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A Beginner’s Guide to The Mars Volta in 10 Songs

A crash course and loving testament to Texas’ most brilliantly bizarre band

The Mars Volta, photo by Martin Philbey
The Mars Volta, photo by Martin Philbey
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    As cliché as it sounds to say, The Mars Volta were truly a one-of-a-kind band. Formed by vocalist Cedric Bixler-Zavala and guitarist Omar Rodríguez-López after the break-up of their previous outfit — Texas post-hardcore/art-punk troupe At the Drive-In (of “One Armed Scissor” fame) — the ensemble quickly and consistently built upon those foundations to incorporate wildly bizarre and wholly idiosyncratic fusions of progressive rock, free jazz, Spanish rock, psychedelia, avant-rock, ambient, and more.

    While influences like King Crimson, Pink Floyd, Can, Fela Kuti, Miles Davis, Mr. Bungle, and Frank Zappa were apparent, The Mars Volta succeeded at establishing their own precise and surprisingly successful (commercially and critically) sound. Although the group was only around for about a decade, they managed to produce an astoundingly distinctive, ambitious, and enduring catalog that debatably ranks alongside the work of those forebears.

    Be it the troubling atmospheres of De-Loused in the Comatorium, the experimental genius of Frances the Mute, the relentless multifaceted fury of The Bedlam in Goliath, or the comparatively digestible Octahedron, The Mars Volta remained reliable yet refreshing and innovative across all six of their LPs. It’s no wonder, then, why members of Protest the Hero, Mastodon, Porcupine Tree, Dream Theater, Tool, The Ocean, and even Rush have expressed appreciation for what they did.

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    Of course, masterminds Bixler-Zavala and Rodríguez-López didn’t do it alone; in fact, they worked with an extensive assortment of skilled and resourceful official members and guest contributors. Namely, they brought over keyboardist Isaiah “Ikey” Owens and sound manipulator Jeremy Michael Ward from the dominant duo’s earlier electronica/salsa/reggae side project, De Facto. In addition, Red Hot Chili Peppers’ bassist Flea and guitarist John Frusciante appeared, as did Rodríguez-López’s multi-instrumentalist younger brother (Marcel), drummer Jon Theodore, bassist Eva Gardner, keyboardist Linda Good, and classical instrumentalist Adrián Terrazas-González. Each of them — among many others — played a crucial role in the group’s development prior to their disbandment in 2013.

    Since then, fans have been eager to see some sign of life from camp Mars Volta. Luckily, 2021 is the magical year since the group recently announced La Realidad de Los Sueños (The Reality of Dreams), an 18-LP, limited-run collection of their whole discography (and many enticing bonuses) set to be released on April 23rd via Clouds Hill. Thus, it’s the perfect time to celebrate their legacy with 10 tracks that demonstrate 10 essential aspects of what made The Mars Volta exceptional.


    Acoustic Ballads

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    Song: “Asilos Magdalena” from Amputechture (2006)

    Although they’re known primarily for crafting outrageously intricate, chaotic, and peculiar tracks, The Mars Volta also excelled at penning relatively accessible and melodic acoustic odes. “Televators” is probably their most well-known and instantly appealing, yet “Asilos Magdalena” — translated to “Magdalene Asylums” — outshines it due to its mixture of warm Spanish guitarwork, disturbingly explicit lyrics (also Spanish), and dynamic use of otherworldly accentuations. It’s the only composition on Amputechture not to feature Frusciante, and it’s inspired by 18th – 20th Century Roman Catholic institutions that housed sexually promiscuous (a.k.a. “fallen”) women. By and large, they tackle such affective subject matter by having Bixler-Zavala sing mournfully and tastefully while Rodríguez-López accompanies with sophisticatedly dexterous and multilayered fingerpicking and strumming. Those components alone reveal the pair’s aptitude for reserved and touching acoustic craftsmanship; however, the help of typically strange and abrasive dissonance around that unblemished core makes it characteristically unsettling and adventurous.


