Electro-Shock Psychedelia: Gimme Gimme Mars Volta

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I am a landmine, I am a landmine

So don’t just step on me, so don’t just step on me

Cause I’m a landmine, cause I’m a landmine
And I can blossom in the petals of an ECT

That’s when I disconnect from you
That’s when I disconnect, disconnect from–

I have listened to Noctourniquet over one hundred times. It makes me feel like a bright neon punk classicist.

I absolutely love that record. Noctourniquet is shamelessly Herculean in character and wildly ambitious in sonic form. It’s a perfect LP. When I think of Noctourniquet, I think in free-form science-fiction anarchy. I think in swirls of cosmic color and acid particles of astral light.

Noctourniquet explodes inside my brain like an asteroid of heavenly sonic beams–sound and color beautifully developed like some sort of time traveling polaroid. Every song is unearthly and it’s a thematically enigmatic, inspirational, and intelligently abstract magnum opus. Tracks like The Malkin Jewel see vocalist Cedric Bixler-Zavala expertly channeling a neon-clad Nick Cave, propelling the number into a technicolor galaxy of anxiety and planetary paradigm shifts. The Malkin Jewel is easily one of the best rock songs of the 2010s. It’s exquisitely composed and magnificently recorded by guitarist/primary visionary Omar Rodriguez-Lopez. It’s got misdirection, it’s got tropes, it’s got tenderness and passion, anger and a banger chorus. Most of all, it’s got a meaning so mysterious it’s next to impossible to unravel it and yet it’s somehow still so utterly relatable on a super personal level. The Malkin Jewel is ultimately transcendental.

marsvoltaIt’s that first track though. That’s the one that completely captures me. It’s called The Whip Hand and it’s basically, like, my raison d’être (the hyperbole’s not gonna stop anytime soon, folks!). It might sound like an embellishment of sorts but The Whip Hand speaks to me in the most perfectly furious sonic language I have ever heard. It’s as if I was made for this very specific and demanding musical vocabulary. It communicates to me directly without any sort of interference or latency because this song and I are on the same sonic wavelength. The Whip Hand sounds as if it was born inside of my guts. It’s how I wish all music was. It’s like The Mars Volta ripped the crunching synths straight from my spine. Good glorious God, I fucking LOVE the way those chomping, CRUNCHING, hungry synthesizers sound. If those things were the last I ever heard, I might not even be that upset with deafness. Noctourniquet opens with one of the most surreally perfect songs I have ever heard. I am completely obsessed with The Whip Hand. Consider me captured by it.

Second track Aegis is kind of reminiscent of the classic, crowd-pleasing Mars Volta punch-out Intertiatic ESP but Aegis actually surpasses it in every conceivable way. The closer Zed And Two Naughts is second only to The Whip Hand in total perfection and is sonically very similar to it. It’s a bookended wonderland of captivating soundscapes. Zed And Two Naughts is ridiculously fucking good. You can catch me screaming “St. Christopher” on the regular still. It’s a closing track that smolders in a serene, fundamentally outlandish hemisphere of bright flashing neon on a star-roving sonic slipstream. It’s a structural wonder.

Lapochka is sing-along science-fiction bliss. It’s a melody like this one that enchants me so much about the record. Molochwalker is all high-wire punk anthemics laced with sinister hidden lyrical and musical concepts. Trinkets Pale of Moon is a gorgeous song that spirits its listener away to planets unknown, to countries undiscovered, to a dystopic soundscape after some sort of pulverizing cosmic flood. There’s no more muscular and sincere emotional plea in modern rock music than the one found in Vedamalady. This track will break your heart.

Dyslexicon is funhouse schizophrenia. A ghostly call-and-response choral arrangement gives way to to a frenetic implosion of vocal anxiety and electric guitar acrobatics. The album’s title track paints a portrait of sacred inevitability in the face of a galactic uncertainty. In Absentia is all experimental mayhem and steadfast sci-fi marvel. It’s the noisiest, crunchiest track and it’s a challenging piece of many faces wearing several different masks. There are Venetian masks as well as those worn by plague doctors here. Sonically, this track delivers its own sonic universe. In Absentia is an electronica-rock space odyssey all on its own.

Noctorurnequet is a picaresque masterwork. Structurally and emotionally, the album is equal parts Federico Fellini’s neon surrealism and Andrei Tarkovsky’s chromatic depression. It’s all science-fiction affection and endless nocturnal paradise. It’s a multicolor, multi-faceted scary rainbow of sound. Noctourniquet, one of the very best of the last decade, is an LP that changes people. An essential rock record.

