The Mars Volta :: 10.21.04 :: The Catalyst :: Santa Cruz, CA
Have you ever been so in love that "love" isn't strong enough a word to describe your feelings? So in love that the term itself seems trite, used up on people who are nothing compared to your Love? That's the problem I'm currently enjoying with The Mars Volta.
The Mars Volta
About a year ago one of my most trusted sources began pushing The Mars Volta's debut concept album, Deloused In The Comatorium (2003; GSL/Strummer/Universal) on me. Based on the psychotic golden head shooting light from its mouth on the cover, the name itself, and the fact that wonderboy Rick Rubin produced it, I was intrigued before even pressing play. After learning that Gary Gersh, the man who signed Nirvana to Geffen, was ecstatically backing The Mars Volta and that both Flea and John Frusciante of the Red Hot Chili Peppers appear on the album, I slowly began to understand that what I was hearing was something far bigger than perhaps any band I've come across in ten years.
One minute of ethereal buildup leads to Cedric Zavala's spine-piercing screams, which eventually give way to the overwhelming guitar work of Omar Rodriguez-Lopez. The two working in conjunction with their amazing band is quickly enough to strip away your sanity. Truth be told: the first spin didn't sell me. Well, let me rephrase--the music was clearly ambitious (to say the least), slightly different than anything I had ever heard, and more than enough to provoke a few more digestions. But it wasn't until I began listening with headphones and chipping away at the story that the genius began to unfold at a rapid pace. It was about the time that Cedric and Omar began visiting me in my dreams that I began doing my homework. As I unearthed the meaning of Deloused I knew my musical world was changing forever.
To fully understand The Mars Volta it is necessary to know what they're singing about. You need to know the story, both on and off stage, to really grasp the density of it all. Once familiar with the origin one can begin unfolding the layers of sonic experimentation. This is incredibly thick and complicated material in every sense of the words. Like anything worthwhile it takes commitment and work. You need to be dedicated to the cause. And like any of my favorite albums it takes more than one listen. But rest assured, if you are up to the task you'll be rewarded tenfold.
In 1996 Julio Venegas, an artist from El Paso, Texas committed suicide. As Cedric tells it, "He was definitely someone who lived life to the fullest. Toward the end, he acquired a really bad limp from being in a coma. He had tons of scars all over his body and some of his closer friends used to call him Frankenstein. He had big cut marks on his throat, welts and bruises and bumps, and his arm had been shriveled up from shooting up rat poison. He acquired so many scars it was like a walking map." Venegas was a close friend who served as mentor and inspiration to both Cedric and Omar.
Omar Rodriguez-Lopez by Ann Kermans
While still fronting At The Drive-In, the indie/emo band many critics were claiming to be the next big thing, Cedric wrote the lyrics to "Embroglio" about Venegas, but felt the song did not do him justice and that an entire album should be dedicated to him. Soon after Omar and Cedric split from At The Drive-In, citing boredom with the music as their reason for leaving. With a new band of monster musicians they recorded a fictitious account of Venegas' life: De-Loused In The Comatorium. A concept album to the fullest and most successful extent, the story Cedric penned and Omar put music to finds "Venegas" shooting morphine for suicide, but instead of death he slips into a coma. While in the coma he embarks on the wildest trip imaginable, encountering all aspects of his psyche--the good, the bad, and the very, very ugly. Eventually Venegas emerges from the coma only to finish the job and successfully kill himself.
Zavala & Jon Theodore by Ann Kermans
Heavy business for sure, but so incredibly well done that it is without question the best album I've heard since it came out; nothing has come close in the past two years. Granted, Pink Floyd's Animals is probably my favorite album of all time, so I have a penchant for dark concept albums that aren't afraid to take chances. And it's not just in the idea of a concept album that one can hear Floyd. There's something about the mind fucking mixed with musical amazement and eerie guitar tones that every once in a while evoke that slight feel of Floyd. Needless to say, when I saw the band scheduled to play The Catalyst, a small rock club in Santa Cruz, California, I couldn't have been more excited (especially considering the fact that they had been playing stadiums and touring the world opening up for the Chili Peppers, A Perfect Circle, and the Pixies).
The Mars Volta by Mike Randall
On the ride to Santa Cruz from San Francisco I felt more like I was going to see Phish or Panic than some hyper-indie, post-punk, who-knows-what-the-fuck-to-call-them band. I had butterflies in my stomach, and even more so, I felt that delicious sense of anticipation where I didn't know if I was excited, nervous, or just had to get to a bathroom.
As was expected, the heavily sold-out crowd was much younger than those I usually rub elbows with, but mixed in with the young black-eyed children were people clearly in "the biz" and more than a handful of very interested 30-somethings.
The Mars Volta by Oliver Fischer
When the band finally took the stage to what sounded like triumphant Mexican bull fight entrance music, the surge of energy was on par with any show I've ever been to. What I wasn't ready for was the mosh-pit explosion. It took a few minutes for things to work out, but eventually we found a compromise where those there to thrash could do so, and those there to listen could begin the journey. The following two hours were filled by some of the most impressive music I've ever consumed. With extremely high expectations I was almost ready to be let down, but the show this band put on exceeded all my hopes and blew my mind out the back of my head.
