Music Reviews

The Mars Volta

De-loused In The Comatorium


Before we begin in earnest, let me note that this is not an easy album to categorize, let alone dissect in the manner typical of record reviews. “De-Loused in the Comatorium” is the sort of album that takes many, many a listen to fully digest, and I feel like I’m still peeling back layers, even now. Perhaps it’s easiest to simply say that it’s complex, and a tad bit dense, and leave it at that. But, since we’re trying to write a review here, let’s try to delve a little deeper…

For those unfamiliar with recent indie rock history, The Mars Volta is the brainchild of Cedric Bixler and Omar Rodriguez-Lopez of the famed emo-punk-postrock fortress once known as At The Drive-In. Much to the despair of many long-time fans, ATDI went on indefinite hiatus (see also: “it’s over”) after the release of 2001’s much-heralded Relationship of Command, but emerging from the wreckage are two new bands: The Mars Volta (the topic of our little conversation here) and Sparta (who released a great little emo pop album called The Wiretap Scars a few months ago). Creative differences, no doubt. And if so, it’s plain to see who had the differences, because Sparta sounds much closer in both aesthetic and execution to the late ATDI. The Mars Volta, on the other hand, is more divergent, experimental, and relies much less on the formulaic emo-rock tendencies that we’ve all come to know and love. Is this bad? Well, no. But it’s certainly different from what many of us were expecting.

Of course, TMV wouldn’t be who they are without their inheritances from What-Has-Come-Before: present still are the vocabulary-challenging stream-of-consciousness lyrics, the epic sense of urgency in the music, and the characteristic spastic freak-outs seemingly inserted at mid-chorus. On certain tracks, like “Roulette Dares”, one can even find themselves temporarily tricked into thinking that they’re listening to an ATDI B-side. For a few seconds, anyway. It’s evident after a few listens that their past and present selves are rooted in the same fundamental sound, but TMV has clearly done some soul-searching since then, and has emerged from their cocoon sporting a newfound fascination with prog, psychedelia, electronics, and freeform jazz as channeled through Led Zeppelin, maybe. De-loused is filled with jammy departures from its founders’ punk rock origins, accented by Latin influences, and drenched in a thick gravy of effects and ambient noise.

So is it better than ATDI? Well, no. At the time of their unfortunate split, At The Drive-In was a band at the top of their game, the best of the best of a genre that they almost sort of re-invented, but at the same time never really fit comfortably into. The Mars Volta is something completely different, honestly incomparable. The proverbial pomegranate to ATDI’s summer squash, the Big Pink to their Juicy Fruit (yeah, it’s that weird). Vocalist Bixler and Mastermind/guitarist Rodriguez-Lopez are not trying to retread the same steps here. In fact, at times, it even feels like they’re going out of their way to avoid them. If you’re looking for another Relationship of Command, this is definitely not it. Try Sparta, maybe, a few albums from now – if they’re lucky. But that doesn’t mean it’s not great; it’s just not ATDI.

Although the ex-ATDI guys make up a significant portion of the talent here (no to mention guest spots from certain members of the Red Hot Chilli Peppers), don’t underestimate the contributions from their lesser-known bandmates. Late, lamented Jeremy Michael Ward (co-conspirator with Bixler in his side project, De Facto), the band’s “sound manipulator” for lack of a better title, passed away shortly before the album’s release. He will be sorely missed. If nothing else, De-loused is a masterpiece of aural manipulation, where Ward, abutting the humongous afros of Bixler and Rodriguez-Lopez, and guided by the wizened hand of Rick Rubin, has managed to turn a funny-sounding term [“sound manipulation”] into a science, and singularly perfected it at the same time. I have no idea what their live show is like, but I almost wonder if it’s possible to pull this sort of thing off on a stage, in front of actual fans. I have to believe it is, but I’m just not sure how. I suspect it may necessitate the involvement of some of Pink Floyd’s lighting techs. Next time they’re in town, no doubt.

Said praise aside, De-loused is also more than a little frustrating, mostly because it simply isn’t as accessible as ATDI, and much less so even than Sparta. The tracks have a tendency to bleed together (which is fitting I suppose, given the fact that it’s a loosely veiled concept album), and can create a wonderful sense of atmosphere, but this same “floating” effect also makes it difficult to separate one song from the next, and tends to make one’s head swim a little. Ultimately though, the more I listen to it, the more these things resolve themselves, the more comfortable I grow listening to it, and the more I like it. I have a inkling that, two or three years from now, this will be one of those albums still stuck in rotation in my legacy five-disc changer, and that when that time comes, I’ll look back at when I first got it and remember thinking “well, that was alright”. So please don’t judge it prematurely – I’m trying my hardest not to, because I know I’ll regret it later if I do.

Often times the most complex, challenging music ends up being the most rewarding, and these guys are certainly challenging, that’s for sure. And dense, too. They’ve moved on since recording their last full-length, evolved, and will no doubt inspire imitation in the coming years, much like their previous band did. And, just like ATDI, none of those imitators will never quite live up to the real thing. De-loused is definitely worth checking out, but make sure to keep an open mind and check any preconceived notions at the door…

The Mars Volta:

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