Tuesday, August 24, 2010

AllMediaReviews Music Essential: THE MARS VOLTA

My history with music and listening to music began when I was little. My parents used to play Don McLean's American Pie to me. But around that time or shortly after, the 80's pop music is what I fell into. The Rocky III Soundtrack (and Survivor's song "The Eye of the Tiger") and Weird Al's In 3D I recall being the very 1st music I ever bought, on cassette tape. And then some of my friends and I got into Huey Lewis and the News, along with my brother's favorite band at the time Duran Duran. Michael Jackson's Thriller and Prince's Purple Rain of course were two other cassette tapes I bought and was into like most people around that time.

I would also enjoy both Friday Night Videos and The Casey Casem Top 40 on Sunday mornings. And even those years I was starting to like The Beatles of course. The very 1st vinyl record I ever bought was Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band in 1987, the same Summer I recall I picked up Rolling Stone's 1967-1987 "100 most influential albums of the last 20 years" issue (the title of the issue may not be exactly that, but loosely similar).

It was also around that time I started playing music in School, from the "Honor Band" at my elementary school and then later the Concert and Jazz Bands in Junior High School. My instrument was trumpet.

But then the Fall of my freshman year of High School something changed when my friends who I rode to school with every morning started playing Led Zeppelin in their car. My interest in Rock Music and I suppose music in general became something significantly different at that point.

I like to think of my taste as being ever expanding and as open-ended and open-minded as I can be. The "Essentials" are artists I consider *essential* to the formation of my personal taste up to this point. These are artists that are all rather significant and made a strong impression on me as a fan of music and things in my life in general.

These are artists whose music seems almost more like religion to me, rather than just something made to listen to recreation-ally. Their music has stood the test of time for me; whether it be still music I listen to frequently to this day, or at least quite frequently for a good period of time within the last 20 years. And it holds a very strong sense of nostalgia and memory to me, that it's significant for my life.

If I were creating some kind of dream festival, I would be in awe to put any 5 or 10 of these "essentials" on the same bill.

Following the completion of this series of artists, I shall give a list of artists that may be featured in the next series. In other words, the so-called "honorable mention" or "just missing the cut" this time around, that very well may be included in the near future.

The Mars Volta

Their name I 1st saw when I recall seeing it show up on some of the Dream Theater and progressive rock-related forums in 2003, not too long after the release of their debut record De-Loused In the Comatorium. Some people called them a punk-prog band initially. Some called them a new kind of "prog metal." I remember checking them out initially and liking a lot about them. For one, their singer Cedric Bixler-Zavala had a higher-pitched voice that reminded me of singers like Jon Anderson and especially Geddy Lee to a point. But they also had these layers of tracks in their music. Guitar tracks, a lot of percussion, and even some piano and keys. The 2nd track on their debut album "Interiatic ESP" really sounded proggy, and it was funny how even though I liked them, I was kind of shy about it, and their fan base. They didn't sound like Marillion or Dream Theater, or even Spock's Beard. But they were prog somehow still. It was kind of chaotic and also energetic at the same time. The guitar lines were, and later a comparison to Led Zeppelin I saw, and the more I listened to them and their subsequent work, the more that comparison along with comparisons to Carlos Santana made a lot of sense, just from a reminding and vague approach to blues influence and their live shows.

But a big part of the experience of becoming a fan of them was their background and fans background. Of course singer Cedric Bixler-Zavala and guitarist Omar Rodriguez-Lopez were pretty much The Mars Volta, but they had been in a previous band called At the Drive-In along with 2 other musicians before breaking off. The other two went on to form Sparta, a band who I don't recall thinking all that much of, but the truth is, I never spent a ton time listening to in fact. But At the Drive-In as non-typical as I came to learn they were, and also how they had a devoted, hardcore fan base, were still stylistically a punk band. And punk, especially at that point, I was repulsed by for the most part. I did enjoy The Ramones and The Clash, and yes even The Sex Pistols for a brief period in High School. And someone like Elvis Costello I respected and have since come to enjoy a bit of. But overall, punk is a very low % for me. But as it turned out, ATDI were not so typical for punk, and more a crossover of punk with latin and even some psychedelic influences. They even once covered a Pink Floyd tune, which in some circles, would be rather anti-punk to do.

So with TMV, Cedric and Omar did desire to do something different, obviously than ATDI, but inevitably their sound still included some of that raw, punk edge to it. And their fan base of course had a lot of punk ties still. A lot of younger kids were into punk, into ATDI and thus (at least a percentage) became into TMV.

So, their sound was frankly, a lot different than any of the other music I enjoyed, even with the Zeppelin and Santana comparisons. I saw them live in the Fall of 2003, in fact the same evening the Minnesota Gophers football team blew a 35-14 lead to Michigan in the 4th quarter, on a special Friday night game. I remember driving home from the concert hearing them meltdown.

That show at The Quest was frankly, almost pure noise. It was just jam after jam really, with almost no structure. And while I still remained a fan, I saw them a bit differently live.

