Sunday Spotlight



MV - yellow/black

I mean, really — come on. There is no other truly progressive contemporary rock band unafraid to make such new sounds and defy all sense of traditional song structure that is this much in the public eye. Any which way you look at it, that’s pretty damn impressive. The band’s first full-length album, De-loused In The Comatorium, captured the intrigue of just about everyone you know, and for good reason: way back then (2003) it was fresh, something we had never heard before, like a latino Led Zeppelin from outer space. Fucking amazing.

And then, almost immediately, The Mars Volta evolved at ludicrous speed and became extreme-art spazz prog noisters on ther next record Frances the Mute, with the last song clocking in at just over 30 bloody minutes — goddamn. Understandably, many people were turned off by the ultra-prog/experimental nature of Frances, but several listens later, the album is undeniably amazing (at times) — I just don’t think that most people gave it enough shots. But there are rewards aplenty, and every song is densely layered and uniquely structured; a thinking man’s emotional/loud music project, appealing rock in so many ways.

MV - dudesEven the recording was its own controlled experiment — each of the players specific parts was tracked separately, forcing every member of the band to have faith in the collage-to-follow and complete song to emerge on the other side. A method occasionally employed in the past by Miles Davis, the results were slightly uneven, but the overall concepts came through quite clearly, and the album plays extremely solidly (never disjointed, as one might expect). A valiant sophomore effort that never once tried to emulate the tone or song structures from the first record but instantly surpassed it for anyone willing to really listen, that album at that point from this band is a testament to the ongoing artistry of The Mars Volta from the beginning until now — there is nothing to invariably compare them to; each record is its own concept and creation, proving just how important it is when experiencing an artist’s next project to release any previously preconceived notions and let the new work unfold itself to you.

Amputechture, their third full-length studio offering, ought best be approached in this way (5 of the 8 tracks are 9+ minutes long, all the way up to 16 at the lengthiest) — almost everyone I’ve talked to on the subject can’t stand the damn thing, but again I suspect that very few were willing to listen to it repeatedly enough to soak in the sopping thick songs. And I admit it was difficult for me as well at first, but I have come to realize that the band has evolved in an extremely natural and perfectly impressive way throughout their career, and Amputechture is currently my most listened-to of the three. Yes, it’s largely because I basically wore the shit out of De-loused for a couple years and am now simply happy to continue to get to know (and thereby appreciate) the more recent MV recordings. But that said — Amputechture is really incredible, and if you don’t think so, you truly need to twist a J and make nice with that album. The more I listen and let myself trust the tunes, the more I want to revisit the whole damn thing in one go instead of skipping around as I often do. Understandably hard to commit to the album as a whole, but no reason to write off its abundant strengths.

And so now we are upon the next Mars Volta album, The Bedlam In Goliath, due out on Tuesday. And what less should we expect at this point than something revolutionary? I for one can’t wait, and have full well faith that this shit is gonna explode, unevenly or not.

It seems this whole madcap mess began with De Facto, the future-forward dub side project from guitarist Omar Rodriguez-Lopez and vocalist Cedric Bixler-Zavala, two of the visionary members of 90s post-punk outfit At The Drive-In (and I don’t mean that ironically — ATDI ought be classified as such much more than Bloc Party et al., since ATDI was essentially a punk band that broke shortly after the early punk movement died). Unexpectedly, future Mars Volta vocalist Bixler-Zavala apparently played drums in De Facto, and Rodriguez-Lopez handled bass duties. (But what the hell would I know about that?? I have never been able to track down either of De Facto’s albums…)

MV - tremulant cover 2And along with the heavily hyphenated duo, the two other members of De Facto {Isaiah “Ikey” Owens (who has played keyboards for TMV since the beginning) and Jeremy Michael Ward, (brother to another member of ATDI), who acted as De Facto’s frontman (vocals/guitar/sound manipulation)}, bass player Eva Gardner, and power-perfect pocket drummer extraordinaire Jon Theodore, The Mars Volta was born in 2002, leaving the other members of ATDI to form emo-prog blahsters Sparta.

The first Mars Volta recording (at least the first released recording — two early tracks were recorded with Gardner and drummer Blake Fleming, who later reappeared in the band for a few months in 2006 before being inexplicably yanked once again) was the three-song EP Tremulant, which built on the heady rawk freakouts propagated by ATDI, and incorporated a subtle otherworldliness that would soon take the loud music-lovin’ world by thunderous storm.

