The Mars Volta
Tim Miller 14/03/2008
It's a tricky thing, reinventing the wheel. The Mars Volta attempt to confront this every time they release a new record, and then there's always, always the small tag of 'ex-At The Drive-In' to shift. Their music divides fans as well as critics; one man's precocious is another's pretentious, and it contrives to inspire and irritate, excite and exasperate in equal measures. Their third album, 2006's Amputechture, was their most obscure to date, almost obnoxiously so: a collection of hazy jams and 'normal' songs that casually sprawled past 11 minutes, a demanding listen that the band neglected to tour properly around Europe, never mind the UK. Tonight's show in Brixton, then, the third of three British dates in support of this year's fourth LP The Bedlam in Goliath, has been long, long overdue.
It's also tricky to describe what to expect at a Mars Volta gig to the uninitiated, not least because the uninitiated are likely to have to put up with them for an extended period of time. Tonight starts no differently: although the ticket claims “special guests” are to perform first, the doors have been open an hour by 8:00pm and there's not been a sign of anyone basking in the Academy spotlight. Tellingly, there's only one drum kit on the stage, and the array of Latin percussion, sound manipulating devices and Orange amps only goes to show that Brixton ain't big enough for anyone but the Mars Volta tonight.
Most bands would baulk at the prospect at playing early on in the evening, but it's only 8:15pm when six members of 'The Mars Volta Group'* take to the stage, completed a moment later by the worshipped, big-haired duo that are central to, no, simply are the band: left-handed guitarist and all round conductor Omar Rodriguez-Lopez and gifted vocalist/lyricist Cedric Zavala-Bixler. A wall of noise wells up from the bowels of the ever-murky Brixton sound system, before, suddenly emerging from the screeching maze of effects pedals comes the unmistakable riff of 'Roulette Dares (The Haunt Of)'. The crowd, suitably, goes mad.
*As the album sleeves take pains to point out, 'The Mars Volta' is Cedric Zavala-Bixler and Omar Rodriguez-Lopez. 'The Mars Volta Group' performs the songs live; most of the group also have equally exotic double-barrelled surnames.
Cedric, whose vocal style has come on leap and bounds since those ATD-I days, starts pitch perfect from the opening line, which tonight is the bonkers remark “Transient, jet-lagged, ecto-mimed bison!This is the haunt of Roulette Dares!” Unfortunately, the words are lost in the mix to ears unaccustomed to this sudden onslaught, but the audience know that's what he said anyway. Cedric doesn't look back from then on, lithe, gyrating, cutting shapes across the stage, black of leather jacket, trouser and afro. From soaring vocal lines to wailing falsetto, and even growling the “Because”s required in 'Agadez', the man is truly a frontman tonight, be it one who seems to react only to himself and the various turns taken by the band members, and one who sips a steaming mug of tea towards the end of the night.
The other half of the essential duo that is the Mars Volta is more smartly turned out in a faintly formal suit, but wields his guitar in the opening moments as though Leatherface on a particularly bad morning. When he settles though, it is to dazzle - jerking his body awkwardly while soloing at lightning speed through scales that don't even fucking exist, eyes closed and a half grimace half grin etched across his face - and dictate, holding songs up while drawing from his guitar unearthly sounds
that mash, swirl, shudder and echo all out of recognition. Stupidly gifted technically but spurred on by the attraction of increasingly challenging musical horizons, Omar Rodriguez-Lopez is something of an frustration on record, his role as band director sometimes overwhelming his role as main guitarist. Live, though, he is unleashed and forced to star with his trusty Ibanez alone (sporting, tonight, his own signature model), and relying on the infallible support of the six members of the Mars Volta Group to recreate his visions to the watching audience.
One of those members is Thomas Pridgen, the third drummer to step into the yawning chasm left by Jon Theodore, but the first to cement a full time position behind the kit. Theodore wasn't just a great sticksman, but musically astute - his jaw-dropping rhythms and perplexing time signatures fitted the Mars Volta agenda perfectly, rather than accompanied it, but without ever stealing the limelight. Pridgen, however, is clearly the ideal replacement. Throughout he is all flailing limbs and grinning teeth, insatiable energy released in complex rhythms steeped in jazz traditions, but powerful enough to avoid being swallowed up in the melee; a complete success tonight as the Mars Volta drummer.
