I've been having nightmares lately, populated by drug addicts, orphans, a woman with her mouth sewn up, and occasionally two skinny Afroed Chicano guys who whisper sinister things in Spanish. They didn't go away even after I saw the band that's causing them -- the Mars Volta -- play live last Tuesday night at the Dodge Theatre. If anything, the night terrors are worse.
The Mars Volta played just eight songs, but the concert lasted two hours. The band is touring behind its second and latest full-length, Frances the Mute. Led by former At the Drive-In front men Omar A. Rodriguez-Lopez and Cedric Bixler-Zavala, the Mars Volta is an anomaly in the history of popular music, a cerebral, mysterious, and purposefully inaccessible prog-punk outfit that somehow ended up on Universal Records and has the ability to pack large venues like the Dodge. The closest comparison to the Mars Volta would be Radiohead with punk rock and metal tendencies, and more insane: experimental to the point of distraction, with intervals of Cuban jazz and instrumental skronk, Cedric's often using his voice as an instrument complementing solos by Omar's guitar, the keyboards, and, strangely enough, a flute player.
Given the self-absorbed, experimental nature of the Mars Volta, it's curious that the band has managed to get two singles from Frances on the radio -- "The Widow" and "L'Via l'Viaquez." The shortest song on Frances is almost six minutes, and the longest stretches past half an hour, with sprawling instrumental interludes that occasionally devolve into pure noise.
Surprisingly, there was no opening act for the Mars Volta. The band -- an eight-piece in this incarnation, including the sound manipulator -- opened with "Drunkship of Lanterns" from its first LP, 2003's De-Loused in the Comatorium. De-Loused is a mind-boggling concept album, a tribute to one of the band members' childhood friends, Julio Vanegas, who committed suicide in 1996. It's based on a story by Cedric about a protagonist named Cerpin Taxt who attempts suicide by overdosing on morphine, but instead goes into a coma wherein he exists in a sci-fi universe inside his head. Cerpin Taxt eventually comes out of his coma, but still decides to end his life after that.
De-Loused is substantially easier to follow than Frances the Mute, despite the band's Dadaist inclinations, because Cedric's 21-page story is available if you search online (easy enough at www.thecomatorium.com). Frances is a whole new monster, a tangled web of narratives that takes place in the real world, rife with allusions to Greek mythology, collage techniques like those pioneered by artist/poet Max Ernst, and loosely based on a diary found by the band's now-deceased former sound manipulator, Jeremy Michael Ward.
Ward died of an overdose in May of 2003, days before De-Loused was released. Frances is inspired by a diary Ward found in a car while working as a repo man, which told of the author's adoption and the search for his biological parents. Ward was adopted as well, and Omar claims he began finishing the diary. The song titles on Frances (which has just five songs in 77 minutes) are named after the people in the diary, each of whom gets the protagonist closer to his biological parents.
Interpretation of the story is purposefully difficult -- the band isn't giving many clues. We know this much for sure: Vismund Cygnus (of the first track, "Cygnus . . . Vismund Cygnus") is the one searching for his parents. Frances the Mute is his biological mother, and also the widow after whom the first single is named. There are several other characters -- L'Via, Miranda and Cassandra -- who may or may not simply exist in Cygnus' imagination, or may be, respectively, Frances' sister, her mother, and Cygnus' twin sister.
Deciphering the album is a dissatisfactory endeavor, made no easier by the knowledge that the band members want you to believe your own interpretation of the events described. They've said that Frances is about the missing pieces as well, which is appropriate given that the title track was left off the album. They've called "Frances the Mute" the "decoder" track that unlocks the secrets of the record. The song is expected to be released as a single, but it's already been leaked online.
Strangely, the lyrics for the missing song are included in the liner of Frances the album, but even after listening to the song and reading the lyrics, I haven't unlocked anything. Fans have speculated a number of scenarios that may work -- playing the song backward at half-tempo, transcribing the squall of its first four minutes into Morse code, playing it over another track on the album -- but I haven't delved that deeply because I don't believe there are any secrets to be found.
The band was just as mysterious onstage last week, the members paying virtually no attention to the crowd, with an enormous, trippy black-and-white canvas behind them, bathed in hellish red lights and seizure-inducing white strobes. Omar played guitar like the Jimi Hendrix of his generation, while Cedric crooned and wailed in his falsetto voice, slithering around the stage evoking the moves of Jim Morrison and James Brown. Despite the regular self-indulgent 10- to 15-minute instrumental bridges, the band was near perfect, often trance-inducing.
Seeing the Mars Volta live in its prime will stick with me forever, like if I had seen Led Zeppelin or Pink Floyd in the '70s. The Mars Volta is far and away the most original and intellectual band on the planet right now, even if I can't unlock its alleged mysteries. It may scare the shit out of me and sneak into my subconscious when it's not wanted, but the music is intriguing like nothing else I've ever encountered.
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