Artist Spotlight: The Mars Volta

Review courtesy of Pauli

The Mars Volta are a polarizing band. Rarely will you come across anyone assessing their ambitious mish-mash of prog, post-hardcore, Latin, metal, funk, and whatever else with an “Eh, it’s alright.” Either you are transported into a realm of beautiful and terrifying genre-less bliss, or you reject their marathon-long “songs” as deluges of bong-water wankery, fit only for undiscriminating college students.

I was certainly a college student – of, let’s say, “questionable” discrimination – when I got into The Mars Volta. I spent more time my freshman year listening to The Mars Volta’s first three works – Tremulant (2002), Deloused in the Comatorium (2003), and Frances the Mute (2005), a solid three-hour playlist if you include bonus tracks – than I did with people. College was still a time of broad musical discovery, but my Mars Volta addiction held sway until well into my second year. So, be warned – the following write-up is from a fanboy, at least for their early works. Much like a Mars Volta song itself, this Artist Spotlight is sprawling and indulgent, but I’ll try to keep it interesting.

Polarizing as they may have been in their decade-long career, the pre-Mars Volta pedigree of its founders is less controversial. Even their detractors look back fondly at the energetic post-hardcore group At The Drive-In, the first major band to feature singer Cedric Bixler-Zavala and guitarist Omar Rodriguez-Lopez (I feel I’ve spent enough time with these guys’ recordings to be on a first name basis throughout). The band formed in El Paso in 1993 and imploded after the Fall 2000 release of Relationship of Command, a highly-regarded album at the time that has been praised even more in retrospect, given the tsunami of sück that overtook mainstream rock in the late ’90s in the form of nü-metal and post-grunge. I can recall being at soccer practice in eighth grade while one of my more musically-inclined friends went on and on about how awesome the opening track “Arcarsenal” is. At the time, I was in the latter stages of an ill-begotten punk phase in which I understood anyone who went on MTV to have “sold out,” and in an attempt to score some cool points I said “At the Drive-In sücks!”. I had never even heard ATDI, but I thought this was still a good move. My friend, usually quite talkative when confronted with contrary opinions, simply refuted my ignorance with “no they don’t,” and continued making his totally accurate point about how awesome “Arcarsenal” is.

Following the break-up (or rather, indefinite hiatus), the band split off into two factions. Vocalist/guitarist Jim Ward and drummer Tony Hajjar went on to form the respectable but somewhat bland Sparta, while Cedric and Omar formed The Mars Volta. Additional members included Isaiah “Ikey” Owens on keys (1974-2014, RIP), and Jeremy Ward as sound technician (cousin of Jim Ward, 1976-2003, RIP). Both Owens and Ward were members of a dub project called De Facto, which began as a sort of ATDI side project for Cedric and Omar in 1998. The more experimental aspects of this group would feed into The Mars Volta in a big way. With drummer Jon Theodore and bassist Eva Gardner, they recorded the three-song Tremulant EP in 2002.

Tremulant is clearly a transitional work. The ATDI energy is still there, but things were also … weirder. With three songs clocking in at a total of 19:29 – actually a pretty short per-song average, relative to future Volta releases – it’s an enticing preview of things to come. The third and longest track “Eunuch Provocateur” is probably the most prophetic in terms of stylistic elements that would stay with them – angular and dominating guitar work, melodic but aggressive vocals, frenetic percussion, tinkling keys and organ bursts, and maybe dragging on a bit too long with electronic chatter.

The song was prophetic in another way, in that the lyrics contained the title of their first full-length album, Deloused in the Comatorium. Released in June 2003, it remains their most commercially and critically successful work. It was produced jointly by Omar and superstar producer Rick Rubin. Gardner left the group after the EP, and bass duties for all but a couple songs went to Flea, of Red Hot Chili Peppers fame. Say what you will about RHCP, but I like Flea, Flea’s good. Then-RHCP guitarist John Frusciante – who would become a frequent collaborator with Omar, and whose beguiling and often beautiful solo work deserves a spotlight of its own – also contributed to “Cicatriz ESP.”

Of the many genres The Mars Volta get labeled with, “prog” is the most persistent. It’s easy to see why: aside from the length and multi-part structure of the songs, Deloused is absolutely a concept album. Officially, it’s based on a story by Cedric and Ward about a man named Cerpin Taxt who goes into a coma after overdosing on rat poison and morphine, and sees fantastic and terrifying visions. It is loosely based on the death of Cedric, Omar, and Ward’s friend Julio Venegas, an El Paso-based artist who spent many drug-addled days with them before killing himself in a similar manner in 1996. Deducing any of this from Cedric’s characteristically nonsensical lyrics is impossible, but once you have the premise, his surreal and sometimes made-up words are appropriate. The opening track “Son et Lumiere / Inertiatic ESP” (really two tracks, but it’s hard to separate them in my mind) sets the stage nicely.

