Of all the progressive rock groups that have come and/or gone over the last several decades, few—if any—have been as idiosyncratic and audacious as the Mars Volta. Formed out of the ashes of post-hardcore Texan outfit At the Drive-In (whose other three members went on to form indie rock band Sparta) by guitarist Omar Rodríguez-López and vocalist Cedric Bixler-Zavala in 2001, the ensemble continuously broken boundaries, challenged expectations, and blew minds with their blend of power, intricacy, conceptuality, catchiness, and eccentricity. Full of arresting counterpoints, relentless complexity, entrancing melodies, and wildly imaginative (if also incoherent) imagery, their work was unique, prophetic, and downright addictive. In light of their recent disbandment, PopMatters’ Jordan Blum and Brice Ezell have decided to look back on the Mars Volta’s studio output in commemoration of their illustrious career. No other band has ever accomplished what the Mars Volta did, and it’s unlikely that any other ever will.
Jordan Blum: Simply put, the Mars Volta’s initial LP is a mind-blowing introduction, as well as one of the best debuts I’ve ever heard. The first of several concept albums, the record revolves around Cerpin Taxt, a man who spends a week in a coma after overdosing on morphine and rat poison (it was inspired by the death of Bixler-Zavala’s friend Julio Venegas). In addition, the title comes from the lyrics of “Eunuch Provocateur”, the closing track of their Tremulant EP. Also, De-Loused in the Comatorium includes the first guest appearance of Red Hot Chili Peppers bassist, Flea, and guitarist, John Frusciante. As Brice rightly points out, De-Loused set a musical template for the group that they’d alter slightly with each new release while still staying true to the core mechanics established here.
Musically, the band was already light years beyond At the Drive-In. A blend of jazz fusion, progressive rock, ambience, and post-hardcore (with a few touches of Latin flair), De-Loused begins with “Son Et Lumiere”, a sorrowful and indulging touch of Floydian dreaminess. Bixler-Zavala sings softly as he sets the stage with poetic remembrances. The track segues seamlessly into “Inertiatic Esp”, which really captures what The Mars Volta was all about: frantic percussion, dissonant guitar work, abrupt dynamic shifts, weird sound effects, and histrionic performances (especially Bixler-Zavala). With “ Roulette Dares (The Haunt of)”, they continues the madness with a stronger focus on engagement.
Later, “Drunkship of Laterns” entrances the listener with its various vocal patterns, as well as its bombastic rhythmic changes, while “Eriatarka” proves that they could be both intricate and emotional. While I agree with Brice that “Cicatriz Esp” leaves something to be desired in retrospect, it (and “This Apparatus Must be Unearthed”) are still full of their trademark avant-garde rebellion, jazz overtones, and authoritative hooks; in contrast, “Televators” tones down the intensity to feature the best songwriting on De-Loused; Brice is spot on with his take, as well. Its vividness, refinement, and poignancy make it one of the group’s most affective pieces. The album concludes with “Take the Veil Cerpin Taxt,” which contains some wonderfully colorful freakouts.
All in all, De-Loused in the Comatorium proves that the Mars Volta knew what it wanted to be from the start: a platform from which Rodríguez-López and Bixler-Zavala could create wildly imaginative and melodically gripping controlled chaos.
Brice Ezell: De-Loused in the Comatorium is still one of those albums that means a lot to a lot of people, and not unjustly so. Few prog debuts in the ‘00s are as audacious as this one; the way Rodríguez-López and Bixler-Zavala merge together avant-jazz, indie rock, prog, and Latin music is something no other band has been able to manage, and frankly it’s good that no one else has tried. While an incredibly strong debut—one that showed that the potential energy of At the Drive-In still had room to turn kinetic—De-Loused lays the burden of the Mars Volta right out: be as ambitious and uncompromising as possible. Each one of the group’s releases finds some way to deviate from the incomprehensible blueprint that is De-Loused, with, of course, varying degrees of success. As interpreted by the genre’s biggest acts, contemporary prog frequently involves checking one’s inner editor at the door and letting the creative engines go wild. What this LP does remarkably well, however, is keep things honed in and tethered down—or, at least, as conceivably tethered down as a band like the Mars Volta could ever hope to be.
Though billed as a concept album, as many of the Mars Volta’s records are, it makes about as much sense as your standard Bixler-Zavala lyric, which is to say very little. Rather, what’s uniquely enticing about De-Loused is how it takes the various elements of what was already present on the Tremulant EP, released in 2002, and embellishing on them in every way possible without managing to go completely bonkers. This isn’t to say this is a faultless work; as the later part of the band’s career would demonstrate, they write better pop songs than lumbering epics, which is quite evident here. “Inertiatic ESP”, at just over four minutes, is twice the track that the 16-minute “Cicatriz ESP” is, though compared to some other epics of theirs, the latter stands out due largely to its freshness at the time of its release. This has to do in large part with the interplay of the group at this point; whereas on future releases—Frances the Mute especially—the dynamics of the musicians tend toward prog extremism, here the back-and-forth is very jazzy in a delightfully nuanced way, particularly on the late end of “Take the Veil Cerpin Text”.
But most importantly, one song here stands out as indicative of The Mars Volta’s greatest talent, one often overlooked by the fans hungry for oodles of soloing: writing ballads. The penultimate “Televators”, a primarily acoustic ballad with some disturbing and nonsensical lyrics (“Fragments of sobriquets/Riddle me this/Three half-eaten corneas/Who hit the aureole/Stalk the ground”), overpowers all the other jams on this LP with a surprising grace. It’s easily one of the strongest pieces in the Mars Volta songbook, and if one can push past Bixler-Zavala’s mangled poetry, he or she will likely find a track like this quite accessible. This prowess in balladry is something that will take a few more albums after De-Loused to fully develop, but on its own “Televators” is a magnificent thing, and a marvelous way to bring this bold and irreverent debut toward its conclusion. Like Jordan, I find this to be a debut unlike anything else in recent memory, and as fitting an introduction to these guys as one could hope to get.