Album Reviews Opinion

Ultimate Reset: The Return of The Mars Volta

Cedric Bixler-Zavala and Omar Rodriguez-López return with the year’s biggest surprise.

January 22, 2004. Pitt Street. Or more precisely, the venue located in the heart of the Sydney’s CDB, The Metro. Metallica’s James Hetfield, Lars Ulrich, Kirk Hammett and The Black Eyed PeasFergie Duhamel occupy the side of stage, collectively beaming. All teeth, sweat and euphoria. Spellbound by The Mars Volta.

Touring as a part of the Big Day Out in support of their debut LP, De-Loused in the Comatorium, this was a band that had the world in their hands. Beyond any orbit imaginable.

The lightning-fingered Juan Alderete dancing up and down the fret board with core-shuddering bass lines. Isaiah “Ikey” Owens tickling the ivories, completely immersed in his own world. Marcellus RodríguezLópez dancing frenetically to his own rhythms on maracas, the sonic remnants scattered all over the stage. Jon Theodore delivering a performance for the ages and one that only seems possible with the agent of base speed: to this day I’ve not witnessed something remotely like it. Cedric Bixler-Zavala and Omar Rodriguez-López forming the kind of synergy and creative telepathy conceived from another planet. Bixler-Zavala, dangerously unpredictable, wild-eyed and prowling the stage, scaling the speakers. Rodriguez-López’s ringing guitars squelch and plink with the kind of sounds that wet the corners of the eyes.

Individual performances that bled into each other, forming the kind of alchemy that few bands of this time possessed. Front and centre witnessing this kind of live performance evoked the kind of snapshots to carry to the grave. Mesmerising, otherworldly, the kind of absurdity that made sense.

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It’s the kind of energy a band can never sustain. After all, you can’t go beyond the summit which is where The Mars Volta were at this point; they would never recapture the kind of searing force and panache of the years which followed.

Defying the odds and kicking against the status quo, The Mars Volta have always been a punk band. Take their standing on a major label. How could a bunch of corporate fleas possibly understand the sonic intricacies The Mars Volta committed to tape? Merely a marriage of convenience that shifted units.

There has always been a lot to demystify with The Mars Volta. Starting with the hiatus of At The Drive-In in February 2002. The band would splinter off as Bixler-Zavala and Rodriguez-López formed The Mars Volta while Jim Ward, Tony Hajjar and Paul Hinijos would forge their allegiance as Sparta.

Per their recent interview with The Quietus, there was much talk around their split. Having just completed their Australian tour as a part of 2001’s Big Day Out, from the outside it was a decision that shocked many, as the rumour mill went into overdrive.

It was a short turnaround for both bands. In The Mars Volta’s case, it was less than 18 months before De-Loused in the Comatorium entered homes and altered lives. Even today, De-Loused’ stands as a highly originally piece of work with the kind of raw, nervous energy that defines a band’s career. And while follow-up, 2005’s Frances the Mute, certainly had its moments, the following four releases paled in comparison. De-Loused in the Comatorium was one of those rare artistic moments whereby you wish time was frozen.

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As the band dissolved in 2012, Bixler-Zavala and Rodriguez-López reached breaking point, the final straw seemingly the former’s involvement in The Church of Scientology. The dark, damaging circumstances surrounding Bixler-Zavala and his wife Chrissie Carnell Bixler’s eventual parting from the organisation in 2016 are direct inspirations on The Mars Volta’s self-titled comeback album.

Preceding The Mars Volta was the small matter of At The Drive-In’s 2017 follow-up to the genre-defining Relationship In Command, in•ter a•li•a, which arrived on the back of a predictable reunion tour. Whilst failing to replicate the raw spirit and vigour of their past, in•ter a•li•a still stands as a fine release to boot, and while it doesn’t feature Ward (who was replaced by Keeley Davis), it should have garnered far more praise than it did.

The Mars Volta - The Mars Volta

Perhaps the same won’t be said for The Mars Volta. A band many had thought to be on the other side of their creative arc, The Mars Volta sees Bixler-Zavala and Rodriguez-López clawing their way back towards the summit.