Tremulant already showed great promise, but it was the first full-length from the boys, De-loused in the Comatorium (2003), that really put the band on the map. And overall (since public opinion does factor into the comprehensive MV - deloused cover 2cultural/musical effects of an album) this may always be considered the “best” or “most successful” of The Mars Volta’s records. Every song is aggro prog-perfect, and the rather pungent combination of fright and fury finds its comfortable balance from the outset with the soft yet seething intro piece “Son et Lumiere” (which simply means “sound and light”) into “Intertiatic E.S.P.” Electrically spellbinding. And after the third epic song “Roulette Dares (This Is The Haunt)”, you were just about ready to follow these guys into any intergalactic battle. This was the new new music of the early 21st century, and it was fierce. Bixler-Zavala’s vocals were the closest thing to an official Robert Plant wail since Chris Cornell & Soundgarden unveiled Badmotorfinger. And Flea played on nine out of the ten tracks; so there’s that as well.

Of course it’s no surprise that there were expectations across the board for the next recording to be something spectacular — and ultimately it was — but with that much hype how could anything really suffice? I remember my initial feeling upon skimming through Frances: there were very few instantly gratifying hooks (or so it seemed), a large amount of ambient sections, and one weird tune was mostly in Spanish…this was the follow-up? It felt slight to me, like there was something missing, some kind of De-loused magic that they had forgotten to include this time. But the truth of the matter is that the most any band can ever hope for is to truly grow and evolve, and The Mars Volta weren’t wasting any time.

MV - frances coverThe first track on Frances the Mute, “Cygnus….Vismund Cygnus” is a complex powerhouse, full of heady aggressive groove, that culminates in a perfect jazzy, chilled-out, off-tempo building climax. Track #2, “The Widow” a treacly, wistful ballad, actually received a fair bit of radio air time despite its moaning, while “L’Via L’Viaquez”, the next mambo/up-tempo fusion bounce perplexed and eventually bored some listeners.

And if you weren’t lost by then, the 4-minute coqui frog singing-heavy intro to “Miranda, That Ghost Just Isn’t Holy Anymore” probably did the trick. And the song itself starts off so slowly and with such cloudy ambience, that again it was hard not to wonder where the frickin punch was. Eight-and-a-half minutes in, drums appear ever-so-briefly, only to make way for a lyrical (if not balkan-inspired) violin/trumpet musing. The overall track is snoresville, but a minute-and-a-half from the end, a fading-in of a drony, meandering groove offers hope that the close to the album will be something, and brother, does it come to deliver.

I can only hope that the detractors of this record are (somewhat justifiably) hating on the middle tracks, and not the ridiculously long but phenomenal end masterpiece, the aforementioned 30-minute “Cassandra Gemini”. This ginormous effort really rocks in all the right places, contains several epic crescendos crying out to be cranked, and deserves another half hour of your life. I’ve said it before, and I will undoubtedly say it again, the first and last tracks from Frances the Mute are well worth the price of admission, and especially if you can’t remember them or just never dug in the first place, go back and check ’em out again ASAP.

MV - amputechture coverSo at this point in the band’s career, if you were already one of the dissenters, how could you possibly stay on board for Amputechture? Less ambient than Frances but certainly a more concentrated dose of prog with a capital POOF, the third full-length pushed all boundaries — if there was no such thing as structure on Frances, any semblance of a rulebook went out the window for Amputechture.

Truth be told, the album is slammin, but yes, it will surely challenge almost anyone’s conception of what a substantial release from a popular rock band should encompass. The trick is to actually sit down (w/ganj) to listen to the damn thing from start to finish and nothing else. Sure, there may be a few tracks that don’t exactly do it for you, but riddle me this — what other potentially top-40 album from the last few years dared to demand so much from the listener? That’s a feat in itself, but also — there’s plenty of motherfucking hooks throughout, smooshed in between heady, rambunctious passages of raw energy and drony, excessively lingering movements of ethereal ambience. Think of the melodic compositions as progressive rock from the future, try not to be a hater for hate’s sake, and it’s awfully hard not to see the merits here.

After a slow, spacey (and lengthy), intro sans drums with “Vicarious Atonement”, the album kicks into hard gear with the long, fiery, mood-shifting (and unwieldy) ambitious prog suite “Tetragrammaton” (with a slighty similar opening feel at times to the tone of De-loused), and doesn’t let go through the catchy, wailing softie-with-a-kick “Vermicide” or megalopic “Meccamputechture” (complete with brief dub section). Even the scrabbling nylon-string bossa guitar/hushed Spanish vocal intro of “Asilos Magdalena” plays in a charming way (though the entire track runs too long), making room for the infectious “Viscera Eyes”, the album’s only single released (in an edit half the length of the album version), a tight, Zeppelin-y groove that derived from a song originally written for ATDI back in the day.

