When you’re already synonymous with dense and challenging avant-garde prog-punk -- the sort of music that annihilates sonic boundaries and traditional conventions -- what’s the most experimental and controversial direction you can set your sites on? The mainstream.

Of course, the fact that Antemasque exist at all is potentially the most surprising thing about the band and their eponymous debut. Vocalist Cedric Bixler-Zavala and guitarist Omar Rodriguez-Lopez were the curly-haired creative core of the now-mythical post-hardcore unit At the Drive-In and the hyper-progressive, critically acclaimed but commercially confounding outfit, the Mars Volta.  But the pair announced the end of the Mars Volta in early 2013, alluding to a creative rift between the longtime friends and partners. After both spoke of new and separate upcoming musical endeavors, they instead resurfaced together again this past spring (apparently at the behest of Red Hot Chili Peppers bassist Flea -- who appears on the album) with Antemasque -- the closest Bixler-Zavala and Rodriguez-Lopez have ever come to a straight-ahead rock band.

Joined by Mars Volta drummer Dave Elitch, the duo seem to have approached the debut under their new incarnation with accessibility in mind: Although the 10 songs on ‘Antemasque’ retain Bixler-Zavala’s upper-octave vocals and the frenetic noodling of Rodriguez-Lopez, they’re distinctly devoid of the sort of urgency and complexity fans have come to expect. There are no nine-minute mini-operas here: Most of the songs clock in between three and four minutes and, while the album features scattered odd time signatures and jazz-inspired shifting, there are few truly evocative moments.

Album opener ‘4AM’ and its Rush-inspired drive feels like it’s pulled straight from the ‘80s, ‘In the Lurch’ provides one of the more memorable vocal hooks on the album and ‘Drown All Your Witches’ is a breezy, Donovan-type ditty that’s strangely soothing. But some tracks -- like the power ballad ’50,000 Watts’ -- alternate between being radio friendly and overtly cheesy. That one in particular might be pleasant enough to new listeners but, to diehard fans, it borders on downright offensive.

Still, there’s something to be said for Bixler-Zavala and Rodriguez-Lopez not just rehashing their past -- and one could make the argument that Antemasque is the natural progression for a pair of underground lifers looking to free themselves from the fringe. It’s also obvious that the pair came into this album with the specific intention of removing all the extraneous elements, ignoring expectations and making a visceral album that simply rocks. And although some of the songs likely lend themselves to raucous live performance, the studio versions come off as largely pedestrian. Too weird for the uninitiated masses and nowhere near weird enough for those who were looking forward to it, ‘Antemasque’ will probably reside in a dubious middle ground for most listeners.

When it comes to Bixler-Zavala and Rodriguez-Lopez, however, there’s also a chance the entire project exists simply to set us up for something else. The most interesting thing about it might be watching how the pair choose to follow it up.

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