The Mars Volta's latest CD, Amputechture, is not for listeners with short attention spans
Float the idea that the Mars Volta's just-released Amputechture is entirely too strange for mass consumption, and Cedric Bixler-Zavala doesn't get offended. On the contrary, the singer and lyricist is quick to agree. And for that, he makes no apologies.
“I appreciate that we have an audience, and I appreciate that someone would actually give themselves up to us,” Bixler-Zavala says, on the line from Sacramento, where the Mars Volta is opening for the Red Hot Chili Peppers. “But although I appreciate our audience, we don't do things for them. It's all for us—we play really self-indulgent music. On the one hand, some of the record is very beautiful, but a lot of it is taxing. And a lot of it can be boring to some people.”
Amputechture is the third full-length from the Mars Volta, a project started by Bixler-Zavala and guitarist-songwriter Omar Rodriguez-Lopez after they bailed from much-hyped posthardcore heroes At the Drive-In. The album may be a lot of things, but boring isn't one of them. The Mars Volta's two principals have consciously pushed themselves since rethinking their musical attack plan in 2001, but they've never been as ambitious as they are here. Bixler-Zavala uses the term confrontational to describe the hour-long-plus disc, and that's as good a starting point as any. Definitely not geared toward those suffering from ADHD, five of Amputechture's eight songs punch in at nine minutes or more. The insanity kicks off with “A Vicarious Atonement”, a seven-minute soundscape that blazes with dream-syndicate vocals and acid-flashed guitar heroics. Nothing—not the genre-mashing freakout that was 2005's Frances the Mute, definitely not the band's 2003 debut album De-Loused in the Comatorium—prepares for what unfolds from there. Over the course of an often-insane 75 minutes, the Mars Volta careens wildly from postskronk punk to distortion-stunned jazz to hyper-literate metal to monolithic prog-rock. Pig-squeal saxophone, porn-soundtrack organs, and backward-looped percussion colour songs dominated by Rodriguez-Lopez's endlessly inventive six-string work and Bixler-Zavala's helium-powered histrionics.
Amputechture draws the battle lines early with the album's second track, “Tetragrammaton”, which starts out like a math-rock–guitar war then ends in a jet-roar wash of undiluted white noise. By the time the song wraps up, you're either convinced the Mars Volta is the most mind-blowing act in modern rock 'n' roll or so frustratingly impenetrable that you'll have a new appreciation for the idiotic simplicity of the Ramones.
For proof that the band alienates as many people as it manages to captivate, all Bixler-Zavala has to do is look out from the stage when he's touring with a mainstream-oriented act like the Peppers. On most nights, the songs off Amputechture aren't converting a lot of Red Hot fans to the Mars Volta cause.
“Some of the shows have been duds,” Bixler- Zavala says candidly. “The older Chili Pepper audiences just sit there and have no clue. It's like we're up there trying to put on the full-on show that everyone talks about and writes about, and then you've got a bunch of old folks who just want to hear ‘Under the Bridge'. And that's no offence to the Chili Peppers—they are such a fantastic band.”
The singer, who's easily one of the most frenetic frontmen in the business, thinks he knows why the average rock-radio fan has difficulty understanding the Mars Volta.
“I guess what we're doing is closer to jazz and classical music,” he suggests, “because there are so many parts and pieces. But we're more like modern classical—people whose stuff doesn't get interpreted that often because they are so out there.”
If the Mars Volta challenges listeners, Bixler-Zavala says that only makes sense because he and Rodriguez-Lopez started the band to challenge themselves. That was something they felt they weren't doing with At the Drive-In, which they left just as it had exploded into a full-fledged buzz band.
“At the Drive-In was very meat and potatoes—a one-trick pony,” Bixler-Zavala says. “Everyone was attracted to us because we put on a good live show. But there were never really any memorable songs or melodies with that band. The sound really stemmed from us being a 20th-generation version of what had happened in Washington, DC, and in San Diego. As offensive as it sounds, it was very white, linear music and I wasn't having that. I was bored.”
Amputechture proves the singer has no intention of becoming hemmed in artistically with the Mars Volta. After delivering full-blown concept records with both De-Loused and Frances, Bixler-Zavala doesn't tell a single story this time out. He describes the songs on the new disc as David Lynch–like short films examining the idea of faith. The starting point for his lyrical inspiration was the story of a nun who ended up crucified in Romania after a priest became convinced that she was possessed. What follows are explorations of everything from the wonders of the brain's pineal gland to the untapped powers of the Amazon rain forest. But don't expect Bixler-Zavala's approach to such subjects to be any more straightforward than Rodriguez-Lopez's music; sample lyrics on Amputechture include “That cesspool it becomes you just north of the eyebrows” from “Vermicide” and the “Viscera Eyes” head-scratcher “Wait! I've seen the ark shake from your pneumonic tongue/But the Braille that you weave of itself it shall read aloud”.
“Omar keeps a lot of my gibberish takes, and later on I'll have to attempt to write words around them,” the singer says. “On this record you'll see a lot of spots where words are missing because I gave up. A lot of times what you'll hear is just a feeling rather than a real word. But it's the feeling that should hit you, not exactly what it is that I'm trying to say.”
In other words, Bixler-Zavala isn't afraid to speak in tongues on Amputechture. On the subject of religion, the lyricist, who was raised Mexican-Catholic, is convinced a greater power is out there, but he doesn't believe that any organized religion knows exactly what that is. What he loves most about the Mars Volta is that—even when the masses don't entirely get it—the band gives him something to believe in on a nightly basis.
“I do have a sense of spirituality,” he says, “and I think that we attain it the more and more we kind of improv and kind of close our eyes and let things happen. That way I can pay my respects and have my own version of church when we play live. What you're seeing up there is my own communion.”
The Mars Volta opens for the Red Hot Chili Peppers at GM Place next Thursday (September 14).