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The Mars Volta

Often groups break into factions. Once that happens they're done. But those clicks, with a shared vision, can take a life of their own. A case in point: At The Drive-In was a promising band that saw members depart to form Sparta. The other side of that equation, Cedric Bixler-Zavala and Omar Rodriguez-Lopez, became The Mars Volta.

The two enlisted Ikey Owens and Jeremy Ward for their debut EP "Tremulant" in '02. An energetic live show built word-of-mouth buzz. But not all was smooth sailing. Ward died of an apparent drug overdose a year later (replaced by Jon Theodore). Still, the group opened for the Red Hot Chili Peppers on European dates and recorded their full-length "De-Loused In The Comatorium." '05 saw the release of "Frances The Mute." Later that year, the live, "Scab Dates," which culled performances from '03 - '05, dropped.

"Amputechture," the group's third studio effort, marked the first time the band created an album without a single unifying narrative ("De-Loused" dealt with the after-life, or at least after death, while "Frances" delved into the characters found in a misplaced diary). The '06 set was recorded in L.A., El Paso and Melbourne, Australia, with Red Hot Chili Pepper guitarist John Frusciante playing on several tracks.

Frusciante appeared again on the '07 Rodriguez-Lopez solo album, "Se Dice Bisonte, No Bufalo." Also, The Mars Volta lost Theodore. "It was long overdue and unquestionably the best thing for everyone involved," the drummer wrote in a statement. "We had a great run of things, made some decent records, blew it up for a minute, and had some really great times." Thomas Pridgen was selected to take over. "He's a f**king monster," said Rodriguez-Lopez. "I was told he was like Jon, but on coke. He's the perfect fit." But not for long.

Dabbling in the occult rarely works. Maybe there is something to it or just a coincidence, but either way, stuff happens. The Mars Volta's experience began in '06 while on tour with the Red Hot Chili Peppers. In Jerusalem, Rodriguez-Lopez purchased an archaic Ouija-type talking board as a gift for Bixler-Zavala. But soon the band was playing with the board, dubbed "The Soothsayer," following almost every show. Three people appeared (through the board) in a single form, referred to as "Goliath," who told stories and made demands. Then things went sideways.

Drummer Deantoni Parks quit mid-tour due to financial troubles and Bixler-Zavala required foot surgery because of the shoes he was wearing. Back in the studio, the band's bad luck continued. Audio tracks often just disappeared from computer drives; the album's engineer suffered a nervous breakdown and had to bail - leaving no notes on where anything was (finished tracks, alternate takes and mixes); and Rodriguez-Lopez's home studio suffered power outages before it flooded. Enough was enough. Rodriguez-Lopez eventually took "The Soothsayer" and buried it at an undisclosed location. Band members were asked not to speak of it during the remainder of the album's production.

The appropriately named, "Bedlam In Goliath," released in early '08, contained "Wax Simulacra," the album's first single.

In a move to appeal to serious Mars Volta fans, the full "Bedlam In Goliath" album, the "Wax Simulacra" video and preloaded album artwork was available on a USB drive with a memory stick encased in a wooden Ouija board planchette. On the 29th (the album was released on January 29th) of each month through '08 fans got monthly content updates including b-sides, previously unreleased songs, live videos and the Goliath The Soothsayer video game.

The New Yorker suggested the Mars Volta was "perhaps the most musically adventurous act currently signed to a major label." The New Yorker hardly passed as a credible Rock music chronicler but thanks for trying. Then Rolling Stone named the group '08's Best Prog-Rock Band. To top off the accolades, the Mars Volta picked up the '09 Best Hard Rock Performance Grammy for "Wax Simulacra."

Produced by Rodriguez-Lopez, The Mars Volta unfurled their fifth studio album, "Octahedron" in June, '09. An octahedron is a polyhedron with eight faces. A regular octahedron is a Platonic solid composed of eight equilateral triangles, four of which meet at each vertex. By the way, a polyhedron is often defined as a geometric solid with flat faces and straight edges. Oh yeah, that clears it right up.

Could the title be a reference to the band's current line-up? Eight band members interfacing? Nice idea but there were only seven in the band when "Octahedron" was recorded (Bixler-Zavala, Rodriguez-Lopez, "Ikey" Owens, Pridgen, Frusciante, Marcel Rodriguez-Lopez - synthesizer and Juan Alderete De La Pena - bass).

Actually, the album has eight tracks. So there you go.

