL :: At the Drive-In : Pistols).
The Mars Volta got together in 2001, which, is purportedly when Rodriguez-Lopez began work on A Manual Dexterity. Three years! Guess I was wrong; there’s nothing mere about this studio doodle. But here’s the thing: Freed from musical conventions like melody and tone and basic song structure, Dexterity (a misnomer if ever there were one) simply drones and drones. The dull ambient passages (slushy keyboards, joylessly plonked gee-tar) give way to outbursts of paint-by-numbers Moderate Rock, which gives way to dull ambient passages, ad infinitum. The effect is one continuous fifty-minute dronefest. “Around Knuckle White Tile” drones. “Here the Tame Go By” drones. “Sensory Decay Part II” (featuring Rodriguez-Lopez on the Roland VP330, SH1000, SH7, MS2000, Yamaha QY100 and rhythm sequence) drones. The salsa-inflected “Deus Ex Machina” is (I guess) intended to provide some sort of aural relief. But since there’s nothing to it, it’s hardly a relief — just more tedium, really.
In the half-decade since At the Drive-In disbanded, Rodriguez-Lopez has been responsible for a lousy Mars Volta album and this waste of plastic. With Volta’s next album, Frances the Mute, due to hit stores in a matter of weeks, it’s officially shit or get off the pot time for Omar. Now, I’m not saying I doubt he can pull it off, but I will say this: The last song on A Manual Dexterity is essentially a Mars Volta tune, complete with Bixler-Zavala on vocals. There’s a melody and a tone and a basic song structure. And it sucks.