May 20, 2005

Ambitious Omar, Cedric leave the Drive-In for a musical mission to Mars

So what are you to do when your band is about to hit it big, and then it breaks up mere moments later? In the case of post-punk outfit At The Drive-In, the answer was to start a new band. Former ATDI vocalist Cedric Bixler Zavala and former ATDI guitarist Omar Rodriguez Lopez often felt limited by the creative differences in their band and made the decision to undertake a new, adventurous project of their own: the Mars Volta.

To classify the music produced by the Mars Volta is a difficult task. Considering the eclectic influences evident throughout their debut album, De-Loused In The Comatorium, and their sophomore release Frances the Mute, Cedric and Omar were successful in satiating their artistic needs in a way that ATDI was never able to. The pair, along with drummer Jon Theodore and bassist Juan Alderte, managed to fuse elements of progressive rock, funk, jazz, post-punk, and even Latin salsa into two well crafted albums.

The albums also boast a multilingual approach, with Cedric wailing away in English and Spanish and with song titles in English, Spanish, and French. The songs on these two albums are so epic and intricate that when the band played its first of two sold-out shows at the Riviera this past week their set list spanned nearly two hours. This is a feat that isn't necessarily unheard of—unless, of course, the set list contains a whopping total of eight songs as it did Monday night. In white lettering, the drum kit at the show declared "Liberté ou la mort," French for "Liberty or Death." Indeed, the Mars Volta chose liberty, allowing them to play opuses up to 30 minutes in length.

Upon entering the venue, I noticed a banner depicting a man with spider legs jutting out of his body that concealed a portion of the stage—the stage behind the stage, if you will. This odd approach was certainly appropriate for a band as abstract as the Mars Volta. Such a display is bound to raise all sorts of questions. With the Mars Volta, another important question that comes to mind is, "Who is the opening act?"

As soon as the banner dropped down to reveal the stage behind it, all speculation ended. There was no opening act. Instead, Omar and Cedric ventured out on to the stage, sporting very distinctive 'fros, bell-bottom jeans, and swanky vintage shirts (a style all too reminiscent of Starsky and Hutch).

The bassist and drummer followed the masterminds, bringing with them two keyboardists and a percussionist/saxophonist/flutist. Upon closer inspection of the stage, I noticed portraits of two "birdmen" looming in the background, further adding to the mysticism that this band exudes. In lieu of a formal introduction, the band chose to greet the sold-out crowd with feedback resonating out of the speakers, only to explode into a wall of sound that was their opening song, "Drunkship of Lanterns."

At this point, the crowd was almost as frantic as the music and the lighting accompanying the song. The tribal-sounding rhythm section gave way to people dancing. Bright, sudden flashes of red, yellow, blue, green, and white light accentuated each shrill guitar lick, each syncopated drum-and-bass line, and each note weaving out of the keyboards, saxophone, and flute. Cedric sang and danced away the night with a deep passion uniquely his own. The action, however, was offstage as well as on. In front of the ever-changing backdrop that hung above the stage, every moment giving way to yet another abstract portrait, a solid connection formed between the crowd and the band.

Just as I thought the crowd couldn't get anymore frantic, two songs and 20 minutes into the show the Mars Volta gave a very energetic performance of "Take the Veil Carpin Taxt." The song featured a thundering bass that shook the floor and Cedric swung the microphone cord like a lasso. The quick and playful notes from the lead guitar and pummeling drum rolls all added to the hard-hitting, fast-paced song. Let us not forget the afros that were flailing around onstage, a result of the vocalist's dancing and the guitarist violently throwing around his guitar.

As the night went on, the intensity didn't wane until the band entered the ambient portion of their songs, at which point the crowd would immediately freeze up and, at most, sway back and forth to the music. This effect was especially evident during the band's current single, "The Widow," a power-ballad accompanied by dim white lights and a crowd whipping out lighters and peacefully swaying back and forth.

Right after playing "The Widow," the Mars Volta picked up the intensity again by breaking into "L'Via L'Viaquez," a song with mostly Spanish lyrics. The song starts with a heavily layered guitar lick and anthemic verse (notice I didn't say chorus) that causes everyone to sing along, "Dientes de machete, cabeza de gallo" ("Teeth of the machete, head of the chicken").

The cut, off their sophomore album, is an excellent example of the band's eclectic sound. After starting out with a powerful rhythm section and screeching guitar, the song suddenly slows as the lead guitarist picks a few notes (muted by his palms). The members of the band start moving their feet in anticipation of the upcoming salsa beat. Cedric croons into the microphone, and the sound of a cowbell can be heard in the distance along with the ambient guitar and slow-paced drum and bass.

The song finally erupts into a guitar solo (worthy of Hendrix status), fully showcasing Omar's guitar skills as he glides across the neck of the guitar, bending, pinching, and picking the strings with utmost ease. However, what was entirely unexpected was the switch-off between the guitarist and the flutist. They took turns soloing on unfamiliar instruments and—against all odds—gave a harmony that the crowd could only reward with a round of applause.

"L'Via L'Viaquez," with its extreme dynamics and excellent showcasing of the band's skills, was the highlight of my night. The night carried on, with more moments of ambience and solos that ultimately made the eight-song set list clock out at two hours. This concert, considering the musicianship of the band and excellent light show, became an almost spiritual experience for me, one I will remember for years to come. This band put on one of the best performances I have ever seen. The image that sticks with me is Cedric biting down on the drum cymbals (something he did during the band's earlier tours). This perfectly captures the intensity and extreme dynamics that each Mars Volta performance has to offer.