As the Octahedron tour's North American leg was winding down trouble erupted. A Raleigh (NC) show was cancelled following an argument between Bixler-Zavala and drummer Thomas Pridgen. As a result, Pridgen left the venue, and later, the group "because the singer had a jealous ego trip." Dave Elitch filled in for the remainder of the trek.

Though Rodriguez-Lopez spent most of '10 focused on his solo career, The Mars Volta saw the return of Parks, who was onboard for an '11 tour which included opening for Soundgarden on select dates.

Owens, whose outside projects had forced him to miss shows in Brazil and Chile in '10, was also not part of the '11 tour. When asked, Owens said he had no idea whether he'd be playing on the group's next album. The answer came when (bassist Juan) Alderete announced via Twitter that Owens was no longer with the group since he was busy "producing bands." Both Marcel Rodriguez-Lopez and Lars Stalfors took over the keyboard duties.

The Omar Rodriguez-Lopez Group appeared at SXSW in '11 with Bixler-Zavala handling vocals which led many to assume that the new material was from The Mars Volta's next album. Songs from that tour were later incorporated into The Mars Volta shows with Bixler-Zavala going so far as telling the audience that he was "inviting them to a private rehearsal for their new album".

In interviews, Rodriguez-Lopez stated that '12's "Noctourniquet" was "a simplified version of what we've done before" while Bixler-Zavala referred to the album's 13 tracks as "future Punk."

The Mars Volta Discography


2003 De-Loused In The Comatorium
2005 Frances The Mute
2006 Amputechture
2008 The Bedlam In Goliath
2009 Octahedron
2012 Noctourniquet

A Mars Volta fan once wrote that if you weren't impressed by the group in the first twenty seconds, walk away and don't return. Even though Prog Rock is an acquired taste, the fan has a point. Musical tangents, discordant sounds and riffs bludgeoned until they fall off the table (also a Heavy Metal trait) are the group's calling card. Either you get it or you don't.

The Mars Volta owes a lot to the "throw it all in the pot, stir it up and see what happens" mentality. There are refreshingly energetic Latin rhythms but they are countered by ambient Jazz and soundscapes. The Mars Volta succeeds when they tread on latter day Rush turf with songs "Pisacis" and "Multiple Spouse Wounds" from "Frances The Mute." But just as often they create a confused, and confusing, mish-mash that fails to gel.

It's tempting to describe "Noctourniquet" using the famous Shakespeare quote from Macbeth, "It is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury signifying nothing." That's particularly true of set opener "The Whip Hand." But then, there aren't many Prog Rock groups who would lift a song title from Plato - "Empty Vessels Make The Loudest Sound" - only to turn around and sing about the "pigment of trust."

Bixler-Zavala does a spot-on Jon Anderson (Yes) impersonation before working out his falsetto for "Trinkets Pale Moon." But the best moment comes on "The Malkin Jewel," where Bixler-Zavala unleashes an Alice Cooper sneer.

"Octahedron" has acoustic leanings but the group is quick to point out that this is right in line with their 'mission'. "There's electricity throughout it," says Bixler-Zavala "But that's what our band does-celebrate mutations."

Speaking of which, "Halo Of Nembutals" has Bixler-Zavala striking an intriguing Punk-Ziggy Stardust pose. "Cotopaxi" and "Desperate Graves" get it done with a minimal amount of gratuitous noise or key/tempo changes. The acoustic-oriented material and the usual Mars Volta excursions are fine but these are the essential tracks.

Despite the mystic connotations associated with "Bedlam In Goliath" the bottom line is simple. When the Mars Volta rip into a song they do all right. But when they indulge their theatric inclinations it's tough going as they seemingly celebrate Prog Rock's worst tendencies. Bixler-Zavala's vocals sting when the song is moving forward. Find him in full-on "drama" mode and it's a bit tedious.

"Metatron," the set's best track, "Goliath," Ouroborous" and the surprising mid-tempo "Agadez" have staying power.

All the Mars Volta trademarks are in place on "Amputechture," including extended tracks and overlong guitar noodlings. Pulsating and urgent sonic excursions alternate with airy, dissident rumblings. "Vermicide" actually sounds like a song in parts while "Viscera Eyes" is good in a Yes way. But the bulk of this album, including "Tettagtammaton" and "Day Of The Baphomets," are adventures in noise. "Meccamputechture" is ruined by high pitched vocals that are at least four octaves beyond Getty Lee. "Asilos Magdalena" is beautiful but why buy an album for a Latin flavored acoustic guitar song sung in Spanish?

"De-Loused In The Comatorium," a thematic work built around suicide and the world between the act and eternity, is a dreary set piece.

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