Listen to this whilst reading?
The Mars Volta have recently become one of my favourite bands. They are a band that are seemingly impossible to like on first listen though. Something you might experience in the next 30 seconds or so if you’re listening to the track playing up top.
After dismissing them myself after first listen two or three years ago, I was led back in their direction via a track called ‘Cygnus….Vismund Cygnus’ via YouTube. ‘Cygnus..’ is a thirteen minute rock epic with some of the most ambitious guitar and drum work you’ll hear this side of being a fan of the Volta. Complex, full of energy and accompanied with cryptic lyrics and artwork.
‘Cygnus..’ led me to dig deeper into the Volta’s work starting with the Deloused in the Comatorium, Frances the mute, Amputechture and the Bedlam in Goliath albums as well as related work with Omar Rodriguez Lopez, the lead guitarist and main creative force behind the band.
Cedric & Omar – The Mars Volta
Considering the music styles they run through, the Mars Volta’s sound is tricky to put into words in a way that can do the band justice. There could be two ways of explaining the Mars Volta’s style to new listeners though:
If the Mars Volta were a drink at a bar they’d probably be a pint of tequila topped with Tabasco sauce laced with magic mushrooms. Some of the bands musical ideas and lyrics are outrageous.
Sample lyrics from ‘Cygnus..’ “My nails peel back / when the taxidermist ruined / goose stepped the freckling impatience / all the brittle tombs”
Cedric often makes his lyrics up on the spot to be fair and aside from the lyrics, the Mars Volta can certainly make for torturous listening. Long, loud, dissonant improvisation and lengthy ambient noise sections. This is all part of their sound though and sandwiched between moments of brilliance, sends you on a surreal pain and pleasure rollercoaster.
Listening to the MarsVolta is a Rollercoaster
Another way to describe the Mars Volta has to be ambitious. I have yet to come across a band with as much pure ambition as the Mars Volta in terms of song writing and experimentation.
Frantic, free-jazz guitar solos that scale the whole neck of the guitar, impossible rhythm changes that sound like they’ve been written on another planet and 10+ minute songs that dash through a maze of sections with the tightness of a band who sound like they’ve been together for a lifetime. The Deloused in the Comatorium album is testament to this, often regarded as some of the band’s finest experimentation and after many listens is now up there as of one my favourite albums of all time.
Another massive part of the Mars Volta’s sound alongside the improvisation and experimentation is the unresolving dissonance. A unique part of the band’s sound and a part of their style I now love. Unresolving dissonance is pretty rare in most music and is incredibly tension-building. You’ll hear a lot of it in film soundtracks to create scenes of fear, danger and the like.
Instinctively, listeners want ‘wrong-sounding’ notes to resolve / to be followed by a familiar or ‘normal’ note and by going against this, the Mars Volta prove how much energy unresolving dissonance can create when it’s used well. Your waiting for Omar’s guitar line to resolve. It doesn’t and the offending note is played again. And again and then the music moves quickly into a new section and the pain & pleasure rollercoaster that is listening to the Mars Volta takes another turn. All this dissonance is torturous and compelling and pretty mind-bending at times too but this is just another hallmark of a weird and definitely-wonderful band.
Amputechture Album Artwork
For many people, the Mars Volta will certainly need more than just one listen. Probably several. They can be a very difficult band to appreciate at first however the more you listen the closer you can get to enjoying some quite incredible music.
Apologies if you were looking for an unbiased view here but the Mars Volta for all their outrageousness and ambition emerge as a band to love.
Here’s what other fans of the Mars Volta are saying too:
I find this song to be on the same level as Tetragrammaton. F*ck, everything they do is f*cking amazing, whenever I listen to them it’s like, “What is life?”.
I genuinely think the Mars Volta are better than hard drugs, sex and life. Combined. Times eighteen.
This album definitely takes some patience and some getting used to, but isn’t that true of all your favorite albums?
(the album) Amputechture has won me over, proving that once again Mars Volta are probably the one band on Earth who are most successful at challenging both themselves and the listener. These guys take the term “progressive” seriously.
Omar’s playing really shines here – truly original, knotty, torturous
“In a nutshell, you don’t know what to expect from the Mars Volta in any given song. They can draw you in with a simple riff or quiet melody, before launching into a screaming, frenetic jumble of Latin-prog-psychedelica-acid-jazz. It’s dizzying; the instrumentation is as wild and abstract as their dark, bizarre songwriting. Their lyrics are a bit reminiscent of Burroughs, and deliver a visceral punch even if they don’t make sense.” – Anon
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