The sixth album from cult psych band The Mars Volta is a compromised record that marks as much a shift into mediocrity as much as it heralds a new sonic aesthetic for the group: one marked by stretched ballads, underproduced synthesisers and only the most token and obliging of freak out tech riffs. Time was, their music was the very antithesis of mediocre - over their first few albums, the group portrayed an intellectualism and eclecticism that reaffirmed the quality in what was always ostentatious music. Both forward thinking in terms of studio production, and retroactive by their penchance for 70s guitar funk, sprawling concept albums and drug-hazed epiphanies transmuted to lyric - The Mars Volta at their best bore resemblance to Zeppelin, certainly live - where incarnations of the group played live for hours in connection with something bigger than themselves. On Noctourniquet, it becomes harder to identify the group dynamic amidst the music.

More line up changes. Another album and another (excellent) drummer being fired. Sad too that this is the first Mars Volta LP without the organ trills of Isaiah Owens or longtime contributor John Frusciante's guitar - both of whom offered the group sonic embellishment for dictatorial band-leader Omar Rodriguez Lopez to noodle over to his heart's content and past the 10 minute mark. And whilst line up changes aren't inherently a bad thing (look at Earth or A Silver Mt Zion), how many excellent rock units has Rodriguez Lopez discarded, before their potential was reached? John Theodore's drumming on the first album and subsequent tour was mind blowing, and to my mind he still represents the best drummer the band has had. Thomas Pridgen, whose work was recorded on The Bedlam In Goliath and Octohedron had a frenetic and impossible-to-keep-pace-with style, but at least his appointment marked a continuation of Rodriguez Lopez's desire to work with the best, most utterly brilliant, mental musicians he could find. For so many of Noctourniquet's 64 minutes, there's a sonic and creative vacuum that only reminds me of how good this band used to be and indeed could have been.

Let's dismiss false assumptions; this is barely a rock record. Noctourniquet's most affecting moments are those of quiet and stillness, conventional ballads like 'Empty Vessels Make The Loudest Sound' and the slow, beautiful comedown of 'In Absentia', which is about as close to a Whitney Houston song as The Mars Volta will likely come. Only the crassly referencing Zeppelin chug of the 'Molochwalker' coda comes close to inspiring a bounce, but it's a moment too slight to suffer the preceding four minutes of the song. Elsewhere, 'Aegis' starts like a Radiohead number from the late 90s before launching into a token repeated chorus, all noise and thrash echo. This trick is repeated far too often across the album, and as such bores immediately. Quiet affecting verse to loud jump-up forgettable chorus, and then back as if nothing happened. It's a lazy motif, one evidenced in the endless repeated lyrics, lines and choruses of the album's closing track 'Zed And Two Naughts' especially.

There has been a definite sonic shift in recording and producing this album as compared to previous works- which could always be relied on for using the studio as much as any guitar. Across Noctourniquet, there is an underproduced sound which feels accidental: the drums are thin and patchy. The bass is often unmistakable, so low and quiet in the mix. The guitar, previously at the band's sonic forefront, is rendered thin and distant, unconvincing. Frequently, there remains a muddled mess of a sound underneath Bixler-Zavala's front-and-centre wailing. Cynics made say that at least they've stopped treating his voice like an insect in the post production, but whatever, I liked that effect in context of all the other astounding studio tricks the band pulled.

Taking this album in the band's canon, it is strange to see how the band have become less experimental, more reliant on conventional tropes and indeed, their own repeated pony tricks. Describing their last record as their 'acoustic album', one expected something vastly different here, a progression both in terms of sonic temperature and stylistic design- but instead, the band have retreated yet further back, into what is safe territory and must not be pushing anyone. It's sad to see the band put out such an anti-statement, but I can find some enjoyment in the album's opening track. At first I loathed 'The Whip Hand', but it's nonsensical grandiose and sinister keyboard riff, reminiscent of King Crimson, and staggered drum pattern that must be like, deliberately wrong or something, at least got stuck in my head, unlike the rest of this bland, meandering, bored record. I'll stick with their first album, John Theodore on drums, Isaiah Owens on the keys, Frusciante on guitar and the band at their tightest and most relevant. Over time, The Mars Volta have allowed themselves to drift towards obscurity and unimportance, a sleight of hand masked by some inventive musicianship in the past, on this evidence they're not even flattering to deceive.