Out of the ashes of the explosive and eventually implosive El Paso, Texas ensemble At the Drive-In, Omar Rodriguez-Lopez and Cedric Bixler-Zavala (and friends) blaze on as The Mars Volta. These guys are mind terrorists with a penchant for bombastic, post-hardcore art rock (“artcore”?), beautifully written yet always slightly askew compositions, and flawlessly executed instrumentation and vocals – all operating at genius levels. They might be the best American rock band out there today.
The other extant members of ATDI went on to play more palatable places (under the name Sparta), and these guys got their wildest musician friends together, got high, and got on with the weirdness. Folks like Ikie Owens (of the Long Beach Dub Allstars), audio artist Jeremy Ward, and the interesting members of the Red Hot Chili Peppers (i.e., Flea and John Frusciante) all added their filthy, funky fingerprints to the band’s early releases. Thought the line-up fluctuated with every release, fellow eccentric, energetic expert Frusciante managed to stay on board for all of the band’s studio excursions.
For The Mars Volta, the studio is a space ship. These guys take you places: outerspace, innerspace, liminal space. De-Loused in the Comatorium (2003) tells the story of Cerpin Taxt, a character based on the life and death of fellow El Paso artist and friend Julio Venegas. During the tour for De-Loused, friend and collaborator Jeremy Ward died of a heroin overdose. Prior to studio work, Ward had been a repo man and found a diary in one of his charges. The diary proved to have eerie parallels with his own life and provided much of the material for the band’s next record, Francis the Mute (2005). Ward also coined the term “amputechture,” which served as the title of The Mars Volta’s third LP released in 2006. Their latest, 2008’s The Bedlam in Goliath gets its namesake and birthright from an archaic ouija board that Rodriguez-Lopez bought in Jerusalem as a gift for Bixler-Zavala. On the tour for Amputechture, conversing and conspiring with the board (a.k.a. “The Soothsayer”) became a nightly post-show band ritual. Many of the songs on the record were written and named during these spooky sessions.
Whereas previous outings have meandered and gone all proggy in places, The Bedlam in Goliath, only progs-out when that aids its onslaught. This record is a monster. It sucks you in and spits you out. It’s bodice-ripping, it’s zipless, it’s a mile deep and still digging, it burns until everything is ash, it never lets up. It’s abrasive and aggressive, yet funky as all hell.
I know of only one other band that can be this consistently effed-up and remain so infectious and intriguing (Radiohead). A one-word description of The Mars Volta: seductive. They make challenging music that will quickly suck you in over your head, but how long do you really want to splash around in the shallow end anyway?