Deconstructing: The Rise, Demise, And Legacy Of The Mars Volta
I woke up on Thursday, January 24, to find the Mars Volta, an old friend, stone dead and on the slab. By now, anyone with sufficient curiosity has read Cedric Bixler-Zavala’s multi-tweet breakup announcement — the group’s death twitches, as it turns out. Those tweets came only months shy of the 11-year anniversary of the Tremulant EP’s release. Twelve years, six albums, and a single EP seems like a decent body of work and an impressive lifespan, especially in this age of bands forming for a single EP, garnering Internet fame, and then breaking up months or weeks later. Still, I can’t shake the feeling that day marked an untimely death for the Mars Volta. They were a special band that perished too young.
And on further examination, they were diseased almost from the get-go.
Even at the start, the Mars Volta lived a double life — fitting for a band born as a partnership between two Hispanic Americans with hyphenated last names, one born in California and the other Puerto Rico. The often uneasy give-and-take between vocalist Cedric Bixler-Zavala and guitarist Omar Rodriguez-Lopez stretches back to their tenure in post-hardcore darlings At The Drive-In.
Legendary overnight, At The Drive-In’s Relationship Of Command album was mandatory listening for any punk with an eye toward the cutting-edge at the turn of the millennium. Even before legal driving age, I was made aware of its importance at length, courtesy of my school district’s cadre of skaters and skunk-slingers. Even today, ATDI’s brief discography is accepted as superior to the Mars Volta’s. I, on the other hand, find it the inferior liquid precursor to the Mars Volta’s crystalline meth-rush.
One year later, ATDI was no more, and Cedric and Omar were beginning the most productive stretch of their careers, releasing two LPs as dub-reggae outfit De Facto. It’s more correct to call De Facto the true predecessor to the Mars Volta. The Latin and electronic influences in those two De Facto records segued perfectly into the Mars Volta’s demo tape and debut Tremulant EP the following year.
Yet none of those releases gave the slightest hint to what the band’s 2003 debut LP, De-Loused In The Comatorium, would contain. Bixler-Zavala’s first words on the album are “Now I’m lost,” but the Mars Volta sounded remarkably put-together from the start. For such a cerebral record, every song is a banger — rough sketches from the demo tape, “Cicatriz ESP,” and “Roulette Dares (The Haunt Of)” here present themselves as lush epics in the vein of Pink Floyd. Such gems follow “Inertiatic ESP,” which opens the album with a blistering salvo, and precede the surprisingly tender ballad, “Televators.” It even passes the most strident litmus test for a progressive album: Are the interludes and intros worth listening to? They are.
Nothing sounded quite like it. There were other bands dabbling in the same waters, but not in the same way. The blasts of skronking punk guitar perfectly offset long passages of both ambient noise and bits of salsa-rock lifted straight from Santana’s Abraxas. Their bipolar nature worked completely in their favor in 2003. One year earlier, Glassjaw’s Worship And Tribute dabbled with similar ideas, minus the Latin American influence. In contrast, De-Loused skips Tribute’s Faith No More worship and leaps straight to King Crimson (their most important influence — more on this later). This was three years before Mastodon did the same. Other progressive bands were getting heavier — Porcupine Tree’s In Absentia dwelled in heavy guitar tones and punishing drums the year before — but without the Mars Volta’s disregard for linear structure. De-Loused balances perfectly on the razor’s edge between throwback prog and hardcore, a feat not repeated since by them, or anyone else for that matter.
But De-Loused In The Comatorium shows the first symptoms of the Mars Volta’s premature demise. Such an album is nearly impossible to top, and in some sense, the Mars Volta will go down as victims of their own success. De-Loused was a commercial and critical darling at the start, making year-end lists and selling more than 500,000 copies. In retrospect it’s difficult to imagine any other outcome, considering the album’s roster of guardian angels: Rick Rubin as producer, John Frusciante and Flea of the Red Hot Chilli Peppers as session musicians, and an alternate cover by Storm Thorgerson.
