The Mars Volta
Friday, January 25, 2008
The Beaumont Club
By ANDREW MILLER
Back in November 2001, the Mars Volta rolled into El Torreon as an unknown At The Drive-In offshoot, positioned on the bill between flaky indie-pop croissants Mates of State and The Anniversary. The group’s high-volume soundcheck, all burly Zeppelin riffs and brazen slap bass, so offended my date that we left immediately, freeing me to watch a delicious Yankees loss in the World Series clincher. I felt great about this decision until June 2003, when The Mars Volta’s debut disc De-Loused in the Comatorium arrived, announcing a heavy-prog act I’d favor over any sporting event.
The Mars Volta has since ascended to heights unfathomable for such an aggressively esoteric outfit. On Friday, the band’s rabid local following queued up for hours in frigid temperatures before the Beaumont doors opened, waited for another hour upon entrance for the music to begin (there was no opener: It was “an evening with Mars Volta”) then shouted along with non sequitur lyrics such as “exoskeletal junction at the railroad delayed” during the 18-minute Comatorium-plucked set starter “Roulette Dares.”
Fan footage from the show by thereisnotruth:
Singer Cedric Bixler-Zavala wailed and shook his mane like Robert Plant, guitarist Omar Rodriguez-Lopez unleashed a series of frenzied solos, and Adrián Terrazas-González played the flute, an instrument that, judging by the cheers from dudes in Lamb of God hoodies, has been salvaged from Jethro-Tull-wins-metal-Grammy punchline status.
After a few songs, Bixler-Zavala pleaded with the audience to stop smoking for the next two hours, promising “I’ll be your best fucking friend.” This request revealed the limits of his fans’ devotion, as the black fog remained dense throughout the program. (To be charitable, perhaps the numerous blatant pot smokers felt their emissions would be less noxious.) Anyway, the cooling fan behind Bixler-Zavala, which dramatically tossed his curls throughout the evening, seemed strong enough to clean the immediate air, if not to blow approaching storm fronts off course.
Bixler-Zavala also disliked the stage’s carpeting, which he derided as “Astroturf,” adding “I’d like to cut the rug, but the rug’s got a mind of its own.” Limited in his spastic choreography, he resorted to standing sideways on the stage, directly facing Rodriguez-Lopez throughout the second half of the show. This insular body language visually reinforced the liner notes to the group’s 2006 album Amputechture, which defined the band’s dynamics thusly: “The partnership between Omar Rodriguez-Lopez & Cedric Bixler-Zavala is The Mars Volta. These compositions are then performed by The Mars Volta Group.”
Rodriguez-Lopez occasionally returned Bixler-Zavala’s intense stare, but for the most part he alternated between two facial expressions while shredding: Extreme anguish (“Arrgh, the lawnmower ate my hand!”) and punch-drunk wooziness (“Whoa, I’m feeling a bit faint after losing so much blood in the aforementioned accident.”)
The Mars Volta reached a few passages of absolute transcendence, when Rodriguez-Lopez’s solos spiraled directly into listeners’ pleasure centers and drummer Thomas Pridgen reached rhythmic crescendos. (Unfortunately, most of the spectators couldn’t see Pridgen play: He really needs a Rush-style rotating riser.) However, there were also several dead spells, when the band disappeared into its own jams. At some points, the collective restlessness became palpable: Even the instinctive head-nodding that usually accompanies any live music with a pulse completely ceased. The Mars Volta’s members possess rare instrumental gifts, but they occasionally improvise to the detriment of the original compositions, diluting some of their biggest build-ups with aimless meandering.
The Mars Volta stopped promptly at midnight, halting a 150-minute set with no encore. For this reviewer, that was more than enough. If the Mars Volta chooses this Sunday for a special We Love Kansas City return engagement, I’m not skipping the Super Bowl.