It's not hard in these short-attention span, disposable-pop times to be freaks, but the two guys with Afros from El Paso's At the Drive-In are the lords of freakdom. They smoke copious amounts of pot, watch foreign films, read books with words you can't pronounce and write indecipherably titled (e.g., "Cicatriz ESP") prog-rock tracks that hover in the six-minute range. Musically, the Mars Volta conjures up the Jesus Lizard playing Yes songs with Santana. Its debut LP is a brilliant and difficult concept record, as deep and heady as Pink Floyd, but as visceral and flat-out rocking as Zeppelin. There are mysteries woven into the layers of spider webs of guitar arpeggios and haunted houses of vocals. All of the tracks segue one into the other with odd instrumental passages or sound effects, so that the record flows together. The only thing that's missing is the gatefold vinyl and headphones.
The album's concept is based on the life of a friend of the band's big hairs, Cedric Bixler Zavala and Omar Rodriguez-Lopez. The song cycle tracks the overdose and coma -- during which the protagonist dreams and battles himself -- and his re-emergence from the coma, after which he decides to commit suicide. At least that's what the press materials say. You don't need to know any of that to enjoy the intricate song structures, off-kilter rhythms, surrealist lyrics and Rodriguez-Lopez's mind-bending guitar lines -- in fact, if nobody told you what the concept was, you might miss it. Mid-song jams stretch on and on, as the band finds its footing and gets deep into what it's creating, with little care for form or structure. It sounds like freedom.
There's a definite groove underneath the odd time signatures and abruptly shifting rhythms. On bass, it's Flea from the Red Hot Chili Peppers sitting in, but his "chicken potpie" popping and slapping is kept low in the mix, making it subtle. (RHCP guitarist John Frusciante also guests on a track.) Keyboardist Ikey Isaiah Owens lays down the sometimes funky organ, but usually just provides a solid pad for the sprawling free-form guitar parts. Songs ebb and flow, build and dissipate, sometimes disappearing completely, only to remerge as if they'd never gone away.
The Mars Volta
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There's no radio single, though "Cicatriz ESP," at 12 minutes, could be sliced and diced into three songs that would fit in among the heavier alt-rock songs on the Buzz. In its current form, however, it has a pair of lengthy stretches of near-silence, with dreamlike waves of extremely echoed and barely audible guitar washes. The band's record isn't easy, and it's certainly not for everyone, but it's worth the effort.