Not that Cedric and Omar didn’t take steps to make their music unpalatable to mainstream listeners. Skronking guitar and meandering songs aside, De-Loused chronicled an obscure storyline about drug-induced comas and psychic combat, the exact details remain vague if only because Bixler-Zavala’s lyrics were threatening and cryptic in equal measure. All these habits returned with greater force in their follow-up album, Frances The Mute.
The Mars Volta’s membership swelled, perhaps to compensate for the loss of Jeremy Michael Ward to an apparent heroin overdose. New members included Paul Hinojos as ‘sound manipulator,’ and Adrián Terrazas-González leading a troupe of woodwinds and brass. At this point the Mars Volta’s musicians became some of the most visible Hispanic and Latin American musicians in popular music, and the music reflected that shift. Frances The Mute touches on salsa, samba rhythms, and for long stretches is sung in Spanish. The Mars Volta’s mixed racial lineup and style became their secret weapon, the thing that really made them stand out from the various other prog-influenced bands that started up between 2003 and 2005. As a music listener of mixed race I felt a powerful kinship to the music — in a county where hispanohablantes are the fastest-growing demographic of people, I cannot be alone.
Frances The Mute, an 80-minute monstrosity, expanded on what De-Loused hinted at, and moved everything further from the mainstream. If De-Loused’s concept was difficult, Frances’s was impossible: a quilt of character studies culled from a diary Jeremy Michael Ward found in a repossessed car. Rodriguez-Lopez claims to have composed the album in the same way Miles Davis did Bitches Brew: by providing his musicians with loose sketches and making them play to a metronome, without hearing the rest of the band. Excluding one solid single, “The Widow,” Frances focuses on epic suites exclusively.
The influence of King Crimson overpowered the various classic-rock throwbacks of its predecessor. Adrian’s frequent tenor sax blasts seem lifted directly from “21st Century Schizoid Man.” Two songs, each divided into movements, compose the record’s second half — the endless re-interpretations of “Miranda, That Ghost Just Isn’t Holy Anymore” and “Cassandra Gemini” recall King Crimson’s incessant re-workings of “Larks Tongues In Aspic.”
Almost in spite of itself, however, Frances more than delivered on the promise of De-Loused. Unlike the elusive prog giants that inspired it, Frances refuses to become suitable background music. The single edit of “L’Via L’Viaquez,” with its John Frusciante solos and infectious main hook, is the closest to Led Zeppelin that the Mars Volta ever came. The improvised song compositions gelled. Even its sprawling, arty closing songs remain coherent.
Of course, the Mars Volta all but refused to play said songs as written. I saw the band open for the Chili Peppers in support of Frances, and they more or less jammed noise for the duration of their 40-minute set. The next year, opening for System Of A Down? Same deal. This was the band’s modus operandi for at least half of its lifespan, as documented by the live Scab Dates record. The extended improvisation offers another possible cause of death: The Mars Volta often seemed to despise being the Mars Volta. Rodriguez-Lopez was quoted in an interview as saying he hated the guitar as an instrument around this time. In the years that followed, the band members each divided their time between the Mars Volta and a menagerie of side-projects.
The Mars Volta’s obese body habitus both detracts from the band’s career and makes any sort of extended discography a complete nightmare. In December of 2005, Omar Rodriguez-Lopez released his second solo record, and embarked on a European tour with a lineup of musicians mostly culled from the Mars Volta. That lineup would eventually become its own separate, more prolific, band. Its outcome? Largely obtuse jazz-rock, composed via improvisation and created in the Mars Volta’s tour bus. Which begs the question: how often were live the Mars Volta shows actually Omar Rodriguez-Lopez Group band practices incognito? Posts on the progressive fan boards have insinuated as much, citing similarities between TMV bootlegs and ORLG albums. Omar has released multiple solo recordings, from singles to records, per year since 2005. In that same time Omar’s younger brothers, Marcel, the Mars Volta’s keyboardist, Marfred and Ricardo worked on their project, Zechs Marquise, which often opened for ORLG. BY 2011, even Terrazas-Gonzáles was exploring other fields, jamming with guitar virtuosos Tosin Abasi as TRAM. More recently, the ORLG’s lineup solidified with Teri Gender Bender from Le Butcherettes as Bosnian Rainbows — whom Bixler-Zavala explicitly listed as the last nail in the Mars Volta’s coffin.