Where the album took several exposures and adequate time to marinate in my brain before securing itself as one of my favorite albums of all time, the show was instantaneous. Two songs in I remember turning to my boy and saying, "It's everything you ever wanted." It was completely dark and demented, intense and uplifting. There were 20-plus minute space-out heroin jams punctuated by lightning quick time changes, chunky guitars, obtuse sounds, and tripped-out effects where I couldn't even imagine who was doing what. The music created was chaotic, all-engrossing, some form of perfect hysteria that I had never been a part of. It was scary, creepy, and 100-percent over the top.
The Mars Volta by Oliver Fischer
As a front man, Cedric Zavala is as enigmatic as any I've ever seen. He's so fuckin' punk it's believable. There's none of that pre-fab mall punk bullshit going on--his essence is true and his mode of expression his performance. Diving across the stage, twirling the mic stand in the air, lassoing the chord around his neck, flopping off speakers and contorting on the ground, he was nothing short of a young Iggy Pop. Thin as Iggy and not quite as heavily abused, he was also the Plant to Lopez's Page.
The Zeppelin analogy was prevalent throughout the night. Zavala often didn't sing words (although he does sing in both English and Spanish) but rather just hit notes, moaning, crying, screeching, adding little fucked up accents. When not calling Iggy Pop to mind, I was often struck by the Perry Ferrell of Jane's Addiction days, both in the lyrical attack and in the at times almost tribal, flowing, ancient-spaced out instrumental skeleton of it all. As Zavala's antics unfolded completely naturally, Omar Rodriguez-Lopez led the band. His guitar work shifted from rapid-fire technical darts to thrashing walls of sound. With his afro swaying and his huge glasses shimmering, Omar covered so much ground I felt the truth in it all as Zavala sang, "Past present and future tense, clipside of the pinkeye fountain. Now I'm lost, Now I'm lost, NOW I'M LOST.
The whole show went like this. It breathed and moved like a living organism. It was like floating down a river bobbing up and down, gasping for air. I was skipping over rocks and plummeting over falls, ready to fight but completely aware that I must simply give in because to struggle would be futile. Once broken free of constraints and able to just give myself to it all a black-bliss took over and time turned off... And then CRACK, the morphine-laced dream was snatched by Omar's guitar and everything turned red as early psychedelic '70s Santana sounds percolated over Bonham-esque drumming. It was almost too much to keep up with and I could tell I wasn't the only one overwhelmed as kids half my age spilled sweaty and dazed from the front of the stage.
Thinking back now, I'm baffled by how amazingly tight they were. I couldn't find the timing where it broke and I was lost when trying to understand it all. The percussive work between the congas, drums, and bass were mesmerizing and often driven by a subtle Latin salsa groove found in the minor notes and overall rhythmic structure. The fact that Zavala is a Chicano and Lopez was born and raised in Puerto Rico leads one to expect a Latin flavor, but it's only apparent for those who are really listening. This wasn't some new form of salsa, but the hard '70s history of the music lived under the screaming vocals and swarming guitar.
Jon Theodore by Ann Kermans
Completing this massive sound was the keyboard work of Isaiah Ikey Owens (of the Long Beach Dub Allstars). Moving from spaced out excursions somewhat akin to Bernie Worrell, to hammering on his ivory, to melodic washes, and tripped out effects, Owens filled in every corner that could possibly be left after Jon Theodore's relentless drum work. There was complete balance with the more punk, heavy-as-hell moments releasing into airy segments and anthemic guitar-hero solos. There were recurring themes, both lyrically and musically, that appeared from thin air, dropping from one song and back into the other. At one point the dust began to settle and Zavala reached to the crowd, "Is anybody there? You've got the lot to burn. A shelve of pig smothered cries, is there a spirit that spits upon the exit of signs? Is anybody there? These steps keep on growing long, bayonet trials rust propellers await. No. Nobody is heard. Rowing sheep smiles for the dead. Nobody is heard. An antiquated home afloat with engines on mute. These craft only multiply at the nape of ruins rust propellers await... IS ANYBODY THERE!?
In the end it was everything working together at exactly the right time and in exactly the right increments that made this absolutely the best show I've seen all year, and one of the most amazing shows I've seen in my life. Pondering The Mars Volta, I'm left with more questions than answers.
The Mars Volta
Yes it all makes sense, to a degree, but how the hell do they do it? And not in the "wow those guys can jam" way, but in a literal, "How the fuck do they do that?" sense. How do they know when to turn left, when to dip right, when to pull back and when to let it go? How do they reach critical mass, where you know it can't get any heavier or more intense, but then it goes into a sixth gear you never knew existed and melts your face to the wall? How are they able to slither in and out of every aspect of music I've ever loved and yet have it be so completely unique? How can it be that The Mars Volta are not yet on the cover of every magazine in the world?
If you haven't heard much about The Mars Volta, don't worry, you will. And if for some reason this is the first you've heard, well then by all means, please remember where you heard it first. While I'm skeptical to think that something this artistic and this different will reach the masses, it's so original, accomplished, unforgiving, and unstoppable it just might. No one knows what band will be the next to reach full-blown legendary status--one of those bands that changes music and people--but The Mars Volta has already changed me. Now they just have to reach you.
Listen to De-Loused In The Comatorium on Rhapsody.
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