Study Guide

Wax Simulacra Technique

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  • Music

    The Mars Volta has a signature style: high-pitched vocals, masterful guitar, and epic songs that run through many more than the expected verse-chorus changes. Some criticize the band for their self-similarity, but with some quick observation it's obvious that The Mars Volta use their music and their knowledge of music to evoke different moods, tones, and attitudes. "Wax Simulacra" might have the same high-pitched rapid-fire vocals and guitar solos as most other Mars Volta songs, but the music evokes the setting of the entire album, masterfully meshing the contemporary, electronic downpour of distorted notes with the sounds of an ancient culture (much like the album cover). This has to do with the key signature. The technical term for the key that the song is in is E double-harmonic major. What a mouthful. We can call it the Byzantine or Arabic scale instead. Byzantine refers to the ancient city of Byzantium (which then became Constantinople, the capital of the Eastern Roman Empire – also called the Byzantine Empire – which eventually became Istanbul... ahhhh!), which was located in what is now Turkey. Anyway, the scale is referred to as such because it approximates the sounds of some of the traditional music of the area.

    It's easiest to hear the scale in the melody during the verses. The guitar's melody clusters around E and D# and B and C. These clusters of notes that are right next to each other on guitar, and the big space between a C and D#, are characteristic of the E double harmonic major scale. It is a very fitting scale to use considering the flavors of the lyrics and the background of the music. The album is drenched in Middle Eastern terms and history. The names of some of the other tracks make this obvious enough. "Metatron" is not a Transformer robot, sorry, but it is the next best thing: an angel in Judaism. Then there's "Goliath," from the old David and Goliath myth, and "Ouroboros." An ouroboros is an ancient symbol of a snake eating its own tail. Then there is the history of the album, all stemming from a haunted ouija board that the band bought in Jerusalem.

    As for the rest of the sound aspect of the song, not much stands out. Like a lot of prog. rock, the song bounces between time signatures – try counting out the chorus, it oscillates between 6/8 time and 5/8 time (where you'd normally hear pop songs in 4/4) – and uses unusual instruments for rock music, such as the saxophone. Other than that, the song is WAY more straightforward than The Mars Volta's standard fare. Instead of the sweeping, 8-minute long epics that characterize the rest of the album, this song is a simple verse-chorus-bridge tune that lasts barely 2 minutes and 30 seconds. Is the content of the song just that frantic? Or does this have to do more with the music industry itself – an industry where careers are made not with rock epics but songs short enough to get radio play? It may not be an accident that this song ended up being the band's biggest hit.

  • Title

    Sure, "Wax Simulacra" sounds like a cool title, but what the heck does it mean? Unless you are a student of postmodernism, "simulacra" probably means nothing to you. But understanding the title is probably useful, considering that the band changed the name to "Wax Simulacra" from "Idle Tooth." The word itself is a plural of the Latin simulacrum, meaning likeness or similarity. It can be used to describe likenesses of gods. "Wax simulacra" makes a lot of sense in this regard, since idols are commonly made of wax. However, recently the word has come to take on a plethora of philosophical meanings because of its use by influential writers like Jean Baudrillard. Baudrillard wrote about consumer culture and the images that dominate our popular culture. He wrote vast amounts, notably in Simulacra and Simulations, about symbols in our society. He distinguished between orders of "simulacra" – likenesses, likenesses that replace the original, and likenesses that disguise that no original actually existed. Sound confusing? A simple example might clear things up. Think of Disneyland, particularly the parts of the park that imitate iconic world eras and locations – like Frontier Land. Frontier Land imitates the Wild West, before California was settled fully. Baudrillard suggests that what is interesting about these areas of the park is that they copy something that never really existed; there was never a "wild west" that looked exactly like the Disney recreation. (Which, perhaps, makes Disney's version not so much a recreation as a creation.) That version of the frontier is something created in the imagination, something you might forget in the wonders of Disneyland, but something that becomes undeniable the second you realize that outside of the park's borders is Los Angeles. The polluted urban sprawl of L.A. is not the West we imagine, and it can't be because that West is only a constructed one.

    With that in mind, the title is rich with possible meanings. If you think of the song and the album in relation to the spooky events that surrounded its production, are the wax simulacra false idols – demons, maybe?
  • Songwriting

    It's easy to be discouraged when trying to think about a song whose lyrics are both obscure and sung very fast. This is definitely one of those songs. It's easy to lose Cedric in the frantic pace of the song, but the way he handles the lyrics reflects the content of the song in a real way – lyrical speed and obscurity are linked in this song.

    With lyrics like, "contaminated cravings if you choose / to play something / that aches for a spill" you'll have a terrible time trying to pick out a "meaning" – especially if you don't immerse yourself in the mythology that infuses the entire album. But no one ever said that lyrics have to mean anything; they can be impressionistic, creating interesting movements through the way that they are sung and rhymed.

    So let's investigate.

    The first four lines have a distinct rhythm. "Came back to doubt yourself / but broke in two /they find it punctual / with idle tooth" has a very consistent rhythm to it. We can even call it a meter, because it is so steady. The pattern is iambic, alternating between weak and strong syllables – "came back to doubt yourself but broke in two they find it punctual with idle tooth" – giving the lyrics this galloping sense, almost as if Cedric is trying to trip over his words or spit them out as fast as possible. The vocals for the next phrase – "i'll find something to shake by the roots" – even jump the gun a little, overlapping the previous line. This pattern repeats in all the verse segments, the first four lines spit out at top speed with the last line buttoning off the phrases. These last lines – "i'll find something to shake by the roots," "i need something made of freewill," "to play something that aches for a spill," and "for that something that shakes by the roots" – are also the only lines that have perfect rhymes at the end.

    Does this serve a lyrical purpose? It certainly could, but notice how the songwriting goes so perfectly with the music. These lines emphasized by their rhyme and slower cadence end sections in the music as well, giving the chord progression room to come full circle and loop back again. Unlike poetry, lyrics serve the additional function of complementing music, which is important to remember; even if it is difficult to pull meaning out of a song like this, the lyrics can still be doing important work.

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