I did enjoy De-Loused still around that time and the Tremulant EP as well, which after getting into them, I found that to be more interesting. it was rather unstructured as well, but I just remember being into them and really
liking it then. Sadly, I have not revisited it in many years for some reason.

Then in early 2005, their new album Frances the Mute was released, and I kind of saw them going to a new level. It was different, full of long sections, but I ultimately felt were worth going through for the climaxes on a few of the songs. They were some of the best builds and huge segues I'd ever heard before. They used more latin and jazz elements namely. Even I felt as unorthodox the vocal effects Cedric used at times, they still worked with the whole 77 minute record. When the album came out, Mike Portnoy of Dream Theater posted one of his "Heroes of the Day" about the album and band, and the comparison he made to Yes's Tales From Topographic Oceans really made sense, and still makes sense. Even though structurally, FTM was different in that it didn't have exactly four 20 minute songs, but what Tales and FTM share among many things, were how much of the album seemed to take you on a/the cliche-d "journey" or maybe simply put, the songs were unpredictable and seemed to roller-coaster with many different moods, colors, flavors, emotions and other ranges of ideas. That I found it to be why it worked even more than De-Loused did. Although over time, I did find a lot of the length-ly slow sections killed my ability to get addicted to it, and I felt by the end of the year, it would easily been the best or my favorite record and album-of-the-year for 2005, but the lack of addiction prevented that.

But it still was very forward-thinking, original, influential and a really good next direction for them that had my optimism for what they would do next.

Of course, that optimism can be hurt by lack of fulfillment. Which is a lot of what I felt about their next album 2006's Amputechture which would be their original drummer Jon Theodore's last. Simply put, the album had a ton of filler in it, and more or less what worked with FTM, did not so much with AMP. They continued with the epics of course on it, but many of the sections seemed to be repeated chord progressions and in similar keys. Cedric's vocals frankly, were not as good. He seemed more nasal or whiny in some ways. I suppose at that point, I was getting into a lot of bands into more song-oriented music, dredg, Pure Reason Revolution namely, that the filler stood out more in a negative way on this album. I always struggled with it, although some years later now, I'm not sure if I shouldn't try and re-assess it for a 3rd or 4th time again.

Their next album, The Bedlam in Goliath from 2008, didn't have any 13+ minute epics on it, and so I was kind of optimistic again when it came out, thinking that AMP was just a bump in the road for what I thought of as progressive rock's proof that it can be commercial, viable, known etc. And they had this new drummer named Thomas Pridgen who was a prodigy in jazz. His youtube videos made him look like he could play circles around Jon Theodore. And he very well could. However, on this album, his drums, namely with the cymbals, it didn't really matter how impressive the playing was, because what I have come to call 4C Syndrome. This was the album that really reeked the most of it, and I could not stand listening to it. Although, it wasn't the only thing I found wrong with it. The production and layers seem overdone. The production was too hot. The good parts of it got totally ruined by the 4C and what sounded at times like overindulgence/overlayered/overproduced, in tracks in the studio.

It's sad, because in a lot of ways, they fixed or went away from what was wrong with AMP. There weren't a ton of extended or pointless sections, and in fact there was at least a reasonable amount of varied sounds and kinds of songs, including some new kinds of things like on "Ouroboros" for example. But it just didn't matter. Live, I never caught them on that tour, and didn't make an effort to check out some of the live recordings and videos to know how much better the songs came across.

It also was clear that along with all the solo and side projects that Omar Rodriguez-Lopez did, it seemed like he and the band were more into or at least satisfied with quantity. At least given how much work they put out and odds are how little time they spent refining their music. They used a producer on their 1st 2 albums I recall; Rick Rubin on De-Loused, but now they more or less were not taking any outside voices. A bit like Dream Theater. And I'd say it showed in the finished results.

So when they announced they had a new album coming out in 2009 called Octahedron, it was more or less an afterthought to me. Even though it was billed as an acoustic-type album. I was just not going to be all that enthusiastic about them and it. Their 5th album in 6 years.

And in 2009, I did listen to it and kind of considered it okay, but not really something I needed to go out and buy anytime soon. But come the end of the year, in revisiting it, I enjoyed it a bit more. And with that, I've come to hold a little more optimism about them. Sure, they will do their own thing and they will continue to put out more material than I'd prefer instead of demo-ing and re-working and refining, that may lead them back to the level they were at with De-Loused and Frances. But with lower expectations, anything better than their last work is gravy and fine by me.

They still are the face of progressive rock now, and a new breed or style, and for that I will always be a fan and regard them as important. And who knows, perhaps one day they will grab me as much if not more than they did when I 1st got into them. They certainly have enough ambition and talent to do so.

Albums: Frances the Mute, De-Loused in the Comatorium, Octahedron
Songs: Inertiatic ESP, Cassandra Gemini, Viscera Eyes, Televators, L'via L'Viaquez, Cygnus...Vismund Cygnus, Ourboros, Copernicus