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Sunday, April 14, 2002
THE MARS VOLTA
It's not what you're thinking . . .
The way the rock business works is, you buy the record and if you like what you hear, you go to see the band in concert, which more likely than not, will be scheduled within two months of the record's release. Or, you see a band (by accident?) at a concert and then you rush out to your nearest record store, buy the album and are immediately disappointed. In Japan, you can usually buy it in the lobby.
At least, that's the way I think it's supposed to work. In any event, The Mars Volta's concert at Shibuya Club Quattro on April 6 was not business as usual. Formed partially from the ashes of At the Drive-In, the El Paso, Texas, post-punk band whose stunning 2000 album, "Relationship of Command," impressed even the most jaded rock-watcher, The Mars Volta managed to pack Quattro despite a total lack of locally available aural product.
Which isn't to say sounds weren't available, only that those sounds were limited to MP3 recordings of songs from their European tours, with titles that seemed to change by the hour. The band's first EP wasn't on sale until three days prior to the Quattro show, which meant you couldn't find it at any local record stores. When you could dig up a description of the music itself, you read about influences as wide-ranging as Led Zeppelin, Fela Kuti and salsa; or that the band was an offshoot of a dub-electronica project called Defacto. In its press release, the Japan tour promoter likened their sound to prog-rock dinosaurs like Yes and King Crimson.
Obviously, whatever expectations you brought to the show wouldn't be reliable ones, and, considering ATDI's history, it wasn't difficult to imagine that that was the intention. Though the band had been playing and releasing records on indie labels for seven years prior to "Relationship," their style and sound changed noticeably over time. The reason lead singer Cedric Bixler and guitarist Omar Rodriguez quit the group right after it achieved success was that success meant the group would forever have to meet expectations. But the whole concept of ATDI, with its free-form live sets and confusing, nonlinear songs, was to defy them.
I arrived with the unrealistic notion that The Mars Volta might be rock's version of the "pure live artist" that one hears about in avant-garde music: musicians who believe a connection between artist and listener can only be forged spontaneously in a concert setting. Of course, this notion also counts as an expectation. The group was hawking its new EP at the venue, just like an unsigned band, but I took special note of the sign that said you couldn't actually purchase it until after the show, not that anyone was going to have the time to listen to it beforehand.
The band continued to confound expectations from the moment it took the stage, accompanied by huge applause, a tape of someone ranting in German and spacey keyboard-guitar noodling. The cosmic vibe was eventually exploded when the band came together in what can only be described as an At the Drive-In moment: Omar stumbling backward, Cedric diving head first into the audience, and the band locking into a punishing, incoherent roar.
For the next hour, people in the audience were either jumping around crazed or staring at the stage mesmerized, often at the same time and right next to each other. The band was arguably playing songs, but, as a singer, Cedric was not providing the signposts one needs to navigate the sense of a song. He mostly provided drama, aurally with whelps and shrieks and visually by swinging from the lighting fixtures like Tarzan, an image rendered even sillier by his skinny frame and David Soul-like '70s coiffure.
The promoter's Yes comparison wasn't far from the mark. Though not really a progressive-rock band, The Mars Volta's main musical m.o. is nevertheless arrangements whose visceral power is based on the complexity of their interactivity, an idea best exemplified by the long, elaborate introduction to Yes' classic-rock classic "Heart of the Sunrise."
The difference is that The Mars Volta has no use for subtlety. Cedric's possessed antics and Omar's faux-Sun Ra guitar work, though positioned front and center, were less central to the appeal of the performance than the raw power of Jon Theodore's drums and Eva Gardner's bass, a combination that recalled Bonham-Jones and Moon-Entwhistle in their prime. Theodore even did a five-minute drum solo straight out of the Ginger Baker school of ostentatious virtuosity, but the difference here was that when Baker did it, Clapton and Bruce took a cigarette break. During the entirety of Theodore's solo, Omar shook shook uncontrollably and Cedric screamed at both the drummer and us.
There was also a lot more blues than I would have expected; emotive, histrionic blues in the style of "Communication Breakdown." In the '70s context that the band was working in, the blues had been a way for young Turks to draw attention to their chops, and in a Web interview I read a month or so ago, Omar indicated that he wanted to turn audiences on to the kind of ambitious rock that punk supposedly buried. Keyboardist Isaiah "Ikey" Owens, formerly of the Long Beach Dub Allstars, sometimes seemed out of place with his Booker T. organ vamps and Crusader-like piano runs, but he also grounded the chaos in accomplished musicianship.
It was perhaps inevitable that the evening ended with a whimper instead of a bang, the band just petering out after 60 minutes of pure tension. Many in the audience seemed genuinely stunned, and when a second encore didn't materialize it took them a minute or so to pick themselves up and make their way out the exit. The stragglers were too late. The EPs sold out in less than five minutes, which was totally expected.