This entire time, the Mars Volta was locked into a strict two-year cycle of touring and record production. Their subsequent records, through critically acclaimed upon release (mostly) failed to expand the Mars Volta’s fan base or reputation. Some of the blame probably falls on their third record, Amputechture. Despite containing maybe the band’s strongest single song — “Day Of The Baphomets” — it’s probably their weakest record, as long as Frances but without that record’s coherence. Even the band’s fans often rag on their post-Frances work, but two-thirds of the group’s studio output falls into that time period, and every one of their albums contains at least a single song worth listening to. 2008’s The Bedlam In Goliath marked a return to shorter guitar-based songs and probably equals their first two LPs in quality, if not creativity.
It is unfair to the band, however, to place full blame on their own shoulders. The Mars Volta may have lost focus and overworked itself, but the musical landscape of 2008 was very different from 2003, and not to the Mars Volta’s advantage. The post-hardcore scene they grew out of had cooled in a dramatic way, leaving the band to draw in new listeners from no set demographic — a tall feat for a band with an ungainly live show and increasing critical disapproval. Consider: By 2008 Pitchfork was a critical powerhouse, and perhaps no other media outlet had been so committed to panning each and every the Mars Volta release (of the band’s 2003-2008 output reviewed on the site — four studio LPs and one live album — the average score is 3.6). Since De-Loused, progressive rock music had made a surprising return to commercial viability, which meant the Mars Volta’s schtick was no longer unique. The “new prog” might as well have been in a Facebook-official relationship with the heavy metal scene. The Mars Volta’s stiffest competition — Opeth, Mastodon, Meshuggah, Between the Buried and Me — all had the machinery of the heavy music industry to sustain them with a constant stream of new listeners. And all of their discographies were, at that point, just about critically perfect.
Perhaps the Mars Volta could have capitalized on the prog-metal affair by releasing heavier and more abrasive material, the return to De-Loused that their fans openly craved. Instead, they grew quieter, and more sentimental. 2009’s Octahedron lounged and purred with soothing if unremarkable songs for 50 minutes, practically an EP’s worth of material for a band that regularly broke the hour mark. The band shed members at a rapid rate: neither Terrazas-Gonzales nor Hinojos performed on Octahedron. One year later, keyboardist Ikey Owens departed as well. A band once defined by layers of exogenous sound boiled down to a more rock-based essence. It came as little surprise that At The Drive-In reformed after the Mars Volta’s most raw and stripped record, but Omar and Cedric left the heaviness with ATDI.
Their swansong, last year’s Noctourniquet, is as close to an acoustic album as we will ever hear from the Mars Volta. Rodriguez-Lopez abandoned his ‘gun-to-the-head’ recording strategy for the first time since De-Loused. The drums patter like distant rain, soft synthesizers streak the sound, reminiscent of the non-singles on Peter Gabriel’s So. Only two of its tracks break the six-minute mark. Had the Mars Volta continued, they may have hit a pop breakthrough the way Genesis did, by focusing on their always-stellar ballads and cramming all their prog sensibility into short, lovable tunes.
But I can’t imagine an alternate universe where a group with such diverse interests and goals creates music as unified as “I Can’t Dance,” no matter how many members it sheds.
This is what we’re left with: one of the rare bands with no real comparable peers or similar artists to cross-list on last.FM. If you put the Mars Volta into a Pandora station, inevitably you get hours of material from their side projects, some classic prog, and unlistenable drivel from off-the-wall groups nobody ever cared for. And At The Drive-In. As much as people may make of the group’s in-fighting and Bixler-Zavala’s uncouth Twitter breakup announcement, my diagnosis is that nostalgia did the Mars Volta in. In a decade where prog became shorthand for an eclectic style of songwriting from the ’70s, the Mars Volta were a truly forward-thinking band, often to their detriment. The first man through the door is often the first man shot, as the old saying goes. Or, to be biological, it’s survival of the fittest, not the most unique, and even at the peak of their powers, the Mars Volta never fit. Not into any particular scene, not into a single group. Not even into their own band dynamic.