Bands can be a crucial link to a specific time and place for people, the records hitting you at an age when it all made sense and communicated directly to you. I’m a bit older than the audience for The Mars Volta (and also for their precursor, At The Drive-In) but that feeling of “holy shit I can’t believe I’m about to see The Mars Volta” was rippling throughout the crowd and shared by everyone on the packed floor that I talked with.
Labeling a band and what they do (or what you think they do) is inevitable, a way for the mind to tuck entities into some sort of cranial Dewey Decimal System for cross-referencing, but with The Mars Volta it’s a fairly futile task. Somehow the prog rock tag got stuck on them early, mainly because I’m guessing they write so many long songs. Just don’t expect Relayer or Lark’s Tongue In Aspic or even something like A Farewell To Kings (though I bet odds are pretty decent that they pinched a song title from Rush). The core of the band remains the creative force that kicked it off in the first place, singer Cedric Bixler-Zavala and guitarist Omar Rodriguez-Lopez, and they pile on psych, prog, Latin and jazz until it’s a dizzying mix of sonic appendages that latch onto several receptor sites of your brain stem at the same time. You know that acid-dipped joint Brad Pitt’s character in Once Upon A Time In Hollywood smoked at the end of the movie? Picture Santana smoking a pack of them while taking steroids specifically targeting finger strength and endurance and then stuffing his face with a gravel pit full of Philosopher Stones about an hour before showtime.
Bixler-Zavela’s voice is incredibly strong and nuanced, coaxing all sorts of emotions from it to match the music; following the white-hot vapor trails of “Cygnus… Vismund Cygnus,” “Blacklight Shine” could have passed as some of outtake from Donald Fagen’s The Nightfly whereas “Drunkship of Lanterns” has a section that smells like Bonzo’s brutal drumming in “Achilles Last Stand.” Like I said, this band is not the one to stuff into some sort of pre-conceived box, and the world is a better place because of it.
Teri Gender Bender has some previous ties to The Mars Volta; her first band Le Butcherettes opened the 2015 reunion shows for At The Drive-In and she joined with Omar for the Crystal Fairy project that also featured Buzz Osborne from The Melvins. Currently sporting a Johnny Depp ‘stache, Teri is definitely adhering to her nom du stage. Singing and addressing the crowd solely in Spanish, Gender Bender ran through a set that felt as if Patti Smith had grown up Juarez, only in the 2000s. Ms. Smith would certainly approve.