By the way, I don’t think even the most avid Volta aficionados are tempted to defend the Deloused album artwork. I certainly ain’t.

If you can get past his lyrical opacity, Cedric’s voice is maybe the most accessible part of The Mars Volta. His tenor range often draws comparisons to Geddy Lee – a fine comparison, given my limited experience with Rush – but there’s a thrilling, tremulous fierceness to it as well. The chorus of “Inertiatic ESP” is perhaps the most recognizable passage of any Mars Volta song, both for the power of Cedric’s voice and the fact that “NOOOOW IIIIII’M LOOOOOOOOST” is pretty easy to remember. The chorus of “Roulette Dares (The Haunt Of)” and the bridge of “Eriatarka” are my two favorite examples from this album of his vocal ability. The show-stopping belt of “EXO-SKELETAL JUNCTION AT THE RAILROAD DELAAAAAAAAYED” and the gentle crooning of “Stung the slings of a gallows bird / rationed a dead letter pure” both succeed in selling rather … difficult lines to sell otherwise.

 

These two tracks also nicely highlight extreme instances of the aspect of the The Mars Volta that separates the fanboys from everyone else – Omar’s guitar work. Omar has often stated that he hated the guitar (at least in his early days), a disposition that his detractors might say is obvious. While his playing is melodic enough to separate him from the avante-garde, it is characterized by restlessness, frequent dissonance, and bouts of atonality. Oh, and an undocoumentably huge array of effects pedals. Seriously, this guy has a problem. It’s fun to try and guess all the effects that go into a particular part. There’s clearly a ring modulator for the opening of “Roulette Dares,” the favorite effect of analog robots everywhere. The gorgeous B-minor opening riff of “Eriatarka” (which this author contends, contra Tufnel, is the saddest of all keys) has some heavy phasing effects going on. Omar is also known for his endorsement of Ibanez guitars. It is entirely possible that this author purchased a less-than-impressive Ibanez GAX70 in 2007 purely because of the Omar bump.

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Yikes! Get that kid a stylist, stat! Maybe with a curling iron and some clothes that actually fit he could be Omar 2: The Guitar Squeal-quel!

Left unchecked, I will go on ad nauseum about how much I love Deloused in the Comatorium (no, this has not been even close to ad nauseum). Every track has multiple aspects to recommend it, it coheres beautifully as an album, it’s overflowing with ideas. If I could mandate one action for anyone who has read this far, it would be to listen to Deloused immediately. I can’t highlight every track, but my favorite is probably “Cicatriz ESP”, also the most sprawling. It features a long, ambient interlude that adds to the dream-like quality of the album, while rendering the driving chaos around it more urgency.

I mentioned that Jeremy Ward is the sound technician of the album; his official role is “sound manipulator.” This may sound pretentious, but one of the joys of repeat listens of Deloused is the layers of “sound manipulation” to be found pretty much everywhere, that ambient interlude being a sterling example. He sound manipulated the shït out of this album.

Ward died of a heroin overdose in 2003, a month before Deloused was released. The tragedy affected the band’s behavior for the better – both former addicts, Cedric and Omar swore off hard drugs – but Ward’s ghost would haunt the follow-up album, Frances the Mute. Released in February 2005, it was another concept album, this time drawing primarily from Ward’s experience. While working as a repo man, he found a diary in a car he was re-possessing. The author was obsessed with finding his birth parents – which spoke to Ward, being adopted himself – and each of the album’s five tracks took its name from one of the people mentioned in the diary. The lyrics were once again written by Cedric with this concept in mind, though the loss of his friend obviously influenced its writing.

The musical background of the album is distinct from Deloused, and would characterize The Mars Volta’s recordings from that point on. Previously ideas were a band effort, but now Omar, who was also the sole producer, wrote every part himself. He went through them with each band member one-on-one, isolating each member’s track from the others. This approach wasn’t a hit with everyone, particularly keyboardist Owens.

The list of collaborators on the album grew as well. Cedric, Omar, Owens, and Theodore remained. Juan Alderete de la Peña, of speed metal band Racer X, joined the band permanently on bass, and Omar’s younger brother Marcel joined on additional percussion and keyboards. Flea, no longer needed for full-time bass duty, played trumpet on “The Widow” and “Miranda That Ghost Just Isn’t Holy Anymore.” John Frusciante added guitar solos to “L’via L’viaquez.” Larry Harlow, one of Omar’s musical heroes, played piano on “L’via L’viaquez” (a Brooklyn Jew, Harlow is among the most accomplished living salsa musicians, earning him the unbeatable nickname “El Judio Maravilloso”). Adrián Terrazas-González played woodwinds on the 30+ minute closer “Cassandra Gemini” and became a regular part of their touring line-up. A number of other musicians were brought in on strings and horns. The added musical muscle and the sheer scale of the thing – five songs clocking it at 77 göddamn minutes – showed that they were looking to out-prog themselves.