    Emotional Songwriting

    Song: “Since We’ve Been Wrong” from Octahedron (2009)

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    Despite not quite being the “pop” record that Bixler-Zavala described it as, Octahedron intentionally contrasted the impenetrably frenzied and dense Amputechture and The Bedlam in Goliath with a startlingly mainstream and inviting experience. Chief among those selections was its elegantly steady and sorrowful opener/second single, “Since We’ve Been Wrong”. Conventionally, it builds slowly, prolonging a central tone until poignant acoustic arpeggios, electric guitar inflections, and faint piano notes introduce beautifully sung insights. Whereas Bixler-Zavala typically performed with high-pitched erraticism, here he’s hypnotically soft-spoken and controlled. Near the end, Thomas Pridgen’s feisty syncopation kicks off a full display of distress whose subtle strings, regretful bass lines, and fatalistic bridge (“I don’t belong here, I shouldn’t stay/ What falls inside me grows empty”) intensify the gorgeous angst. Undoubtedly, “Since We’ve Been Wrong” proves that The Mars Volta — like many progressive artists — valued substantive songwriting as much as anything else.


    Epic Continuity

    Song: “Cassandra Gemini” from Frances the Mute (2005)

    Recurring motifs are staples of progressive music, so it makes sense that The Mars Volta toyed with the trademark as well. (For instance, the aforementioned central tone of “Since We’ve Been Wrong” runs through virtually all of Octahedron.) Easily the most prominent example of this, though, is “Cassandra Gemini,” the 32-minute closer to their most experimental album, Frances the Mute. Broken into eight parts, it’s an irresistibly inventive, weird, and complex masterpiece whose numerous segments and segues would require a separate essay to break down entirely. Suffice it to say that its coolest moments come at the end, when the vibrantly impressionistic sixth chapter cleverly reprises the verses of the first chapter amidst its jazzy anarchy. A funky string ascension then leads into the seventh and eighth sections, which respectively bring back the chorus of the introductory movement and the opening of album starter “Cygnus….Vismund Cygnus”. It’s utterly brilliant.


    Funky Jazz Fusion

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    Song: “Goliath” from The Bedlam in Goliath (2008)

    The group’s fourth LP is particularly volatile and unpredictable for several reasons, not the least of which is its myriad stylistic detours and combinations. Fifth entry “Goliath” is a solid testament to that, as it captures their penchant for funk and jazz fusion. Originally intended to be the first single from the record – before the band vetoed the decision due to how the song was being “butchered” for radio – it explodes with the sort of in-your-face wah-wah guitarwork, flamboyant drumming, and catchy vocals that made artists like Jimi Hendrix, Funkadelic, and Sly and the Family Stone so beloved. Halfway through, their vitality is deepened by a mesmerizingly fiery jam that owes more than a passing debt to creators like Santana, Miles Davis, and Mahavishnu Orchestra. In general, “Goliath” is exhaustively playful yet passionate, putting a modern spin on those ‘60s and ‘70s keystones as only The Mars Volta could.


    Haunting Ambiance

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    Song: “Son et Lumière” from De-Loused in the Comatorium (2003)

    Just as The Mars Volta interspersed calmer arrangements and songwriting into their majorly aggressive templates, so too did they create greater context with the use of evocative soundscapes. This tendency was evident from the moment they began (well, not counting the Tremulant EP from the previous year) via “Son et Lumière”, the melancholy prelude of debut disc De-Loused in the Comatorium. The term is French for “Sound and Light”, and it does a great job preparing listeners for the LP’s concept – inspired by Bixler-Zavala’s late friend Julio Venegas – about a man who goes into a lengthy coma after overdosing on rat poison and morphine. It lasts only 95 seconds, but its combination of otherworldly static, morosely pulsating tones, oscillating guitar intervals, and echoey realizations (“Gestating with all the other rats/ Nurse said that my skin will need a graft”) is completely and characteristically engrossing.


    Hypnotic Dissonance

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    Song: “In Absentia” from Noctourniquet (2012)

    Despite the group’s swan song being their worst album, it undeniably offers some rewarding new flavors while retaining fundamental principles. Namely, their affinity for captivating noisiness, such as on the collection’s centerpiece (and best composition), “In Absentia”. True, it goes through some pleasant passages, but most of it is wonderfully odd and disorderly. Specifically, it’s instigated by coarse keyboard and guitar tones, as well as unruly percussion, to form a significantly incongruous sonic puzzle. The singing is only slightly more welcoming — that is, until it dissipates into a world of harrowingly scratchy and ghostly textural reverberations. Next, Bixler-Zavala’s spectral sentiments add to the inharmonious landscape; from there, a more melodic and palatable final phase takes over, yet even it is drastically grating. Of course, that’s meant as a compliment since “In Absentia” consistently reveals how The Mars Volta could generate desirable disarray like no one else.


