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Recordings by the Mars Volta are almost always accompanied by extensive backstories. For instance, 2003's De-Loused in the Comatorium was inspired by the late artist Julio Venegas, who jumped to his doom from an El Paso overpass, while 2005's Frances the Mute reportedly sprang from the pages of a diary found by bandmate Jeremy Ward, who died two years previous to its release. But the boys have outdone themselves with The Bedlam in Goliath, their latest offering, whose genesis tale sports enough supernatural elements for a Sci Fi Channel miniseries.
Frontman Cedric Bixler-Zavala traces the disc's origins to "an antique talking board" — a variation on a Ouija board — that guitarist Omar Rodriguez-Lopez picked up during a trip to Jerusalem. "Having the old habits that I do with drug use, it became my new drug," Bixler-Zavala says, adding, "The more I played it, the more I realized it wasn't the average kind of children's game." Indeed, he insists that a trio of characters spoke to him through the board about an ancient honor killing, and he became obsessed with translating their words into lyrics despite his fear that he'd entered dangerous territory. Today he blames the board for a string of misfortunes that afflicted the band: disappearing drummers straight out of This Is Spinal Tap, chronic foot ailments, and an unstable sound engineer who took early demos hostage. ("We had to hire people to physically take our tapes from him," he recalls. "It was like Dog Day Afternoon.") No wonder Rodriguez-Lopez, in an echo of Jumanji, eventually buried the board in an undisclosed location.
Listeners' willingness to accept these anecdotes as the literal truth varies widely. "It's just culturally how you're brought up," Bixler-Zavala believes. "I talk to most white people; they laugh at me and say, 'Great. That's a great cover story. It's a great way of getting people interested.' I talk to anyone of Latin persuasion, and the first thing they say is, 'What the fuck were you thinking of?'"
For the most part, Goliath is strong, wild and creative, but Bixler-Zavala's encountered resistance to it beyond doubts about his supposed ghost writers. The Mars Volta's label, Warner Bros., balked at releasing his preferred choice, "Ilyena," as a single, even though he feels that the song showcases "a giant leap into future music for us." Meanwhile, some longtime Volta loyalists have been disappointed that Goliath features comparatively succinct tunes rather than a steady diet of crazed post-prog jams. "They're hoping we'd re-create our first two albums again, which is just boring," he maintains. "That's suicide more than it is murder, and I'm not going to give a fan the benefit of a suicide." As he puts it, "We've never been a jukebox, and we've never been the kind of DJ who takes requests."
Unless they come from beyond the grave.
Visit Backbeat Online for more of our interview with the Mars Volta's Cedric Bixler-Zavala.