Music News

The Mars Volta

The futuro-punk metal and lyrical free-association of At the Drive-In was tuned for big arenas and seemingly destined for greatness. But in 2001, a rift formed, and the band split in two, with three-fifths becoming Sparta, and the rest -- Cedric Bixler and Omar Rodriguez -- launching the Mars Volta. If you take your cues from the Best Buy "hits" bin, then the radio-friendly, grunge-lite of Sparta will probably be to your liking. But the Mars Volta's first full-length makes for a more sophisticated and multi-layered ATDI remainder.

Bixler's effects-modified falsetto breaks over the soaring cacophony of influences here: the Latin-rock fusion of Santana, the challenging prog rock of King Crimson and Yes, elements of dub and funk, Led Zeppelin's Dungeons-&-Dragons metal and Fugazi's basement-hardcore ethos. When a band's sound is given the prog-rock tag, it's usually meant as an insult -- or, worse, brings to mind the pap metal of Tool. But the Mars Volta makes the style work to its advantage over the course of the album.

Though the record is split into ten tracks, the overall effect is a sonic journey that doesn't necessarily adhere to its own itinerary. Tracks transition smoothly, and elements of different songs hint back at each other throughout to create a cohesive aural trip. As with most great records, it gets better with each listen; the thematic sound snippets embed themselves in your subconscious like memories of past adventures that are even better than the initial experience.

During its twelve-and-a-half-minute soundscape, the sprawling, free-jazz-esque "Cicatriz ESP" incorporates challenging stylistic shifts over multiple tempo changes. Meanwhile, the percussion of "This Apparatus Must Be Unearthed" could have been lifted from any Santana record. And on "Drunkenship of Lanterns," the group conjures a marriage of Jimmy Page's Les Paul and Chris Squire's bass as Rodriguez and Flea play off each other in a hyperkinetic salsa-punk jam while keyboardist Ikey Owens keeps it all together with forceful horror-show organ accents over rapid-fire bongos until the song breaks down into a tapered collage of sound. Such is the combination of seemingly disparate elements into a wondrous psychedelic phantasmagoria that decorates the walls of the Comatorium.

De-loused in the Comatorium is an inventive excursion bursting with ideas, tied together by the excellent production of the ubiquitous Rick Rubin. It is, admittedly, a self-indulgent work, but it leaves enough of itself behind so that it doesn't descend into derivative exclusion and instead makes for a completely inspired listen.

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Kevin Keenan