Nobody ever moshed
to "Tales From Topographic Oceans" by Yes.
Progressive rock wasn't built for slamdancing. It's dangerous
enough to hurl your body into someone else's without the added worry
of spraining an ankle while trying to follow the beat as it shifts
from five-six to seventeen-eight time.
Nevertheless, the Mars Volta makes music that is both part of the
lineage of progressive rock bands such as Yes; Emerson, Lake &
Palmer; and King Crimson -- complete with complex time changes,
displays of deft virtuosity and extended jams clocking in at 15
minutes -- and exceedingly mosh-worthy.
The floor of the Riviera Theatre was a mass of flailing limbs and
frantic movement throughout much of the Mars Volta's
two-hour-and-20-minute show on Monday, the first of two sold-out
nights, and it hardly mattered to mesmerized fans that the
California-by-way-of-El Paso, Texas, band only played eight songs in
all of that time.
On one level, this was wretched excess of the most bombastic
pre-punk variety. Vocalist Cedric Bixler-Zavala didn't say a word to
the crowd all night; the musicians eschewed an opening act and an
encore (the better to keep the focus on their jammin', man!), and
guitarist Omar Rodriguez-Lopez seemed incapable of performing a solo
that lasted less than six minutes.
But songs such as the opening R&B-flavored epic "Drunkship of
Lanterns," the Spanish-language epic "L'Via L'Viaquez" and the
just-plain-epic epic "Cassandra Gemini" were also intensely
physical, hitting with the impact of the best punk rock -- hence the
potentially bone-breaking ballet on the floor of the Riv.
This rhythmic intensity is the most obvious trait Bixler-Zavala
and Rodriguez-Lopez bring to the Mars Volta from their old band, emo-punk
progenitors At the Drive-In. In place of hooks, they now give us
musical trigonometry, and instead of the old sensitive-soul lyrics,
Bixler-Zavala now spews science-fiction psychobabble, such as the
inscrutable story -- something about a guy named Vismund Cygnus who
discovers "a terrible secret" while searching for his mom -- running
through the group's second full album, "Frances the Mute."
In concert, it hardly matters what the Afro-sporting singer is
going on about in the lyrics. Navigating a ridiculously high
register that Jon Anderson of Yes would envy, Bixler-Zavala contorts
his words into a series of unintelligible grunts, moans, sighs and
screams, all the while moving with the impossibly soulful,
loose-limbed grace of the MC5's Rob Tyner doing his James Brown
Most of the supporting players were just as entertaining to
watch. Drummer Jon Theodore was a nonstop blur of polyrhythmic
dexterity, mixing Latin and jazz rhythms into his hard-rock crunch
as he guided the group through wave after wave of crescendos and
dynamic shifts. Isaiah Ikey Owens brought a bebop fluidity to his
keyboard parts, while Marcell Rodriguez-Lopez and Adrian Terrazas
were as impressive on their main instruments (flute and sax, and
synthesizers, respectively) as they were when supplying additional
layers of percussion.
But the Mars Volta has its weaknesses, including guitarist
Rodriguez-Lopez -- who channels Carlos Santana in his better moments
but Trey Anastasio in his worst -- and bassist Juan Alderete, who
was as fun to watch as a statue and who moved a little less.
Displays of showy musicianship such as this are always better
appreciated live than on album, and the Mars Volta did put on an
impressive show. But even this unapologetic prog-rock fan couldn't
help thinking that it would have been vastly improved by some
mind-bending videos, a more impressive light show and maybe a laser
And while the band is undeniably among the most ambitious in rock
today, the group needs to remember that the best progressive rock
was still mighty tuneful, and the Mars Volta has yet to write a song
as good as "Starship Trooper" or "Close to the Edge."