Bluefat Archive April 2005

Fear of an Electric Planet

Punk rock started in 1976. It’s almost 30 years later, and you know something? Some of us don’t want to pay our hard-earned bread to see a buncha yobbos in T-shirts drinking beer onstage and grinning like regular joes as they play the same three chords, in roughly the same progressions, as any beginning guitar player. Sometimes, we want a bit more. A bit more proficiency, a bit of ambition, some exploration. Maybe even some grandeur. POMP. Spectacle.

Perhaps it’s the Mars Volta (and their sillier corollary, The Darkness) who’ll bring that awestruck feeling back to the masses. Perhaps not — perhaps it really is too late to erect the wall again. But let’s just suppose…which is just what guitarist/composer Omar A. Rodriguez-Lopez does on his band’s Frances the Mute, the new Mars Volta disc. It’s a concept album, about what exactly I couldn’t tell you, and I think the band likes it that way. Some of it supposedly concerns itself with AIDS — perfect metaphorical stuff for these guys, allowing for an extremely inconclusively worded multipart song cycle in five sections, spread out over what must be the full 74 minutes a CD can hold. They give their pieces names like “Cygnus…Vismund Cygnus” and “Miranda That Ghost Just Isn’t Holy Anymore,” with sections entitled “Vade Mecum,” “Pour Another Icepick” and, need you ask, “Pisacis (Phra-Men-Ma).” Lyrically, unlike musically, it’s what’s between the lines that attempts to speak volumes.

Musically, though, it’s everything under the prog sun, times 50. It’s Yes. It’s Rush. Mahogany Rush, too. It’s Metallica. It’s Crimson. It’s Neu. Perhaps more than anything, it’s Pink Floyd circa Umma Gumma and Atom Heart Mother. It’s pretentious as hell, and clearly, that’s the precise, full-on point. On the surface you hear a lot of seriously impassioned, gonad-grabbing ’70s-rock wails, and very well sung, too, by Cedric Bixler Zavala. Interestingly, Zavala’s insistent caterwauling about a jillion tiny obscurities and moods and atmospheres and smells and prickly feelings and cobwebs and the moon and disease and so on doesn’t wear on you. That says something. Maybe it’s ‘cause he gives the impression that he’s telling a story, and ‘cause Rodriguez-Lopez’s music is so varied and surprising: metallic staccato juggernauts of drums/guitars/bass, liberally laced with ’70s Brit-jazz (Soft Machine) horns, violas, ‘trons and, significantly, huge portions of Mexican and Cuban musical shades and styles.

It’s when they let these Latin sections or dolorous prog-jazz weirdness sections go on for such a loooong time that you sense a kind of integrity and seriousness of purpose about the Mars Volta. What’s really interesting is that neither these extended non-typically-rocking passages or the inevitable returns to heavy-band machine gun carnage seem to blur interest. (That is, if you’re someone who actually likes to sit and listen to albums all the way through, like a lot of the original progressive rock records of the early ‘70s allowed for and encouraged.) To say that this music is “overplayed” — a common complaint about MV from critics who sealed their punk rock- and/or minimalism-inspired minds back in the ‘80s — is way beside the point; this is maximalism, and it’s supposed to dominate your body and mind, splatter your face, then melt back down in a big puddle, into which you can gaze and see a reflection of yourself…I’d argue that its proper reception will depend on how you much sleep you got, how much of the good stuff you imbibed/smoked, and –– more importantly –– how young you are. Because, technically speaking, it’s working with your levels of testosterone or ovum.

These rather amazing quagmires of sound were most fortunate to be crafted by an obsessive weirdo like Omar A. Rodriguez-Lopez, someone who is just consumed with his vision, and the moral of the story is that, actually, in rock, any kind of obsession is where it’s at, no matter the “pretension” of the outcome. Surely we’ve all realized by now that one never really says anything in “rock” music by holding back one’s real impulses; not holding back — and risking ridicule — that means being honest, just as “honest” as Bruce Springsteen.

Well, no need to defend it, I don’t think. But here’s another moral to the story: Without a doubt, a younger generation of musicians in recent years have radically upped the ante, as players, songwriters and real musical imaginers. The Mars Volta are 100 times the band that Metallica ever was, not just technically but in the realm of artistic ambition. There is something undeniably thrilling about any group of young musicians who are so focused on what they’re doing, so into it, and you’re hearing it and grasping that what they’ve accomplished has taken an enormous amount of work — discipline — and they’re carrying it out with precision and guts. That the Mars Volta play the fuck out of these well-constructed and amazingly shaded pieces is just plain inspiring.

You hear a lot of “serious” musicians going on about the importance of paying attention to the space between the notes. Fact is, some music depends a lot on cramming in every note you’ve ever heard, in a desperate, obsessive, mad rush. The Mars Volta, like other young musicians, shouldn’t worry too much about the space between notes. At this point, they do what they do because, sounds like, it’s what they were put here on Earth to do. Which gives us the opportunity to say, “Whew. The fuck was that?”

Read "Over the Hills Far Away –– The Mars Volta's burden of dreams" (2006) in Bluefat Archive.