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Maybe the attitude behind the Mars Volta's fusion of prog and punk is "we're going to play prog rock and we don't give a shit what you think". With its dirty, prettiness-free production and hyperactive time changes, it takes a fair few listens to disentangle. Cedric Bixler Zavala's high-flying rock tenor, in the tradition of Led Zeppelin and Rush, yelps and soars its way through some surreally verbose angsty lyrics, while Omar Rodriguez-Lopez's squirming tentacles of distorted guitars and cross rhythms are hard to pin down.
Their distortion-heavy sound is the only thing retained from their 90s alternative rock origins. The real heritage of its intricacy is early 70's prog, particularly the more baroque ventures of Yes ("Relayer") and "Starless" era King Crimson. It's the kind of prog that's made to exhilarate the body more than the brain. It gives the first impression of a free jam, but there is focus and composition underneath the improvised decorations. Every track has some sort of hooky riff or chorus to get the teeth into, even though its instrumental excesses are distracting. Most accessible are the podgy Zep-like riffs of "Roulette Dares" and the theatrical ballad "Televators".
At the other extreme, the hyperactive, convulsive drumming makes "Drunkship of Lanterns" the most exciting moment. It might be fused with Latin dance rhythms, but I wouldn't try to dance to its manic beat for fear of injuring myself. The middle of "Cicatriz ESP" is the only place where they lose the focus, taking a breather with a few minutes of guitar effect noodling. Eventually it picks up the pace again with some Robert Fripp-ish guitars. The liquid Fripp-style guitar improv is also showcased in the middle of "Take the Veil". The additional track for the UK release is "Ambuletz", a chilling, minimalist breakdown.
The concept underlying "De-Loused" is supposedly a fictionalised life story of a recently-passed friend, but the stream-of-consciousness wibble that makes up the lyrics isn't essential by any means. It does make musical sense, and it certainly won't scare the average prog-metal listener. But it's a tad too long, and there's more variety and better compositions on their second album "Frances the Mute". It probably depends on whether you like the basic style enough to be bothered with the effort that it takes to get underneath its skin.
May 10, 2005