While sonically The Mars Volta showcases the band’s biggest shift, lyrically it’s their most revealing, evoking the kind of juxtapositions that emerge from the thick fog and obscurity of the band’s past. For Bixler-Zavala, his missives contains new shades of darkness (“Yes, it’s loaded, that thing is loaded / He’d always leave it in the safe by her portrait / Yes, it’s loaded, that thing was loaded/ He’d flash it at you with a hint of a smile.” – Que Dios Te Maldiga Mi Corazon”). Pitting these themes against user-friendly soundscapes, it reveals The Mars Volta in thrilling new ways.

Disentangling the complexities and mind-fuckery of their past, The Mars Volta isn’t the pop record some are claiming it to be. Nor is it anything remotely like the insidious yacht rock. (The person who invented the term should be summoned to the towers.)  

Again, The Mars Volta are a punk band, and by extension this is a punk record in every sense.

The Mars Volta is inspired by Bomba: the traditional dance and musical style originated by enslaved people in Puerto Rico in the sixteenth century. The birthplace of Rodriguez-López, this locality in sound, whilst dotted throughout The Mars Volta’s creative lineage, has never been performed so overtly. Forming the backbone of the album, the likes of Vigil and Tourmaline underline these themes, while the video for lead single, Blacklight Shine, gives us a snapshot of the resistance and being completely immersed in one’s own culture through sound.

Sonically Blacklight Shine doesn’t stray too far from The Mars Volta’s sonic foundations, however Graveyard Love splits it wide open. Held together by a fleeting undercurrent of electronics, it’s the kind of ear worm that sticks with you for the rest of the day. There are plethora of moments like this on The Mars Volta.

Album highlight, Shore Story, is basically atmospheric pop music at its pinnacle. Spacious and ingrained in the less-is-more ethos, Bixler-Zavala’s lyrics add further weight to the song (“I won’t let you choose when I die” and “I won’t let you have this mutiny“). It’s The Mars Volta like never before. And it continues on Cerulea – the kind of song that could infiltrate a late night FM radio playlist if it weren’t for Bixler-Zavala’s darkened diatribes. (“Take your incision, make it believe/ The stapling of five hundred trembling lips/ Burn it all down, down to the heel/Level it all ’til it’s gone.”)

Founding bassist, Eva Gardner, returns and The Mars Volta is all the better for her inclusion. Those juddering bass lines which made the Tremulant EP instantly spark the senses return decades later. Starting with the sinewy post-funk of Flash Burns from Flashback and No Case Case. Gardner’s dead-eye bass lines conceived from the same dark vortex as Bixler-Zavala’s tales of despair (“Hold me under, hold me under / You gotta hold me underwater for two minutes longer“).

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And while the juxtaposition returns on Palm Full of Crux – an outlier track that feels like a forlorn Sunday morning pop companion – Gardener’s hooping bass lines return during the noirish Equss 3, which contains Bixler-Zavala’s most direct message, as he recounts his time in the clutches of the religious cult (“Never have I held the handle of a blade/ The way I hold it looking at you/ Flip it to the dagger and put it in your hands / And show me you know what to do“). Closing encounter, The Requisition, paints a similar picture (“Trust me, there’s more than one way you can skin his atonement/ Her heart denied what he redacted / Pour the water and watch it boil.”

The best art is often born out of turmoil and The Mars Volta is no different, as Bixler-Zavala and Rodriguez-López extract inspiration from the kind of drama seemingly fit for a Netflix documentary. It’s ended in fascinating results, eclipsing the majority of The Mars Volta’s body of work.

Not only is The Mars Volta one of sharpest creative left-hand turns of 2022. Over the past decade, there are few acts that have left a mark like The Mars Volta have done here, and the more time spent in the company of this release, those feelings only become stronger.

The Mars Volta is out now via Clouds Hill. Purchase from Bandcamp.

By Simon Kirk

Product from the happy generation. Proud purple bin owner surviving on music, books and LFC. New book, Welcome To Charmsville, available from all major vendors.

One reply on “Ultimate Reset: The Return of The Mars Volta”

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