When these proggers go live, fans will love it and the haters will hate.
We got it with Frances the Mute, released earlier in 2005. On that polarizing record, the band extended itself into brilliant and arguably undirected jams (argued by the uninformed, of course), showing their technical prowess while showing utter disregard for self-control. Those who love their challenging and exciting form of music found greatness in Frances; those who cringe at the word prog or desire form and structure spat in the band's general direction. Well, keep that in mind when you consider that live albums are often a band's chance to do their thing, only more so.
Surprisingly, the Mars Volta neglects to include any tracks from Frances, opting instead for two greatly extended songs from 2003's De-Loused in the Comatorium, a rendition of "Concertina" from the Tremulant EP, and several previously unreleased noodles. All this is bookended by the band's disastrous low points, but we'll get to them later.
With "Concertina", the group proves they can keep a statement focused. Although the song shifts tempo and tone throughout, it builds naturally, making its changes smoothly and effectively. Lasting 4:17, the track doesn't have time to out-stay its welcome. Lyrically, the bi-lingual track is as dense as anything you'd expect from these guys, and more about the expression than a feeling than anything you can read literally. I'm sure there's a worthwhile explication to be done on this song, but to undertake that would be to overlook the overall feel of this live performance.
The group splits "Take the Veil Cerpin Taxt" into three tracks on Scab Dates, but the song flows well across its 13-plus minutes. Rodriguez-Lopez sticks to his prog-metal base, but he varies his actual performance between heavy riffing, melodic soloing, and noisy shred. The first two techniques serve him best -- when he alternate-picks his way into orbit, he hides technique behind flash, and on an album as indulgent as this one, there isn't room for showboating that lacks direction.
The first four parts of the now-40-minutes "Cicatriz" provide the album's highlight. Guitarist Omar Rodriguez-Lopez savages his guitar with metal solos before dropping into a one-measure riff that the other Voltans build around, constructing a new and exciting song around what would otherwise be the disc's least exciting guitar work. Cedric Bixler-Zavala screams like Robert Plant, often either in wordless moans or incomprehensible phrases. No matter how smart he is as a lyricist, the words get tossed aside on this record in favor of the general destruction of aggressive rock.
The album's downfall comes on the fifth part of "Cicatriz" (named "Pt. 4" despite its quartet of predecessors) and on its counterpart, opener "Abrasions Mount the Timpani" (which is horribly-titled in so many ways). These two tracks are largely noise clips, sound effects, and blips of people talking. Rather than sounding experimental or musical or even experimentally a-musical, it just sounds like the Mars Volta didn't know how to start or end the disc. "Cicatriz, Pt. 4" does have some musical moments in it, but they're spread out over the course of an otherwise vapid 20 minutes. "Abrasions" should be cut completely.
The interludes, "Caviglia" and "Haruspex" fare better, primarily because they're shorter. Both tracks wander, as if the band members need to create atmosphere while they catch their breath. If that's true (and it probably isn't since I'm just guessing), it's curious that the songs would be translated to disc. If it's an artistic decision in the editing room, then these guys really need to get some new editing help.
Scab Dates is a good one to rip, or at least to keep the skip button nearby. At its best, it's a fantastic album, with amazing musicianship that's emotionally striking. At it's worse, it's empty. Fortunately, the best is far above the dullness of the segues and endpieces, which tips the album to the good. It's just too bad they hadn't shown a little more thought in their lack of focus.