Crate-Digging: The Mars Volta – The Bedlam in Goliath

I have a completely-filled 120 GB iPod classic, the record crate of the digital age, containing my entire music library. I’m listening to each release in alphabetical order by record title – kind of a virtual archaeological dig. These are my findings.

(Universal Distribution, 2008)

The Mars Volta. What a conundrum. They’ve been both reviled and praised in the indie music press, so it’s hard to make out where their legacy stands. I mean, the beginnings are cool, anyway – cue the deep cinematic trailer voice and dramatic incidental music as I recite: “Born from the ashes of Texas punk vets At the Drive-In, The Mars Volta explode from the Earth in a cataclysmic maelstrom of whirling guitar, violent rhythms, and otherworldly shrieks to travel the galaxy in search of new life forms in order to rock their asses.” That’s really how the band’s records should all be introduced. If you’re unfamiliar, think dustbowl hardcore in the vein of Quicksand or Drive Like Jehu meeting the prog excesses of Rush, with the former’s intensity and the latter’s chops, density, and length. I’m not going to stay here too long, telling you that if you like any of these bands you’ll probably like this one, but understanding the completely cosmic left turn these dudes took since their proto/aggro-punk days dumping sand from their boots in the southwestern heat is key to the whole experience. Well, probably.

But as I mention, the reviews are mixed on their output. Whereas At the Drive-In’s albums, particularly their swan song Relationship of Command, generally received positive press, once that band splintered and two distinct camps emerged, it became clearer where strengths and weaknesses lied. Mars Volta sister-group Sparta, retaining 3/5 of ATDI, kept flying the emo-punk flag, and sounded like a more logical progression of sound – although some think that means the wheels were merely spinning. But we’re not here to talk about Sparta. We’re here to talk about the two most visible members of both bands, arguably geniuses, behind the sound if not the direction. Yes sirree, I surely mean the two most famous afros in indie rock, guitarist-visionary Omar Rodriguez-Lopez and singer-siren Cedric Bixler-Zavala. Whereas it became clear following ATDI’s split that the members of Sparta were responsible for reigning in the expansionist tendencies of Rodriguez and Bixler (the hyphenates were added following the split), the creation of The Mars Volta certainly allowed these two to shoot for the stratosphere in their composition and execution.

Where do I stand on them? Shucks. I like them. Sometimes. Other times when they come up on my list I get irritated – I have very little time for them, you know? When an album like The Bedlam in Goliath clocks in at 75 minutes, you really have to invest in it. That’s hard to do with this band, and all their albums are similarly ambitious. It’s also supremely uncool to like them. Now I know that popularity should never sway your decision, but I must warn you that the subset of prog fans, dating from the early 1970s, is by nature a mythology-spouting, D&D-playing, socially awkward, insecure, weird bunch. These are the nerdy and/or bespectacled Tolkien-ites, and, well, Robert Jordan-ites. And you know what? I’m OK with that. That’s a good thing. In fact, I’m nerdy, I’m bespectacled, I like Tolkien. (Jordan, not so much.) I’ll take The Mars Volta as “the new prog.”

The 'fro boys.

Here’s the thing though (and this is why it’s so hard for me to get into the spirit of the band): they make me tired. They wear me out. But it’s not like I can sleep afterward. Oh no, not a wink. Even though The Mars Volta works every muscle into full fatigue, my mind continues to race when the record’s long over. It’s like eating too much sugar or drinking coffee before going to bed. Or, more accurately, I’d say listening to The Mars Volta feels like the onset of a panic attack – your chest tightens, your breath comes faster, you can’t see the end. There’s no let-up. I’m getting freaked out just thinking about it.

It starts fast too – “Aberinkula” bursts as it begins, every player in top form, nothing held back. Bixler-Zavala’s Geddy Lee/Robert Plant/Jon Anderson squeal is just as instrumental as the blazing guitars and polyrhythmic mayhem, cascading like molten glass and liquid nitrogen at once. Funny, then, that all I can think about is Madonna as he sings on the much poppier “Ilyena,” although his voice is much more dynamic (and pretty!) than Madge’s. “Metatron,” like most of the album, finds everybody essentially soloing over each other, like an Old West bar brawl at the center of a supernova, somehow coalescing into a semblance of order. “Wax Simulacra” seethes with punk fury, and even has a punk runtime of 2:38 (I know!). “Goliath” simply rules: huge guitars flat groove, then quiet, culminating in explosions of sound and light like cosmic particles shredding you at a molecular level.

So yeah, I’m going to recommend The Mars Volta, and The Bedlam in Goliath, to you. I recommend it to those who are OK with everything I’ve mentioned above. The band is almost a guilty pleasure, but they’re too talented a band to simply shrug off. And even though there’s a weird sort of exploration of occult themes and civilization’s reaction to them (it is prog, after all), the lyrics are obscured by the delivery, and what sneaks through barely makes sense, if at all. (Bixler-Zavala has never been known as a transparent lyricist.) I think that’s a good thing. The words sound good off the tongue, and that’s important.

Oh crap – what’s that? Feels like palpitations. Gotta lie down.

RIYL: Rush, Yes, King Crimson, Blood Brothers

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