The Mars Volta
I have always found it peculiar that the music press and music fans in general feel there is a correlation between the Mars Volta’s Latin-tinged jam-rock and the progressive dinosaurs of yesteryear. Sure, at times lead singer Cedric Bixler-Zavala’s wailing seems reminiscent of Rush’s Geddy Lee, but the Mars Volta’s roots can be better traced to the original Latin-rock band - Santana—and the psychedelic rock of the late 1960s (Case in point: At the Drive-In, Cedric and Omar Rodriguez-Lopez’s old band, once recorded a cover of the musically devoid Pink Floyd tune “Take Up Thy Stethoscope and Walk”).
What does this all mean for their latest live performance? While the Mars Volta have vastly improved their stage presence from their previous tour in support of 2003’s De-Loused in the Comatorium, the band achieves musical peaks and valleys on stage - great moments of tight playing intermingled with arduous jams consisting mostly of spatial sounds that would make Syd Barrett, and few other people, proud. At the very least, the Mars Volta has become distinct enough that previous musical comparisons with At the Drive-In no longer apply.
The last time I saw this band perform live, in Ottawa two years ago, there was the distinct feeling in the air the band was performing for itself. The stage design had a minimalist aesthetic, and the overstated improvisational sections engulfed the few times when the band were truly playing together. They nearly ruined “Take the Veil Cerpin Taxt”, one of the best tracks from their debut album, and while I am appreciative of the jams from “Cicatriz ESP” that became the opening song from 2005’s Frances the Mute, the indulgent moments seemed to stretch forever, leaving the crowd fidgety and restless. The band, while still impressive in times of coherence, was not the well-oiled machine of today. Sloppy jams, coupled with long solos, and Cedric’s maniacal stage behaviour demonstrated a band still trying to find their niche. They had only scratched the surface of their Latin roots (which became the focal point of several tracks from Frances), and they had yet to distance themselves entirely from their previous band.
In 2005, the confidence of the Mars Volta is evident. Instead of hearing futile cries for “One Armed Scissor”, this audience knew what to expect. Their new album, the 78-minute gargantuan Frances the Mute may be hard to stomach for the casual music fan, but its material is perfectly suited for their live set. When Cedric wailed the opening lines to “Cygnus Vizmund Cygnus”, his catwalk-esque strutting was permeated with a certain focus that it lacked in the past. He still performed with the exuberance of a child with severe ADHD, but thankfully he was no longer pirouetting on speakers or strangling himself with his microphone cord.
The chaotic sound of the album sounded less cluttered on stage, and the sound was fantastic. Throughout the night, songs such as “L’Via l’Viaquez” expanded greatly on their original recorded versions. What previously sounded akin to a salsa pianist convulsing while playing, “L’Via” demonstrated not only the undervalued keyboard skills of Ikey Owens, but also how great this band can be when they don’t succumb to their own excesses.
Unfortunately, in what could have ruined the entire set, the band chose to open with “Drunkship of Lanterns”. While the energetic track could have been an ideal opener, the Mars Volta included one of their longest and least cohesive jams halfway through the song. This would be a recurring theme throughout the night, albeit less frequently than the last tour. Not content to merely play the album tracks on stage or even keep the improvising to less than three-minutes per song, guitarist Rodriguez-Lopez would lead these sections, which ironically enough did a poorer job of displaying his guitar skills than when he just stayed with the script. His guitar style at times bears similarity to fusion great John McLaughlin, but Omar’s jams lack the intensity and technical wizardry of superb jazz improv. His best moments were his explosive crescendos, which came two or three times per song.
What has remained the propulsive force behind the band is drummer Jon Theodore, who often played straight man to Omar’s wild excursions. In a band full of underrated musicians, he could be the most underrated of all. It’s conceivable that their raging “Supper’s Ready”-esque epic “Cassandra Geminni” would have completely fallen on its face if not for Theodore’s uncanny ability to adapt his drumming at a moments’ notice (and without respite) when the other members strayed in their own directions. The band is also well served by adding a wind player to the fold, Adrian Terrazas, who alternated between tenor sax, bass clarinet, flute, and percussion. Omar Rodriguez-Lopez’s brother, Marcel, had an expanded role and didn’t feel like an afterthought (or the result of nepotism) as with the previous tour.
The Mars Volta’s live set is worth seeing simply because no other band matches their style of sound and passion on stage. Sure, it could be said the band is merely Phish for the younger generation, but behind the band’s self-indulgent facade is a group of talented musicians unparalleled in the rock landscape today. While they certainly cannot be referred to as progressive rock just yet, the Mars Volta has taken yet another step away from its emo-punk past—another step toward the edge.