August 2, 2003

The Mars Volta at the Metro

The Mars Volta believe in ghosts. Their debut full-length, De-Loused in the Comatorium, attempts to relate the story of a departed friend's journey through life and death, a friend who the band believes has been haunting them for some time. This, however, would not be the only ghost haunting the Volta. Founding members Omar Rodriguez-Lopez and Cedric Bixler Zavala cut their teeth playing in the seminal post-hardcore outfit At the Drive-In. You may remember them for their explosive live shows or perhaps the media hype that surrounded their major-label debut Relationship of Command (the album that was supposed to "save rock", according to some journalists). Three years ago, on the cusp of mainstream success, the band inexplicably broke up, leaving us to wonder what could have become of these Texans with an undoubtedly bright future.

The ghost of At the Drive-In is felt more strongly at the Metro than perhaps, anywhere else in Chicago. The site of one of their final shows in 2000, that performance is still fresh in many minds. Luckily, the Mars Volta erupted onstage Thursday night, with the type of energy a full-scale exorcism demands. They plowed relentlessly through "Inertiatic Esp" and "Roulette Dares (the Haunt of)" without giving the audience a moment for applause. Vocalist Bixler Zavala belted out his trademark cryptic lyrics while convulsing violently and repeatedly launching the mic stand into the air. Rodriguez-Lopez bounced around the stage, alternating between the thick crunch of power chords and dexterously picked interludes. At a moment's notice, he would fling his guitar over his shoulder so that it hung from his neck, and he and Bixler would dance ferociously, brandishing their instruments as weapons. Meanwhile, keyboardist Ikea Owens bounced around, energetically pounding his organ into submission. Unfortunately, while displaying a command of their respective instruments, drummer Jon Theodore and touring bassist Juan Alderete added little to the energy onstage. Alderete remained anchored in front of his bass cabinet for the entire duration of the show - rendering him visibly out of place in a sea of chaos. Indeed, at times, the Mars Volta seemed to consist solely of Bixler Zavala and Rodriguez-Lopez, backed by three hired guns.

The primary criticism leveled at the Mars Volta and at De-Loused in the Comatorium regards the band's penchant for pretense. These criticisms are not unfounded; after all, how many bands can you name whose debut album's title contains two made-up words? Further evidence is provided by the album's sonic and lyrical content. Musically, the Volta have just as much in common with Rush and Pink Floyd as they do At the Drive-In. Songs drift in and out of dreamy interludes, guided by Rodriguez-Lopez's effects-heavy fretwork. Bixler Zavala wails unintelligibly, alternating between English and Spanish. The album does not include lyrics; rather, the booklet is filled with quotes from various characters, hinting at the underlying narrative. If you really want to know what's happening on the record, you'll have to buy a book containing the full story and lyrics, which will be published by California indie label Gold Standard Labs later this year. If you haven't heard the album yet, this all must sound horribly unappealing. However, despite the band's lofty ambitions, the record is nothing short of amazing. It's an incredibly dynamic trip, filled with tight musicianship and equally adept songwriting.

Some of this ambition is quite misguided when the songs are played live, though. Starting with the third song in the set, the band began replacing the album's carefully orchestrated interludes with impromptu jam sessions. At first these bursts of spontaneity were quite welcome, adding an impulsive and organic flow to the set. However, as the show went on, these improvisation sessions became longer and more drawn out, often lasting just as long as the songs themselves. This would be fine had these segments added anything to the songs. Unfortunately, the Volta spend the vast majority of their improv time sounding lost. Monotonous bass lines stretched out for far too long and were met only occasionally by sparse guitar and organ. This type of aimless wandering only sapped the energy from their music; drawn out to lengths of ten minutes or more, the songs fell apart and lost their punch. The prime example of this came at the end of the set, when the band played a version of "Take the Veil Cerpin Taxt" that must've topped fifteen minutes and completely thwarted the buildup and release that makes the song such a great closer.

The band's reliance on studio embellishment also occasionally proved embarrassing. Despite an amazing vocal performance by Bixler Zavala (where he demonstrated that his voice is indeed even more versatile than is displayed on record), the album's best song "Televators" sounded hollow without an acoustic guitar and the breathtaking sound of Zavala's multi-tracked voice, as heard on the album. However, for the most part, the band did an amazing job of recreating the album's sound live, indebted heavily to Rodriguez-Lopez's extensive army of effects pedals.

Without a doubt, the Mars Volta know how to rock. They're also incredibly skilled at recreating complex arrangements live while making it look far too easy. Their only major weakness is their affinity for losing themselves in the cliché prog-rock jam session. If they could only remain focused on the songs live, they would become a force to be reckoned with and escape the ghosts of their past in the process.