Beginning with a bass solo played over syncopated drum/guitar passages, “Day of the Baphomets” soon enters spazzathon saxaphone freakout country, and eventually turns into a somewhat masturbatory jam — this one has an appealing nonstop uptempo punch to it but is admittedly a bit whiny and over-the-top. Closer “El Ciervo Vulnerado” is a sitar-heavy ambient outro to the album, a chance to come down off any psychadelic drugs you may have accidentally ingested but hardly a substantial song. So yes, the album is a little uneven for anyone who requires straightforward (in melody and/or structure) songs/song choices, but taken as an experimental concept-driven album (even though there is apparently no single unifying thread), there are several achievements held within.

Remember, the keyword here is patience, and trust in the band obviously goes a long way as well. If you are scared off by odd time signatures and ambient sections, this will likely not be your cup of Sanka, but hopefully your desire to (re)experience something fresh will outweigh any trepidation. Just keep yr goddamn ears and mind open, and let the band do their thing before you make too many judgements.

MV - timetable

When I saw the band play recently (with their sensational new young drummer, Thomas Pridgen), Cedric made a point of remarking a couple times how they have had a rough patch the last few years, likely due to the bold, overly-experimental nature of the last couple of albums (or perhaps just Amputechture), and he brashly gave a middle finger to those folks who only dig on the band’s first record and have been unwilling to give the recent pieces a chance. Clearly these dudes will not be artistically led or defined by any one work, and their need to evolve largely outweighs the need to appease the masses. As it should.

MV - bedlam coverAnd so now we are upon another impending release from The Mars Volta — The Bedlam in Goliath, due out on Tuesday. And of course it’s near impossible to categorize any album without having heard the whole thing from start to finish, but I will say that a few of the tracks I have gotten ahold of (or experienced via one of the band’s several promo videos, all linked below) are outstanding, and a few are just pretty damn good. Overall, the tracks seem to be more accessible and more aggressive, which I think is the best combination for the band at this point.

But perhaps it is simply the fate of The Mars Volta, or any such ambitious band, to fall victim to the inevitable hit-or-miss nature of so many larger-than-life artists whose goals are to create works that are as expansive and exploratory as these…

Either which way, please do not forever turn your back on this truly forward-thinking, boundary-pushing group of musicians — the world always needs more of ’em. But you knew this already…right?


MV - entire band
The ultimate prog-rock posse


“Cut That City”, the heady, slightly inconsistent opener off Tremulant (2002)…even at the beginning, these guys weren’t afraid to introduce themseves with a minute-and-a-half of fluttering, near-dead ambience.

“Roulette Dares (This Is The Haunt)”, everyone’s favorite rocker off De-loused in the Comatorium (2003)

“Take The Veil Cerpin Taxt”, the rippin’ closer to De-loused in the Comatorium (2003)

“Cygnus….Vismund Cygnus”, the first song off Frances the Mute (2005)…the end groove is a beautiful work of art — one of my MV favorites.

“Cassandra Gemini”, the last song off Frances the Mute (2005)…yes, the 30 minute clusterfuck, beginning and ending with inspired rock sensations, and with a hell of a lot of spacey-ass space in the middle.

“Vermicide”, the tightest pop song I’ve heard yet from The Mars Volta, off Amputechture (2006)

“Viscera Eyes”, off Amputechture (2006)…when they played this Zeppeliny groove at the show I saw of theirs a couple weeks ago, I could’ve sworn that this was a new one; I must have been really stoned.

VIDEOS (The Mars Volta themselves recently leaked 5 of their new tracks via these online “promos”, to give you a taste of the new stuff):

Here’s the video for “Aberinkula”, the first song off of the new album:

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And a video for “Ilyena”, track #3:

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The video for “Wax Simulcra”, track #4:

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The band performing “Wax Simulcra” on Letterman:

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The video for “Goliath”, track #5:

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The video for “Askepios”, track #9:

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And while we’re at it, here’s The Mars Volta covering the Circle Jerks’ classic “Back Up Against the Wall”, complete with weirdo background pic:

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Visit The Mars Volta on MySpace

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