The Mars Volta: Tremulant

The Mars Volta
Gold Standard Laboratories

I was not among the mourners the day that At the Drive-In called it quits. True, I had been looking forward to their imminent Chicago date prior to their unexpected demise, but I certainly did not think the modern rock landscape looked any worse the day after the announcement. As far as I was concerned, At the Drive-In was a band whose recorded output had never really caught up with their live spectacle. For all the accolades Relationship of Command got, it was really only half a great album, if that. The first four songs were pretty fantastic, but then it went south in a hurry, as Bixler’s screeching got the better of the band’s tidal hooks. There were also unfortunate lapses in judgment — such as the choice to repeat the words “manuscript replica” over and over in “Rolodex Propaganda”, and the lumbering spoken-word passages that marred “Invalid Litter Dept”. Sometimes the results were so jarring that it sounded as though two songs were duking it out in the space of three minutes.

Listening to the freshly issued EP’s from Sparta and the Mars Volta, the new groups spawned from At the Drive-In, it’s easy to see why the original band split. Despite all its keyboard flourishes and arty nuances, Relationship of Command was still very much tethered to the basic rock ‘n’ roll paradigm: 4/4 time, throat-shredding screams, and guitar, guitar, guitar. Sparta seems to have picked up that torch and run with it, if their Austere EP is any indication. At its best and worst, the band sounds like a Helmet knockoff. But it’s quite clear from the Tremulant EP that Bixler and Rodriguez, who essentially forced At the Drive-In’s premature end by walking out on the band, are not content to stay within the rock’s rigid confines. It appears that they were the ambitious ones, pushing for the creative excursions that set At the Drive-In apart from the legions of emo-tinged punk bands. Simply put, their EP, assembled with their new band, the Mars Volta, stands as the most fiercely musical statement of their career and it effectively shatters the genre conventions that hindered At the Drive-In’s growth.

The Mars Volta is far removed from the emo leanings of ATDI. Bixler and Rodriguez have veered into decidedly progressive territory with their current outfit. Nothing is apparently off-limits. Reggae, drum ‘n’ bass, punk, funk, and rock are all added in equal measure and blended until they seamlessly linked. Over the three tracks, totaling over 19 minutes, there’s nary a style or genre not touched upon. The first track, “Cut That City”, opens with a two-minute long ambient lead-in before crackling to life in a flurry of power chords. The second track, “Concertina”, is the closest they come to approximating their former incarnation, insofar as it possesses a recognizable chorus and checks in with a familiar punk venom. Yet, at nearly six minutes in length, the song still pulls plenty of unexpected maneuvers. And anyone who ever thought Bixler’s voice was a tad annoying will be pleasantly surprised by his new vocal approach, which emphasizes texture over atonal shrieking. Frequently, his vocals are so abstracted that the words are indecipherable — one almost mistakes them for another instrument. I, for one, am grateful for the new tack, since I never much cared for Bixler’s cut n’ paste sci-fi babble in the first place.

By far the most impressive track is the eight-minute plus closer, “Eunuch Provocateur”. It’s a dizzying display of the band’s assets: rapid-fire chord changes, abrupt segues, and protracted instrumental interludes. And yet, the whole thing still holds together as a single song — even when the track disintegrates into sinister drum ‘n’ bass exercise. After hearing this final salvo, some are sure to say that the Mars Volta has gone too far, that they’ve cut their last remaining ties to rock in the name of creativity. But in truth, the Tremulant EP is the sound of redefinition. They’re expanding rock, not escaping from it. While At the Drive-In’s supporters are welcome to carry on all they like about the great, bruising rock ‘n’ roll band that was lost last year, I’d recommend celebrating a group that will almost certainly surpass that modest distinction.