    Latin Layers

    Song: “L’Via L’Viaquez” from Frances the Mute (2005)

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    It’s a superb example of The Mars Volta’s knack for implementing fascinating cultural flair into their formula. Featuring guitar solos from Frusciante and contributions from salsa pianist — and Rodríguez-López’s childhood hero — Larry Harlow, it erupts with scorching guitar riffs and drumming as Bixler-Zavala ardently sings in Spanish about revenge, dreams, and the daughter of Miranda. (This reference also links the track to its follow-up, “Miranda That Ghost Just Isn’t Holy Anymore”.) Afterward, the arrangement becomes more romantic and colorful, mixing Latin timbres and rhythms with the group’s emblematic strangeness. This back-and-forth pattern is sustained for most of the duration, with new elements and accentuations appearing at every turn. Really, “L’Via L’Viaquez” — like much of their work — draws as much from the musical attributes and attitudes of Puerto Rico and Mexico as it does the broader spectrum of progressive rock, jazz fusion, etc.


    Poignantly Enigmatic Poetry

    Song: “Copernicus” from Octahedron (2009)

    Named after the 16th-century Polish astronomer, it serves as a textbook case of the band’s magnificently mystifying lyrics. Honestly, its narrative is relatively easy to decipher since it leans closer to mysteriously affective observations than to their usual preference for vividly Lynchian ambiguities. Nevertheless, lines such as “The solution inhaled from the rag I hold/ Holds a maximum vacancy/ As I held you in crippled bandages/ Don’t you stay up and wait for me” and “You’re not there/ I poke needles in the neck of a doll/ She pokes back/ Asking why can’t I just let her out” strike a delicate balance between perceptible trauma and puzzling implications. Naturally, it’s performed with classily heartbreaking vocals and instrumentation, all the while employing Octahedron’s continuous central tone to emphasize the opaque tragedy of its tale.


    Post-Hardcore Remnants

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    Song: “Cut That City” from Tremulant EP (2002)

    When At the Drive-In ended, the quintet dispersed into two new acts: The Mars Volta and Sparta. Unsurprisingly, both held on heavily to their post-hardcore roots (at least initially), with “Cut that City” (from debut EP Tremulant) providing a clear bridge between the straightforward wildness of their past and the experimental evolutions of their future. Its preliminary couple of minutes consist of trademark spacey atmospheres; without warning, it then bursts into a dense and elaborate array of punk rock raucousness and peculiar production. Meanwhile, Bixler-Zavala screams incomprehensibly but alluringly, his verses dancing around the music with confident rebelliousness. Altogether, it’s a perfect amalgamation of where they’d been and where they’d go, and it’s made even more intriguing and significant when you consider that The Mars Volta would never truly sound like this again until Noctourniquet (so their career kind of came full circle).


    Soaring Hooks

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    Song: “Meccamputechture” from Amputechture (2006)

    For all of their virtuosic and imaginative musicianship, The Mars Volta wouldn’t have succeeded nearly as much without an equal amount of boisterously seductive sing-along charm. There are countless examples spread across their catalog — “Metatron”, “Desperate Graves”, and the Zeppelin-esque “The Widow,” to name a few — yet “Meccamputechture” easily takes the cake. Right away, Bixler-Zavala reigns with fetching antagonism as he dishes out quick rhymes (“Amputechture came/ Philistine praise/ Bottomless pit of empty names”) backed by his own screeching choir. Behind him, funky guitarwork, triumphant horns, rambunctious syncopation, and bellowing keyboards add to the compelling trajectory. Rodríguez-López’s counterpoints during the pre-chorus are particularly exhilarating, building anticipation for perhaps the catchiest chorus of their career (“Everyone stabs all the time/ Persuasion deflowers your sympathy”). It’s impossible not to get sucked into its warmly caustic splendor (which will surely get stuck in your head long after it’s over).

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