For better or worse, Frances is a pure Omar vision. When it connects, it fücking soars. Opener “Cygnus … Vismund Cygnus” is perhaps the most breathtaking thing they’ve ever recorded. Omar’s bombastic Latin funk guitar, Cedric’s rabid vocals, and Jon Theodore’s inhuman rhythmic dexterity combine into a beast of a song that surpasses any single thrill from Deloused. There’s no denying that the core members of the band all picked up their already-potent games for this album, and “Cygnus” is a marvel for about nine and a half minutes.

The astute listener will notice that the song is not nine and a half minutes, but rather thirteen. Herein lies an issue with Frances generally – the songs tend to drag on. In the case of “Cygnus,” it’s not necessarily a bad thing – if I’m feeling generous, the field recordings that make up the last part of song (taken from the front porch of a house that Cedric, Omar and Ward lived in) sort of add a cinematic quality to the album. But there’s no denying that it’s a comedown from the pure musical high that preceded it.

This tendency is less forgivable on “The Widow,” probably their most radio-friendly creation, a straightforward ballad with pretty vocals … for its first three minutes. Somehow the single that got played on radio and MTV didn’t include the back half of burbling organ drones that add nothing to the song (and I’m normally a big fan of burbling organ drones). Still, it’s simmering up to that point. Cedric is a real charmer on this one.

“L’via L’viaquez” is another accessible song that turned into a single (at about a third of its album length). It contains two bïtchin’ guitar solos, an extended bïtchin’ piano solo, and sexy bilingual vocals. I kind of wish Omar had just let Larry Harlow do his thing and not intruded with additional guitar parts during his solo, but overall, solid track.

“Miranda That Ghost Just Isn’t Holy Anymore” is another one that drags, though this time in the beginning. Again, in a generous mood, I really like the first four minutes. The ambience and echoey vocals are certainly appropriate for a ghost story. This is reading a lot into it, but I like to imagine an old Mexican folk tale about a ghost haunting a particular remote town, and the fear it instills in children, and then when the trumpet blasts and it morphs into a warped Ennio Morricone kind of thing, the mystery is gone – there is no ghost, only the misery of existence.

Finally, there is “Cassandra Gemini.” Clocking in at 33 minutes, it is the proggiest prog they ever progged. The estimable critic and AV Club contributor Jason Heller refers to this piece as their “crowning achievement,” a judgment with which I respectfully disagree. It starts well and ends well, but there are some inevitable slogs in between. The high points are pretty high, though.

Frances is a flawed but often brilliant album. It’s tantalizing to think what might have been with a bit more prudent editing. Whatever else might be said about Rick Rubin, it was probably good to have him around as a moderating force for Deloused. Omar is full of ideas, not all of them inspired.

There aren’t many places to go after an album like Frances, and their Fall 2006 follow-up Amputechture was almost bound to be a case of diminishing returns. Much the same personnel from Frances were on board again, in different capacities in some cases. Terrazas-González was now featured on nearly all tracks. Omar was still the sole producer, but he took a backseat on guitar duty and had Frusciante play most of the lead parts. Notably, former ATDI colleague Paul Hinojos entered the picture as sound manipulator.

I can’t get behind Amputechture as an album to nearly the same extent as Deloused or Frances, but it’s not without its joys. “Tetragrammaton” is a suitably huge song (the title refers to the Hebrew name for God, so it better be) with impressive riffage, and possibly the most batshït line of the entire Volta catalogue: “THE KIOSK IN MY TEMPORAL LOBE IS SHAPED LIKE ROSALYN CARTER”.

Amputechture is the first MV album to not have a thrugoing narrative, though some themes are clear throughout. “Vicarious Atonement”, “Asilos Magdalena” (Magdalene Asylums), and “El Ciervo Vulnerado” (The Wounded Shephard) are all pretty freaking Catholic song titles. Musically, all of these songs also share the feature of being percussionless. Ambience works well with The Mars Volta in small doses, but all of these songs fizzle out to some degree (and “El Ciervo Vulnerado” never really gets started). “Asilos” is perhaps the most traditional of the three; it devolves into effects overload in its last bits, but until then has some lovely Spanish guitar and gentle vocals.

