The Mars Volta have always been something of a mythical beast within the realm of popular music — a strange hybrid being that could never comfortably be defined without due caution and a heavy-handed abuse of caveats.
It had its very foundations with all of the trappings and birthright of a supergroup — the founding members had come from the cataclysmic split of an already pretty successful outfit in At The Drive In, amongst others — but it never quite lumbered with that burden to weigh it down like so many do: never quite living up to the hype or excitement of their parent.
It was very much hard rock music, but you couldn’t comfortably place it there. There was far too much else going on, especially as time wore on. Prog? Latin? Art Rock? Experimental? Electronic? Check to all of them. Where rock music is inarguably usually pretty simplistic, stylistically speaking, TMV’s approach to creating textural soundscapes was baked right into their DNA and left them in a place cut far adrift from their contemporaries. Hell, I struggle to think of any other band with a member in charge of “sound manipulation” on their roster as a fundamental piece of the puzzle.
But if they’re not hard rock, what are they? Not not hard rock. Therein lies one of the litany of paradoxes inherent in The Mars Volta lore — they are as much what they aren’t as what they are.
When you’re listening to one of their records, you’re not so much just listening to music, you’re actively engaging with a full-blown artistic voyage carried through sonic manipulation. You’re forced to cross over into another place beyond mere listening; the textures jump out of the speakers and plunge their tendrils into you as if to say, “Hey kid, you’re mine now.”
I guess it’s only fitting, then, that these works would be being treated to meticulous remastering ahead of their release as part of an 18-LP collection, La Realidad de Los Sueños (The Reality of Dreams). Along with a significant wealth of other items, the set features previously unreleased material recorded during the De-Loused sessions (titled Landscape Tantrums), and is the most complete overview of the band’s output to date.
In light of the impending release, let’s take a look at what is in store for us.
Most would expect the story to start with De-Loused in The Comatorium, but that’s not quite on the money. Before that, the band released a 3-track EP, Tremulant. Although brief, it served as a spiritual introduction to the story of Cerpin Taxt explored on De-Loused – and more tantalisingly – (allegedly) as a condemnation of former bandmate Ben Rodriquez’s role in Julio Venegas’ suicide (the inspiration behind the character in question). It also serves as the bridge that’s really necessary to cross to transition between Relationship of Command and De-Loused.
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It has all of the sharp, stabbing aggression present on the former from Bixler-Zavala’s howls and Rodríguez-López’s frantic riff blasts, but accompanies it with a new verve thanks to the fresh blood they found themselves playing with (and, in no small part, thanks to Jeremy Michael Ward’s contributions as a Sonic Manipulator). In many ways, it feels much more pointed and focused than anything that it had grown from; it feels lighter. But just as with anything in TMV lore, it isn’t quite as simple as that.
The album runs in at 19:29 – a surprisingly heavy play time for a 3-song EP. As you listen to it, you do begin to understand why, though. Both “Cut That City” and “Eunuch Provocateur” are rife the members throwing off the shackles, saying “fuck it”, and swinging for the fences in a haze of improvisational not-quite-jazz something in a way that would become hallmark for the band’s sound for the next decade.
See? Paradox. I’m not sure how you can make what is essentially a not insignificant amount of time of quasi-jazz jam seem focused and hold quintessence to a burgeoning band’s sound, but hey, the fact I’m writing about it some two decades later implies it worked with some significance.
Then we move forward to where you actually expected me to start: the band’s debut LP.
Let’s be honest, De-Loused will always be the high water mark for what the band came to be: it was attempting to do what subsequent releases really weren’t, and that is dealing with a very real grief and attempting to make sense of the gradual descent into madness. That almost compulsive need to tell a story – to relay the slip from reality experienced by the protagonist, Cerpin Taxt – elevated the record to a place that a lot of people identified with in a very intimate way. It’s hard to argue with the results; hundreds of thousands of units sold, critical acclaim, and for many, a body of songs that quickly became the definitive TMV album.
In a lot of ways, the narrative is somewhat secondary to what is going on here. Ultimately, that’s just a vehicle to propel the sound forward to new and interesting places. Hell, after nearly two decades of listening, some of Cedric’s vocals come across as total gibberish – and I know the lyrics. Does it matter? There’s about 841 other things going on at any one time, so your brain doesn’t even really get a chance to try to process what is being said in the first place. Aside from the solitary ‘slow’ song that’s slotted in to give you respite once you’re underway, “Televators,” you’re not exactly about to get a whole lot of time to take a breather on this record… and that’s 45 minutes into the affair. Strap in.
I’ve always liked to look at the way this record sounds as something like the way that artists painted with oils during the Renascence; pushed very nearly to the threshold of cacophony and chaos, dangled over the edge as if to threaten absolute disaster, but never actually let go. It’s admirable. For that reason, I’m intensely interested to hear the subtle textual changes that have no doubt emerged from two decades of advancements with audio mastering techniques. I’m even more interested to hear what we didn’t get to hear the first time around – a hallmark of this collection.
By the time the band rolled out Frances The Mute, they had become something of a critical moment in the scene. They’d even breached the mainstream – “The Widow” and “L’Via L’Viaquez” saw pretty significant penetration into commercial spaces in a way that was totally unexpected, to the point they’d even featured in big-name commercials and games and TV. It also saw huge success on the charts in a way that its predecessor could only have dreamed of, storming well into the upper echelons and playing with the big dogs in a way that genuinely legitimised the whole operation. It seemed like they could only go from strength to strength and keep rising into the musical mainstream while not having to give up who they fundamentally were.
And then they just sort of… didn’t. At least, not critically.
The subsequent releases – Amputechture, The Bedlam in Goliath, and Octahedron all saw relatively lukewarm critical success, which in a way is a shame really. By this point, they’d reached sonic maturity in a way that afforded them focus that wasn’t necessarily apparent on the first two outings; the attack and assault had become much more effectively weaponised – instead of being dealt out in stochastic sprays like a child trying to extract the last bits from a ketchup bottle, they became tighter, more succinct, and delivered with much more purpose and intention.
Much of that focus arises from what would ultimately prove to be the catalyst for the downfall of the group: the projects that the main cast were dabbling in on the sidelines. Much of Cedric’s and Omar’s energy was being devoted to Omar’s prodigious solo output under the various guises of the Omar Rodriguez Lopez Group, exploring the full range of what was possible sonically beyond the confines of what The Mars Volta afforded them. Ikey Owens created the project Free Moral Agents for largely the same purpose. The ability to experiment in a manner that was free of the shackles of expectation helped them grow.
I remember the first listen that I gave The Bedlam in Goliath, I actually told my friend how much I enjoyed it. I was met with a rather cold, “… why?” that seemed to come to typify much of the fanbase that latched on early. It wasn’t that the band was producing bad work, it was just that it was producing work that was for all intents quite different to where it began. It evolved. I suppose to some, that growth was jarring – especially with how sonically bombastic they already were.
Noctourniquet was received somewhat more dutifully, but it spelled the final in a long line of death knells for the group. The implosion was imminent, and by the time the subsequent tour was over, the band that had risen so fiercely had collapsed like so many dying suns.
With the power of hindsight and the graces of updated production delivered on La Realidad de Los Sueños, perhaps the critical consensus will be kinder to the latter works in the way they deserve. After all, what the band was trying to do was never conventional – a paradox trying to be tamed by reason and convention. Too strange to live, too rare to die.
Feature Article by Benji Alldridge
THE MARS VOLTA
Cedric Bixler Zavala | vocals
Omar Rodríguez-Lopéz | guitars
La Realidad de Los Sueños, out April 23rd via Clouds Hill
Pre-Save it here