Pridgen, and indeed the whole octet, are top-notch from start to finish, and given that the gig lasts a punishing two and three-quarter hours, that's some feat. 165 minutes of music, without pause, without let up for the band or for the crowd. A lot of bands would play that sort of period over two nights, but Omar, Cedric et al turn up and do this at every gig. Pause, for a moment: consider that a generous average song length over the course of a standard rock album might be five minutes. It would take 33 'average' songs to reach 165 minutes, yet, despite now having four full length LPs from which to create a set list, that 165 minutes sees the group play just 10 songs. This gives, perhaps, some inkling of what to expect at a Mara Volta gig, after all.
The band isn't that predisposed to go against the grain with the setlist, either. The Bedlam in Goliath constitutes half of the material: after Led Zeppelin-inspired 'Viscera Eyes' from Amputechture is given an airing early on, the two colossal current singles 'Wax Simulacra' and 'Goliath' feature in tandem, star turns come from 'Ouroborous' and 'Aberinkula', and the gig's surprise package, the stunning 'Agadez', sends the crowd into ascending rapture. (As you may have noticed, the bizarre song names remain on this album). 'Aberinkula', the new album's explosive opener, is preceded by a taunting funky intro, while 'Ouroborous'- a rarity in the Mars Volta catalogue with its singalong interlude - is the crowd's moment of participation.
Bar 'Goliath', however, these live reproductions are largely faithful to the recorded versions, and it's elsewhere that the band go to bring out some of their notorious jams. Notably, the middle section of 'Cygnus…Vismund Cygnus' is gloriously untamed, a convulsing Omar spending many minutes scratching up and down all 24-odd frets of his guitar and waiting, waiting, waiting to bring Cedric back in for the orgasmic release. Their most epic song committed to record, 'Tetragrammaton', is another highlight, but as it is in its natural state already 16 minutes long, it hardly needs extending tonight. Nevertheless, the song's exceptional recreation is a pleasing reminder that the Mars Volta aren't afraid to play what they want, if they want to.
But it's the new live version of 'Drunkship of Lanterns' that really finishes the gig off in style. It's worth pointing out that while Cedric has not long ago been quoted as saying something similar to “Anyone who likes us just for our first album is not a proper fan”, it is songs from that first album De-Loused in the Comatorium that open and close the show. And Drunkship of Lanterns, not particularly the defining moment of their first LP, is the current tour's star attraction, given an extended live makeover that touches close to 25 minutes in length. It begins normally enough, but soon passes into pastures new, an entirely unrecognisable middle section to the song referencing other moments of the Mars Volta's debut and slipping into a cover these ears fail to identify. These jams aren't necessarily about indulging Omar's penchant for guitar noise, however, and Cedric can often be heard weaving improvised lyrics and melodies in between the rest of the band's relentless freaking out. After 20 minutes or so of this jazz-prog-rock fusion so difficult to define, yet positively symbolic of the band's music, Pridgen begins a final tremendous drum roll, again waiting, waiting, waiting before the group explodes together for one final 'Drunkship…' chorus.
The music halts abruptly, the lights stop strobing, and that is the end. No encore, though to expect one after two and three quarter hours would be madness. Cedric, mug of tea finished by now, addresses the audience with some parting words whose significance fail to penetrate the immediate onset of tinnitus, though it sounded possibly like he was bemoaning the Academy's muddy PA system that still remains on the band's third visit here.
It certainly didn't hinder the Mars Volta tonight. Massive songs, massive sound, massive hair, everything about the band and the gig was appropriately rendered to match the new album's buzzword. The story goes that David versus Goliath ended in an unprecedented giant-killing for the little guy, but perhaps it's fitting that there's no support on this tour. A band as good as the Mars Volta live has no match, and this welcome return to the capital is a resounding victory for the eight goliaths on stage.
Roulette Dares (The Haunt Of)
Cygnus… Vismund Cygnus
Drunkship of Lanterns