Now that emo has proven itself capable of selling more records than can fit into the back of a van, major labels are stumbling over one another to sign up as many young acts as they can, gambling that a small but loyal audience in New Brunswick or Santa Cruz or wherever will translate into a nationwide fan base. Less depressingly, a handful of bands are running with this sure-to-be-short-lived frenzy (i.e., too many damn Dashboard Confessional pinups!!) and making weird, adventurous records on a large, corporate dime.
De-Loused in the Comatorium, the dizzying first album by Los Angelenos the Mars Volta, finds singer Cedric Bixler and guitarist Omar Rodriguez-Lopez driving the boiling-point emo-skronk of their former group At the Drive-In past whatever boundaries their unexpected MTV exposure set for them. The components are largely the same as in the former band -- wound-tight coils of post-punk guitar, layers of rumbling percussion, Bixler's register-scraping yowl -- but everything sounds overdriven, sandblasted into urgency; when the band charges out of a long instrumental passage in "Cicatriz ESP," you can hear them straining to hold themselves to the tempo. The added keyboard squeals and shards of electronic noise prove dramatic, too, as in "Inertiatic ESP," where a pulsing electric-piano figure keeps spiraling ever upward. Not even the guest bass and guitar work by Red Hot Chili Peppers Flea and John Frusciante (who haven't sounded as urgent in ages) can cool things down.
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Zach Davidson, front man of new-to-Epic Seattle outfit Vendetta Red, shares with Bixler a preternaturally high voice (not to mention a righteously unkempt mane of very curly hair). A few times on Between the Never and the Now, the band's second album, he uses his scream to effect a similar sense of immediacy: In "Lipstick Tourniquets," a bizarre interlude of doo-wop vocals portends a final blast of riffery, and in the chorus of lead single "Shatterday," Davidson invites a kids' choir to yell along. It's a terrific moment of head-banging grandiloquence. Mostly, though, Vendetta Red registers lower on the creativity scale than the Mars Volta, choosing often to pair chunky power chords with rote minor-key melodies, as though the legacy of Queensrÿche still permeates the Emerald City.