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The Bedlam in Goliath
is an album surrounded by spiritual tomfoolery, to say the least. The production of the album was rife with problems – the psychological breakdown of an engineer, the flooding of the studio, the unexplained disappearance of drum tracks – all of which the band attributes to the spirits trapped inside a mysterious "talking board" that guitarist Omar Rodríguez-López bought in a curio shop in Jerusalem. As it turns out, these incidents that threatened to make the album impossible to record ended up responsible for the thematic and lyrical content of the entire album.
According to "The Mars Volta's Descent Into Bedlam: A Rhapsody In Three Parts," a description of the production of the album as told by Jeremy Robert Johnson, the "Ouija-style 'talking board'" that Omar bought lyricist and singer Cedric Bixler-Zavala began to talk to them. They called it "The Soothsayer." "The Soothsayer offers them a story: It's always about a man, a woman, and her mother. About the lust floating between them. About seduction and infidelity. And pain. ... Exactly the kind of spooky shit you'd want from your Ouija." The bare bones of the story boil down to a man raping his daughter, resulting in that daughter being killed in "what people in the Middle East refer to as an honor killing, this absurd notion that when a woman gets raped, the best thing you can do for her is to kill her because she's ruined, she's dishonored the family," according to Omar.
But the background is the background. Let's let the music speak for itself. This is supposed to be about "Wax Simulacra," after all. Speak it certainly does – according to the band, many of The Soothsayer's utterances made it into the lyrics themselves, which flesh out the story of Cedric's frightening immersion into the story of Goliath, the confluence of personalities made up of the three souls trapped in the board. Sound confusing? Hopefully it does, since that's got to be what the band was going for – "the bedlam" meaning "the confusion," after all. Getting through the impenetrable words of "Wax Simulacra" requires sifting through the confusion of the songs that lead up to it in the album first.
"Aberinkula" introduces us to Goliath, and foreshadows Cedric's temptation to become personally involved in the affairs of the spirits. The spirit notes the presence of "the living tired of their own shells" – suggesting their desire "to open the gate" into the spirit world. It chooses Cedric as the "one who will open the gate" after "plans that forgot me 99 times." The final verse ends with what promises to be the beginning of this epic tale: "Goliath are you receiving, dismembered you've arrived."
"Metatron" introduces us to the various voices that make up Goliath – the man, the daughter he raped, and her mother. Goliath – the man – recounts what sounds like a shaky will giving into a lustful temptation: when will i breakdown
lately i might
un-connect the fascination
and i just want to touch
When the chaotic rock of the song subdues, Cedric introduces a more feminine character, singing of "the vault that i call home, it falls beneath your palms," again alluding to the Soothsayer. The rest of the song becomes a vicious call-and-response between the woman and the man, the woman seeking revenge and the man threatening repercussions.
"Ilyena" fills some of the plot holes at this point in the story. Taking up what must be the voice of the daughter, the tone of the lyrics is that of a victimized speaker. (Not to mention that Cedric said, "I've named a song 'Ilyena' after the real name of the actress Helen Mirren [Ilyena Vasilievna Mironov] because she is my favorite actress and the song is a little lighthearted and different from the subject matter.") The voice has been robbed in some way, for certain – "Cypher is filled, with a blanket of clots, taking everything i've got" – and spends the chorus of the song asking for a new life: "I need a brand new skin." Things become interesting when the speaker reveals that she tried to hide "until we've past due date." She was pregnant and trying to hide it.
Ah so at last we've arrived at "Wax Simulacra," the fourth track in the album. Granted that interpreting Cedric Bixler-Zavala's lyrics is always a stretch, some form of narrative seems to emerge out of the song if you take the prior tracks and the backstory into account. "Wax Simulacra" seems primarily to encompass the mother retelling the death of the daughter and promising revenge… and the potential for eventual justice embodied in the child.
Just as the daughter comes back out of hiding she "broke in two," giving birth to her child (becoming two people, in a sense). "They find it punctual with idle tooth" doesn't say much, but "idle tooth" suggests a violence – perhaps the "honor killing" of the daughter that Omar mentioned – that the speaking voice promises to expose by finding "something to shake by the roots."
Here we run into a problem: What does "i crawl along the ceilings in your room / the cold is spinning thread to answer you" mean? Sure it's creepy, but we have no idea who is speaking. Perhaps it is the mother addressing the father who raped her daughter, perhaps it is a spider-demon. It's hard to tell, so it might be best to not make leaps of judgment. Often lyrics and poetry don't seek to capture a narrative or a story; they can be impressionistic, evoking moods and images instead. While The Bedlam in Goliath
has a narrative background, it's also a bedlam – an extremely confused and convoluted thing – which leaves much of the interpretation to the imagination of individual listeners. The lines evoke a certain scary vengefulness, and maybe that is all there is to be said about them.
The next verse is heavy with dark ritual – the speaker "brings an avalanche of toltec bones," leaving out "meat for that contact high," inhaling "the vapors." Interesting… a wicked ritual of revenge spells perhaps? Again, it's hard to say exactly what's going on.
But the bridge of the song is truly fascinating in terms of the album's plot. The bridge pushes the story further, foreshadowing the events of the rest of the album: bring me the tame
witness germinates in the child
that word of mouth stutters
blink at the lonely dice
While we might not ever figure out what "blink at the lonely dice" means, "bring me the tame / witness germinates in the child / that word of mouth stutters" is useful. "Witness germinates in the child" evokes the growing (germination) of the child and, in parallel, an evidence of some kind. Does the growing child, left motherless because of the sins of her father, embody the wrongness of the daughter's death? Turning to the title of the song, "Wax Simulacra," where simulacra means "likeness," it makes perfect sense for the child to be the wax simulacra. The child is the likeness of her mother. But wax? Thinking of today's wax figures – those at Madame Tussauds
for example – wax likenesses never have the spark of the original. As realistic as they may be, they can't help but evoke a sense of lack. Perhaps this will bring justice to the dead daughter. In years her child will grow and her likeness to her mother will only remind her society of the woman they killed.
Pretty freaky stuff. But don't stop here! What happens next? The answer awaits you.