This article was originally published in 2021, but we’re dusting it off for Omar Rodríguez-López’s birthday on September 1st.
Ever felt intimidated by a musician’s extensive back catalog? Been trying to get into a band, but you just don’t know where to begin? In 10 Songs is here to help, providing a clearcut entry point into the daunting discographies of iconic artists of all genres. This is your first step toward fandom — now all you have to do is take it.
As cliché as it sounds to say, The Mars Volta are 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 are 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 before breaking up in 2013 — then reuniting in 2022 — 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 remain 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.
Of course, masterminds Bixler-Zavala and Rodríguez-López don’t go at it alone; in fact, they’ve 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, 2022 is the magical year, since the group recently announced a reunion tour and album, which is due on September 16th. Thus, it’s the perfect time to celebrate their legacy with 10 tracks that demonstrate 10 essential aspects of what make The Mars Volta exceptional.
Check out the list below, and scroll to the end for a playlist of all 10 songs.