The Mars Volta
If you really loved me, you’d let me eat your brains.
—back of a T-shirt worn by teenager at the Mars Volta show in Providence, Rhode Island
Say what you will about the Mars Volta’s anti-pop miscegenation of psychedelic prog-rock, free jazz, salsa, ambient noise, and Parliamentary funk. Call the band overly ambitious if you like; call them masters of naught but masturbation. Or leap to the other side and worship them as saviors of modern rock, whether or not it needs saving; proclaim Omar Rodriguez-Lopez and Cedric Bixler Zavala peerless masterminds who are not just mashing up but effectively synthesizing these divergent schools of music to produce an inimitable—and quintessentially American—sound.
Straddle the fence and find yourself in a position of discomfort. The Mars Volta is perhaps the most polarizing band in contemporary rock. Whichever side you take, one thing must be agreed upon: These guys play hard. (Or, in Cedric’s case: Dude can wail.)
For the record, I’m off the fence and agog, loose in the pit of salsadelic despair that the Mars Volta have excavated for me and the thousands of 17-year-old boys with overactive sweat glands and Pantera shirts. No, I don’t call Omar and Cedric heroes, but I do call their music pretty rad, and worth what limited time and energy I have.
Seeing the Mars Volta live has only solidified my conviction that they’re on to something big. While the band wavers from six to seven strong, it centers around two brains, those of guitarist-writer-producer Rodriguez-Lopez and vocalist-writer Zavala. With them on this tour were drummer Jon Theodore, who must be extra-limbed; Omar’s younger brother, Marcel Rodriguez-Lopez, on bongos and maracas; Ikey Isaiah Owens on keys; Juan Alderete on bass; and busy multi-instrumentalist Adrian Terrazas on flute, tenor sax, bass clarinet, tambourine, shekere, and more.
In other words, the sound is huge, meant for a huge crowd’s absorption. Lupo’s, a majestic theater with a large floor and full balcony, was sold out, with more than half the audience under 21. It’s no surprise that Mars’s fan base is so young; the band’s difficult music begs to be unpacked with the sort of transcendence-seeking obsessiveness so common to those in their formative years.
While the albums are challenging, the show is strenuous, too, consisting of two-plus hours of blistering guitar solos and overblown, histrionic vocals. More than two hours, and how many songs? Eight. Just eight. Their eight best.
This band bled my ears white—and yet, if ears could smile! The Mars Volta positively arrested the theater, starting with the shekere- and bongo-led fury of “Drunkship of Lanterns”, in which Theodore got to strut his schooling in Haitian voodoo drumming. (How many times did I hear “ohhhh shit”? At least four.) The band then dipped into “Concertina” and “Take the Veil Cerpin Taxt” before servicing almost all of Frances the Mute. “Miranda the Holy Ghost” was dearly missed, but we all knew “Cassandra Geminni” was, of the two girls, the one to keep.
“L’Via L’Viaquez”, of course, brought the house down. Placed calculatingly after several minutes of “Cygnus Vismund Cygnus’s” white noise fallout, “L’Via” profited from the suspense. When Omar pushed out that murderous first riff and Cedric bit into the searing verse en español, people went nuts.
Outfitted with heavy, throbbing drum segues, some of Omar’s most stunning solos, and an extended Spaghetti-Western keyboard extro, “L’Via” is the Mars Volta at its best. Hearing this ecstatic mash-up of prog, salsa, and jazz as Cedric swings his hips in rocked-up salsa moves, I was struck by these thoughts: This is what America Nuevo sounds like; damn, it sounds good; I urgently need to learn Spanish.
“L’Via” does not go resigned into rock’s known world—rather, with its multilingual verses and salsa-rock back-and-forth, the song reflects musically the tension inherent in this nation’s cultural mash-up, and in the cultural conflicts internalized by most minority Americans. It is rare that other musical strains enter rock without being blatantly appropriated by white dudes; it is similarly rare that minorities enter rock without assimilating to pop/rock conventions: verse-chorus-verse songs about girls in 4/4 or 6/8. The Mars Volta is infiltrating historically Anglo territory, stirring in their own ethnic identities (Puerto Rican-American, Chicano, and Haitian-American, among others). Add to that the Mars Volta’s penchant for King Crimson-like song structure and grotesque, anatomically interested lyrics, and you have a band that is effectively defamiliarizing what “rock”, and music in general, is and can be.
Yes, at times this sonic mash-up is conflicted, but this conflict is a statement in itself. “L’Via” is a tense, contradictory, and ultimately exuberant song, and that was never more apparent than when played live, when its structure is actually visible. So you’ve got Cedric over there growling out these weird English lyrics over a chill salsa groove, when suddenly the drums kick in big-time and it’s back to keening Spanish competing with Zeppelin-ish guitar psychedelics. As the song hit its stride, the musicians relaxed into an easy salsa breakdown, letting the crowd take a short breather as the song collapsed into itself, soon usurped by the opening chords to “Roulette Dares”—the only song that could eclipse “L’Via”.
Fifteen minutes later, Zavala gave his most compelling vocal performance of the night with “The Widow”. All concert long, you had to be impressed with, not only his voice’s range and versatility, but his infinite stamina. “The Widow” put Zavala’s voice, giving not an inch after almost two hours of wear, at center stage. The way he crept in and out of the verses and just fucking emoted was incredible. He pared the song down to its inherent grief, a longing sorrow that doesn’t quite emerge in the album version. Zavala’s wounded vocals brought to mind the inspirations for both of the band’s albums: the deaths of close friends. These guys aren’t out to prove anything, much less elevate rock (which, I would argue, they’re doing, regardless of intention); they’re simply trying to honor the memories of late friends.
Finishing with “Cassandra’s” pounding scales and riveting sax solo, the band left on the suite’s startling end note—a frustrating cliffhanger with neither denouement nor encore, and a fitting tribute to two complex lives cut short.