The Mars Volta's
Amputechture, like its more ostensibly thematic predecessors, is a lavish artifact drenched
in the kind of imposing gestural flourish that punks thought they'd long
ago consigned to the gulag. Through vast and magnificently ambiguous
warpings of past heavy-music bombast (Rush,
King Crimson, Deep Purple, Led
Zep, Yes), untidily heaped with the ghost of contemporary classical form
and tonality, avant-jazz screech and especially the trad folk of Latin
America, the Mars Volta pay homage to a time when musicians used all at
their disposal to create the ideal music they heard in their heads.
"Anything and everything from
Stravinsky or Paganini or Var弒e to Augustus Pablo or Lee 'Scratch' Perry
or Roni Size or Autechre," guitarist Omar Rodriguez-Lopez tells me over the
phone from out on the road on one of the L.A.-based band's innumerable
tours (this one opening for longtime mentors the Red Hot Chili Peppers,
whose John Frusciante, a devoted proghead and
electronic-music fan, plays guitar on Amputechture).
The 31-year-old, Puerto Rico-born
Rodriguez-Lopez likes all music 行 or most of it, anyway. "A lot of
electronic music. My biggest influence that could never go away is just
from growing up with [salsa legends] Larry Harlow and Eddie Palmieri and
Pacheco, and the Fania All-Stars, and just the sound of the son in general. And Roy Orbison,
Johnny Cash 行 I guess just every form of music, with the exception of maybe
rap-rockers, or whatever you call that stuff." He laughs.
We've entered an age when the rules are
being rethunk. Music and films that were once considered to be "guilty
pleasures" can now be embraced as legitimate sources of inspiration, simply
by virtue of having been cast adrift from their mooring in the values and
mores of their original time on Earth. History, it would appear, is there
to be used.
In reviving a massive-scaled and resolutely
rococo rock-as-epic-voyage, Mars Volta urge yesterday's avant-gardists to
acknowledge the orthodoxy of their once shockingly bold upheavals. I'm
referring to the steely grip in which minimalism has held us for lo these
past 40-odd years. In zigs and zags, minimalism has urged us out of the
"excess" and "pomp" of '70s art rock, first into disco, then into a paradoxically
pointy-headed era of punk rock and its shiny little sister, new wave, and
on into plaid-shirted and beer-swilling grunge and ironic-T-shirt-wearing
indie rock 行 each of which in its own way hammered us with the dreary
understanding that, lest we forget, Less Is More.
Okay, okay. But minimalism suggested at
least one eventual consequence, which is the dawning of More Is More, Too 行
for the simple reason that more is literally more.
After main dudes Rodriguez-Lopez and
singer-lyricist Cedric Bixler-Zavala had cast off the dogma-dog neck irons
they'd worn as the endlessly touring El Paso punk grunts At the Drive-In,
they took a little breather. And when they emerged, it soon became obvious
that some secret revelation had affected them both deeply. They decided
that, if they were going to continue to play music at all, it had to mean
something to them, and to them alone.
Maybe not so strangely, in springing an old
ploy commonly referred to as "following one's muse," the two found themselves
amassing a formidable following of like-minded spectacle-rock fanatics. The
new devotees, as opposed to laughing at the Mars Volta's lyrically arcane
and heavily '70s-entrenched metal minisymphonies on albums such as De-Loused
in the Comatorium and Frances the Mute, embraced them with hungry delight and zero
apologies to their punk-rock moms and dads. The ground trembled, and a new
consciousness was born.
On Amputechture, produced by Rick Rubin and
Rodriguez-Lopez, there's no central concept per se, yet the overall shape
and comprehensiveness of the sound implies a link underlying the disparate,
tangential stories Bixler-Zavala is telling. He says the album largely
concerns "bilocation," or being in two different places at one time, much
like what the Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie represents to the Jamaicans,
or how Morrissey inspires certain Latinos; Bixler-Zavala got the idea from
the story of the young Romanian woman who was silenced and murdered last
year because she was possessed, an event that was a catalyst for uprisings
across the world.
There are many stories being
told on Amputechture, stories that fall in and out of each other; to
Bixler-Zavala, it's a question of what the reality is. The distortion-laced
slow burn of "Asilos Magdalena" ("Magdalena's Asylum") found inspiration at
the Paramour house in Silver Lake, where Amputechture was recorded; wayward girls
of the '50s found refuge with nuns in that house, and their voices can be
heard in the track's ghostly electronics. The churchy ponderousness of the
opening "Vicarious Atonement" came about from Bixler-Zavala's reading of
theosophist Helena Blavatsky's book Isis Unveiled. "I just like the imagery
that it provides," he says. "You're trying to make up for your sins by
watching someone else go through the punishment; it's the central theme
behind Mexican Catholicism."
aren't the rule; most artists can barely tell you what was on their mind
when they created their best work, and the Mars Volta are no different. "I
just wanted to tie it all in together," says Bixler-Zavala, who's the same
age as Rodriguez-Lopez and is by manner of speech just a regular
TV-watching dude, though that's a bit deceptive. "Kind of like old Outer
Limits or Night
bunch of different stories, but it's the same TV program." Yet determinedly
obscure song titles such as "Day of the Baphomets," "Tetragrammaton" and
"El Ciervo Vulnerado" speak for themselves 行 not. And though they do make
reference to ideas he's culled from Burroughs or shamanism or CNN or, more
often, '70s film and TV 行 or the deaths of friends such as Mars bandmate
Jeremy Ward from a drug overdose in 2003 行 the idea is to give the listener
something to mull over and debate, much as in the halcyon days of album
"There are certain aspects of speaking in
tongues involved in this," says Bixler-Zavala, with a hint of wryness.
"Bu杣el movies and certain Jodorowsky movies, we can identify with them. I
think we live Herzog's Fitzcarraldo on a day-to-day basis 行 you know, the one where
the Amazon tribe drags a huge boat over a hill in the jungle? This band has
been pushing the boat over the hill."
"I really don't understand a lot of what
I've been doing until I have a couple of years away from it," says
Rodriguez-Lopez, seemingly in wonder. "I always feel like doing a record is
a mad frenzy, like a rush to get certain parts executed or certain surface
ideas executed, and there's so much happening beneath the surface."
Which is one explanation for why he prefers
not to think too much about what he's doing in the studio. When he recorded
Bixler-Zavala's vocals, he rarely allowed the singer to do more than one
"I just want to let the intent be there," he
says, "so I just let everything happen according to its feeling."
One would guess that considering their
furiously concentrated compulsion toward their elusive muse, the duo might
be concerned about losing their audience. Not so, says Rodriguez-Lopez.
"We definitely never think about our
audience when we're making music. Our time for thinking about our audience
is playing live, because we're sharing our insides with them. But in terms
music, we treat thinking about an audience as a dagger point at our hearts.
It's never been important before, and it shouldn't be important now."
Which is not to say they're ungrateful for
their rabid, loyal believers. "We definitely enjoy where this is taking
us," he says, "and having a larger fan base now and what it allows us to
do. But we recognize that the most important thing is our intent. It's like
we put horsy blinders on 行 we're just trying to move forward through the
crowd and get to wherever it is we're going."