If there were a word that got at it better than “masturbatory,” I’d use it, but no, there’s not, so—”masturbatory.” The Mars Volta have been onstage for two and a half hours. Another minute longer and they might go blind, and we deaf. The din here on a frigid Monday night in the cavernous, tightly packed, not-terribly-appealing-in-any-regard midtown club Terminal 5 is pulverizing, an aural prog-jazz-metal swamp that hits like a brutish physical force, like an enormous pie to the face. There are eight dudes onstage, of whom only three—frontman Cedric Bixler-Zavala, guitarist/composer Omar Rodríguez- López, and maniacal drummer Thomas Pridgen—are consistently audible, very often subsuming entirely their bandmates’ supporting bass/horns/keys, etc., with wailing falsetto howls, 15-minute wheedly-deedly-doo guitar solos, and in Prigden’s case, a percussive style best described as One Giant-Ass Drum Fill. Every time he hits a cymbal, an uppity Sam Ash salesman dies.
This is all slightly awesome and severely wearying. Gathered here, legs creaking, ears burning, eyes glazed over, we are fans, we are sympathizers, we are the faithful. But most of the jammers on show this evening hail from MV’s then-unreleased fourth album, The Bedlam in Goliath (finally out this week), which only thieving assholes who downloaded it off the Internet for free are currently familiar with. (The band should scan the crowd for people who appear to have the slightest idea what the hell is going on and demand $15 from each of them.) For the rest of us, with no blueprint to consult, even a song’s fundamental rhythm often escapes us—we have lost the one, we have lost the plot, we have lost the will to live. This is less a concert than a hostage situation. Tonight at Terminal 5: An Eternity With Mars Volta.
What’s more, at one point, Cedric—a lithe, fiery gentleman who sashays violently about the stage and surrounding environs in a sort of atomic Gumby boogaloo—starts crabbing at us: “We’ll dedicate this one to all those people who just want us to just make the first two albums over and over again!” he thunders shortly before unveiling “Drunkship of Lanterns,” one of the few tunes MV deigns to unveil from the first of those first two albums, 2003’s De-Loused in the Comatorium. “Why don’t they just buy those albums, take ’em home, fuck ’em, and put ’em under their pillows? Maybe the Tooth Fairy will bring you something nice. We’ll keep doing what we do. Which is the whole point of this band.”
Couple things here. Delivering this speech an hour and a half into a marathon bombardment of mostly unfamiliar material for a quite appreciative sold-out crowd is a classic case of bitching to the converted. Secondly, this neatly sums up the Mars Volta’s relationship with the rest of the world: They’re profoundly irritated by fans they perceive as retarding their growth by demanding golden oldies from a simpler, more accessible time—i.e., a record named De-Loused in the Comatorium.
Defiance is the Mars Volta’s thing. Cedric and Omar first rose to power in At the Drive-In, the Texan emo-hardcore quintet that in 2001 teetered on the cusp of vast crossover acclaim, a Warped Tour band we could all agree on and revere without shame. Their final record, Relationship of Command, is an exhilarating monster, violent but entrancing, warmly inviting but brutally uncompromising. A portent of far greater triumphs to come. Then Cedric and Omar ditched it all. “Indefinite hiatus.” Shocked a lot of people. Broke a lot of hearts. And though the causes of death are myriad and, of course, unknowable (and probably at least partly drug-related), one constant internal complaint was that both of those guys were bored. Understimulated. Insufficiently challenged. The way At the Drive-In subsequently cut in half was too perfect: The other three guys started a straight-ahead, painfully dull alterna-rock band, Sparta; Cedric and Omar convened the Mars Volta, and started bitching long before they’d converted anyone. Their first L.A. show is legendary, Cedric berating bewildered ATDI fans with a dismissive “All you whiny emo kids, go get a Kleenex box.”
They’ve always been a bit defensive, a bit antagonistic, a bit sensitive as to what you demand of them based on what they did before. But what’s doubly bizarre about Cedric’s Terminal 5 harangue is that The Bedlam in Goliath is probably the Mars Volta’s most (scare quotes ahead) “normal” album, the one least plagued by ludicrous prog wankery. As De-Loused immediately proved, the band’s album- and song-titling style is legendary. A ‘zine I once ran across in Texas had a feature called “Porn Spam E-Mail Subject Line or Mars Volta Song?” Laugh all you want, but if you came across a message titled “Miranda That Ghost Just Isn’t Holy Anymore: C. Piscasis (Phra-Men-Ma)” in your in-box, there’s no way
in hell you’re opening it. Both De-Loused and its even loonier follow-up, 2005’s Frances the Mute, had fantastic aggro-
rock moments (most courtesy nuclear-
octopus original drummer Jon Theodore, of whom Pridgen, the new guy, is—incredibly—a worthy successor), but troubling Awesome : Bullshit ratios, precise five-minute bombs larded with 10 minutes or so of meandering atmospherics and chained to gibberish names like “Cygnus . . . Vismund Cygnus” or “Take the Veil Cerpin Taxt.” This was all very, very easy to dismiss, and many did. But while that reaction is justifiable, if you’ve spent the last year praising Battles while continuing to heap opprobrium on these dudes, that’s entirely a matter of marketing. Their own deliberately obtuse marketing, but still.
That I can roundly mock a band in one breath and vehemently defend it in the next is a distinct Mars Volta charm. They are a rare beast indeed, a brazen and volatile monolith with no filter, no shame, no sense of decorum, and little sympathy for those who can’t wrap their heads around it, be they fans of that other band or fans of those other records or fans of that song they just played. You’re either with them or against them, which makes them easy to deride but hard to disrespect. So you can’t interpret Goliath‘s relative restraint as a concession, but there’s undeniable restraint nonetheless: The cover illustration is much less preposterous than usual, there are as many tunes under three minutes as over nine, the goofy song titles are mostly one-worders, at least, and there’s no bullshit meandering to dilute the colossal sludge-rock thunderbolts and epochal drum fills. Tracks therein that I first painfully absorbed during that punishing Terminal 5 show sound fabulous now—”Goliath” is the jam, a whirlwind compendium of the sort of lascivious Funkadelic riffs someone like the Red Hot Chili Peppers would neuter, water down, and saddle with a really unconscionable title like “Hump De Bump.” It’s a taxing record, tough to digest in one sitting or even really one afternoon, but with a little effort on your part, it might really entrance you—preferably in smaller doses, while seated in the comfort of your own home, when all that titanic self-pleasure might condescend to allow the listener a little pleasure, too.