I couldn’t quite pull myself away from Omar Rodriguez-Lopez’s music during these past few days. The Mars Volta is by far his most elaborate project and I’ve loved this band from the very first time I heard them, so I figured this day is as good as any to write about one of their albums.
Apparently, during the ’90s, At the Drive-In was quite a big thing. I wouldn’t know, I guess their popularity hadn’t extended so far as to reach Romania at the time. In any case, Omar Rodriguez-Lopez’s first band was a total mystery to me until I started reading up on The Mars Volta and its band members’ histories. And it’s a good thing I did, the added knowledge made quite an impression on me. Listening to At the Drive-In, I’m left mostly unimpressed. It’s a hardcore band, pure and simple, which isn’t a bad thing, it’s just not my cup of tea. When the band split, due to Omar and Cedric’s (the vocalist from The Mars Volta) decision to take their music into a new direction, the remaining members formed Sparta, and I listened to them too, and I have to confess I’m left even less impressed than I was by At the Drive-In. I can’t believe the wealth of influence and musical ability Omar and Cedric were holding back until The Mars Volta burst forth. Their first full-fledged album was an orgy of sound, powerful, in love with itself, complicated and dizzying. By the time they’d issued Amputechture, they were in full control of their “voice” and ability, and taking strides deep into territory which hadn’t been explored since the seventies.
Allow me to explain myself. There’s this whole thing going around with music fans, a sort-of unspoken battle between the banners of “non-pretentiousness” and those of “pretentiousness”. I find the conflict to be quite anachronistic, reminiscent of the great punk vs. prog-rock succession of the late seventies. Punks were fed up with the thirty minute rock sonatas and such, and they needed to tear the whole thing down. I understand that, it was necessary and it did pop music a great favor. To keep this feud going in the name of some aesthetic principle is, however, silly, in my opinion. The Mars Volta are very often accused of self-indulgence and pretentiousness, of not knowing when to end a song and how to dose their riffs throughout one, and all sorts of other transgressions to the purity of musical expression as seen by people who somehow get bored after ten minutes of complexity but manage to stay satisfied after ten albums of the same four chords repeated over and over, with interchangeable lyrics. I’m not saying The Mars Volta aren’t one of the most self-indulgent bands out there, I’m saying that’s not a crime, and there’s room for everyone.
Ok, getting that huge digression out of my system was like eliminating a kidney stone. I promise I’ll try to keep the political ramblings to a minimum from now on. Back to Amputechture. As I was saying, at this point, The Mars Volta had built quite a name for themselves, quite a following and an impressive live act. Considering the fact that they had made a huge splash from their first album, I had always feared they’d burn out somehow, they wouldn’t be able to live up to the expectation. Fortunately, Omar’s compositions exhibit coherence not only within albums but across them. His vision has an overarching quality which not only allowed The Mars Volta to live up to “De-loused in the comatorium” but constantly up the stakes and elevate their music to new levels on each successive release (up until Octahedron, which is a different animal altogether).
The band has always had a way of creating a completely hallucinatory mood, a fluid, tripped-out sound which offers very few footholds and distorts perception with unrelenting fierceness. It has to do with the lush instrumentation, with Omar’s disjointed, shambling solos flirting with dissonance in a way no other guitarist I know has achieved save for Jimi Hendrix, or maybe David Gilmour on the early Pink Floyd records, with Cedric’s soaring and convoluted vocals and the complete fearlessness the whole outfit exhibits towards experimenting with their equipment and the song structures. For example, Amputechture is built in such a way that songs end very abruptly, “amputated” as to create a feeling of loss on the one hand and of anticipation, akin to the famous “ghost limb” phenomenon amputees sometimes suffer, on the other hand (excuse the puns). That says a lot to me about the way The Mars Volta perceive their work and how they choose to package it for the listener. They’re a band who treat albums as more than collections of songs, obviously. They treat them as whole offerings, built that way and meant to be absorbed that way. Famously, they reject pauses between songs, to drive this idea home, although not on Amputechture, since they use the “amputated song” idea instead.
In any case, the music is formidably satisfying, meaty. Unlike their ’70s prog-rock counterparts, The Mars Volta rarely get lost in ballads and slow buildup. There’s a Latin fire animating the whole endeavor, and I dare anyone to challenge the groove their rhythmic section can muster up. The feeling of urgency and speed emanating from some of the songs on this album is exhilarating and I have to say, for a band akin to prog-rock in so many ways, I find their music surprisingly inviting to dance to. Amputechture is a dance in the humid, dangerous, distorted darkness this band summons, catalepsy, crisis, hallucination, possession, the mood approaching the intensity suggested in the Faustian myth. The lyrics are usually pretty much impossible to understand, which adds to the effect of chaotic self-abandon the album weaves. This is music in the dark, panic music, masochistic music, and there are times when I simply can’t get enough. And all of this is counterbalanced quite effectively by the slower tunes, which, while toning down the barrage of rhythm, manage to maintain the same eerie mood, and end up acting like enhancers (pun intended).
The Mars Volta isn’t a band to be browsed through, it isn’t a band likely to issue “best of” records, which I realize puts me in an awkward position concerning my recommendations at the end… Perhaps that’s why I finally decided to settle on Amputechture – it’s the one album where the song flow isn’t uninterrupted from beginning to end. So, here are my two recommendations off the record. I’m not sure if I managed to wet anyone’s appetite for the whole thing, and I apologize if I rambled on for too long. It’s just that it’s really hard to be concise when dealing with such a… baroque band, shall we say. See you tomorrow.