The one-two punch of “Viscera Eyes” and “Day of the Baphomets” is a strong late-album rally. “Viscera Eyes” rocks in a pretty traditional sense, while “Day of the Baphomets” is pure Volta madness. Some of the lyrics are taken from a Deloused B-side, “A Plague Upon Your Hissing Children.” It opens with a pretty sweet bass solo and doesn’t let up. This one really earns its length.

 

While I liked Amputechture a lot at the time and still have some fondness for it, it essentially convinced me that the mighty Mars Volta are mortal. Their January 2008 follow-up The Bedlam in Goliath convinced me that they are even mortal-er.

Unlike Amputechture, this one has a backstory. It involves a ouija board dubbed “The Soothsayer” that Omar purchased in Jerusalem that the band frequently “consulted” during their late 2006/2007 tour, and which they claim lead to a string of bad luck. Cedric injured his foot, tracks “sporadically disappeared” from the hard drive in Omar’s studio (which also flooded), several sound engineers quit, and there was a string of drummer dismissals within a short time span (first Theodore, then Blake Fleming, then Deantoni Parks, before finally settling on relatively young Thomas Pridgen. All of them are still with us, but the Spinal Tap jokes write themselves). Depending on your view of ouija boards, this backstory could be amusing, eye-rolling, or genuinely creepy. The band has stuck with the last option, which for a band that takes itself seriously is good, but it also begs the question: were the Mars Volta still a band to be taken seriously by anyone not in the band?

It’s a mixed bag. Bedlam is certainly a more streamlined rock record than its predecessors. Sure, there’s still plenty of nutty instrumental interludes and weird production tricks, but even Cedric’s lyrics have a bit more of a come-on effect. Notably, every song is under ten minutes, a sign of restraint for no other band. Even more notably, two of them are under THREE minutes! Both nicely illustrate the strengths and weaknesses of the album. The first, “Wax Simulacra,” is cranked to 11 throughout. It’s rhythmically tricky and feels like everyone is just on the verge of soloing over everyone else, but it maintains an off-kilter momentum that actually rocks pretty hard.

The second, “Tourniquet Man,” is maybe the most disposable thing they’ve ever created. It sounds like a send-up of The Who’s “Behind Blue Eyes” and is the closest they come to self-parody, with unconvincing balladry and ridiculous vocal effects. Link included for academic purposes only.

However goofy you think the whole ouija board thing is (I’ll risk offending any ouija board enthusiasts reading this and say I find it deeply, deeply goofy), it is the basis for the “The Soothsayer”, the standout track among the more traditionally long songs. It features some field recordings from various quarters of Jerusalem, with a convincing Middle Eastern vibe, a subdued string quartet, and instrumentals that are unsettling without being overbearing.

2008 was pretty much the end of The Mars Volta for me. I kept up with their career enough to know they released two additional studio albums, Octahedron(2009) and Noctourniquet (2012) before breaking up in early 2013, but I have not listened to them and don’t intend to. Maybe it was burnout from overexposure to their first three works, maybe it was that nothing could possibly hope to live up to these albums in my mind, maybe I just grew out of it.

More importantly, I think they grew out of it. The fizzling-out of The Mars Volta was a natural result of effective dictator Omar’s creative restlessness, and the effect it had on the rest of the band. He is and was engaged in a seemingly infinite number of side projects at any given time, from solo work (“Omar Rodriguez-Lopez” is a pretty cool name, but this guy seems more fond of putting his own name in his bands than most), to collaborations with Frusciante and others, to filmmaking. Even Cedric, his partner over multiple decades, was fed up by the end. Maybe a bit of a break was a good thing. I saw Omar playing with the newly formed, also El Paso-originating band Bosnian Rainbows in Summer 2013. He seemed to be happy in a more background role, playing more traditional guitar parts with a shockingly finite set of effects pedals. Here’s a pretty track.

Maybe The Mars Volta was never meant to last. Jason Heller made a relationship analogy shortly after they broke up, calling them the “rebound band” for At the Drive-In. The explosion of creativity that can be heard in Deloused and Frances was an extended middle-finger to the more straight-laced members of ATDI, but it was also unsustainable. If that’s the case, maybe everyone is back to settling down together. Omar and Cedric reunited in 2014 with a new band, Antemasque. Even more, it seems that At the Drive-In has reunited in 2016, for more than just reunion tour purposes. I did not catch any part of the tour, nor have I listened to any of their new work, so I’m in no position to say whether they’ve rekindled any semblance of their righteous flame from 15 years ago. And I’m not even sure I want them to. Omar, Cedric, and their many collaborators have nothing more to prove to anyone, whether it’s old bandmates, ouija boards, or fans from whatever era.