On Monday, Reddit’s front page featured a thread celebrating the 10-year anniversary of De-Loused in the Comatorium, the seminal album from this millennium's most pre-eminent progressive rock and roll act, The Mars Volta.
The band is now split up, their genetic strain largely forgotten in popular music, and progressive rock — the would-be genre of a sound that no specific genre could tame, is as dead as disco. In spite of the specter of death that envelops everything in and around De-Loused in the Comatorium, life persists in the obsessive love it continues to engender in the listeners who care to dig its macabre tomb.
The Mars Volta is the brain child of Omar Rodriguez-Lopez and Cedric Bixler-Zavala, childhood friends from Houston, TX. Together, they half of a well-regarded punk outfit called At The Drive-In before they decided their musical ambitions were far greater than what their current confines could contain. The result was TMV, Cedric contributed the singing and lyrics, Omar the rest of the music and lead guitar, and nearly a dozen instrumental virtuosos.
De-Loused in the Comatorium, their first album proper,is a concept of sorts: it is about “Cerpin Taxt”, a suicidal addict who goes comatose from an overdose of morphine and rat poison, only to wake up and successfully end his own life jumping from a highway overpass. The psychedelic nightmares during his weeklong coma are the major focal point, and it is based on a true story of the bandmates’ friend Julio Venegas.
Legendary producer Rick Rubin caught wind of The Mars Volta and insisted he take the chair on the other side of the glass. The result of his collaboration is the sound of an album and a band possessed. Omar and his phalanx of distorted electric guitars scream bloody murder over pummeling bass and drum fills, pounding keyboards, and host of horns and synthesizer noises. Cedric wails soprano, (this combination provoked some to call them "a Mexican Led Zeppelin") about demonic possession, visceral imagery, and a host of other funereal matters. Together The Mars Volta demonstrate collective musicianship as tight as any orchestra worth its coat tails, and, to make matters even more difficult, they do it over a countless multitude of tracks and oddball time signatures to boot.
When it isn’t firing on all cylinders, as is the wont of De-Loused, it intentionally meanders in ominous ambience movements, tinged acid rock, and punk to build anticipation. Songs like the opening “Son et Lumiere” and “Televators” quietly build imminent doom in a vines of thorny beauty. The former track, its title a reference to a church that gets “painted” with light, is like a Panic! At the Disco song pleading for an exorcism. The latter track “Televators” could bring you to tears.
Once the band gets going, it is a noise completely unbeholden to comparison. Yes, there is existential screaming and cacophony, but, make no mistake, this is not emo, or worse, scream-o, it is The Mars Volta. It is epic, mercurial, and rife with ambitions currently dead in rock and roll. The tracks “Cicatriz ESP” and “Roulette Dares (This is the Haunt of)” power their way through punk refrains, take left turns in into Latin, Jazz, Trip Hop, and Ambient Shoegaze. Then they explode open with Allman Brothers-esque hard rock instrumental interludes. Just when the song seems lost in a dark wood, far from its origin, it lands back on its refrain with a vengeance. A track is not just a track on De-loused, it is a mutated serpent eating its own tail, it is an Ouroboros.
Publications like Rolling Stone, Maxim, and the A.V. club gave De-loused top honors for all of its merits. Critics from the New York Times and the L.A. Times felt mired by the weird lyrics and cacophony. Pitchfork, the new old guard of rock and roll, thumbed its giant nose at this Freshman album of The Mars Volta, and all five of their following studio albums, up until their forgone conclusion early this year. During that time, The Mars Volta, butterfly that it was, could only rival the commercial success and radio play of its former caterpillar, At The Drive In.
Yet for each album there was more new territory to breach, a new aural spirit to summon, and an updated quixotic mission. Omar Rodriguez Lopez, the self-proclaimed “benevolent dictator” of The Mars Volta, never faltered in his fearless leadership into the instrumentally unknown, despite his prolific solo career, until he decided he was as finished with TMV as he was with ATDI. Now, his new band, Bosnian Rainbows is churning out fresh material, and he is also molding a career as a filmmaker out of Brooklyn, N.Y., just like me. If I see him out on the circuit, I won’t know whether to hug him for giving my teen years a permanent inspiration, or beat him up for taking it away from my current self.
Either way, I recall the lyrics Cedric wrote to close “Take The Veil Cerpin Taxt” the last 12 of the 63-minute trip down the Comatorium: “Who brought me here, forsaken deprived and wrought with fear? Who turned it off, the last thing I remember now? Who brought me here?” For what it's worth, droves of fans who occupied their wild concerts, tried in vain to play their incredibly difficult songs on YouTube or in Guitar Hero, celebrated their much deserved Grammy, or just popped on some big, expensive earphones late at night to drink in the sound probably wondered that to themselves as well. Was it Cedric and Omar? Was it a part of ourselves, begging for musical catharsis? Or was it the ghost of Cerpin Taxt?