The fact that The Mars Volta were brave enough to give us free-associative and cynically new-age/anarchic excursions like these makes me feel like I’m listening to acid-drenched screams from some distant stark raving mad future:

When you walk the plank, tell me what you see
Moloch in the time of mutiny

What’s that satchel of numbers doing?
Can’t my fingers tell extinction?

We’re primarily and almost exclusively talking about the unreal creative chemistry of Cedric Bixler-Zavala and Omar Rodriguez-Lopez. These guys have been making music together longer than most people have known each other. It’s become one of the most fruitful friendships/collaborative partnerships in recent history. These two fucking know each other inside and out. The most painfully and astonishingly evident thing about At The Drive-In, The Mars Volta, and Antemasque is the alien bond that exists between vocalist and guitarist–something proudly showcased in each individual outfit. Every LP captures a preternatural and spine-chilling relationship–expounded, transformed, and pushed to its phantom limits.

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The Bixler-Zavala/Rodriguez-Lopez institution is just as otherworldly a musical convergence as Lennon/McCartney were for a different era. Bixler-Zavala/Rodriguez-Lopez on the same artistic level as a Simon/Garfunkel or a Jagger/Richards. These two were cosmically predestined to make music together. Somewhere, somehow stars aligned and planets moved as one in order to make these two come together. I can’t help but romanticize these kinds of creative marriages. I think they’re really special and actually cosmically relevant. I believe in a fundamentally supernatural element in pop music and Bixler-Zavala/Rodriguez-Lopez express those feelings perfectly.

I don’t know, I ingested quite a lot of acid in my early twenties. Maybe that explains a lot.

The ultimate culmination of their collaborative genius will always be Relationship of Command. Noctournequet, In/Casino/Out, and Frances The Mute are also flawless, immaculate albums that secure these two visionary mammoths as rock and roll masterminds without challengers.

Cedric Bixler-Zavala always was and always will be one of my favorite vocalists ever. Hell, when I was thirteen-years-old it was my job to christen the family dog with a name. I called him Cedric. He was a good dog. He got mauled by a pit bull when I was nineteen. I still remember the little guy dead and stiff in the bathtub waiting to be buried. I thought of Inertiatic ESP. I had to listen to it. LOUD.

Inertiatic ESP is actually the first song I ever heard by Cedric Bixler-Zavala and Omar Rodriguez-Lopez. Once again, I was thirteen and it was 2003 and De-Loused in the Comatorium had just been released. I remember seeing these dudes in some magazine feature spread somewhere like Alternative Press or Spin or something to that effect and was startlingly, completely intrigued by the interview. I thought I just HAD to hear what this was all about. I had missed the original At The Drive-In train just by a few years. As I’ve covered in this website’s recent history Relationship Of Command and In/Casino/Out would eventually come to mean the world to me as a music lover but that all happens later. In the year 2000 when At The Drive-In’s milestone of grammar was unleashed on the genre, I was only ten-years-old–far too young to grasp ANYTHING about what made the record so important and incredible. At The Drive-In would hunt me down eventually though and the rest is sonic fucking history.

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I remember oh-so-clearly the moment Bixler-Zavala’s voice emerged on Son et lumiere. I will never forget the total RUSH of Inertiatic ESP cutting into the track. It took complete control of my young, starving-eyed world. I believe I was changed right then and there. This guy was my very own Robert Plant, and this guitar player–was he even fucking HUMAN? What in the fucking hell was this shit? I was perplexed, infatuated, and hooked. I must have listened to that album thousands of times that year alone. I remember sitting in the gym with these stupid shitty headphones with my cheap-ass walkman on ‘hold’ so I could sit uninterrupted while The Mars Volta transported me to place far, far away from there. De-Loused in the Comatorium was essential to my early teenage years. I positively would not be where I am right now without it.

The band’s next offering was Frances The Mute in 2005 and I love that record. The group’s best is easily Noctourniquet by a country mile but Frances The Mute will always be second in my heart. It’s a pure blast. It showcases The Mars Volta at their most emotionally anxious and experimentally sound. The album’s origins lay in a creepy found diary and Rodriguez-Lopez’s unhealthy collection of TV sets. It has to do with two young musical geniuses staring at a wall of poorly stacked television monitors and seeing a wild-eyed and surreal future buried in static.

Frances The Mute put its best foot forward with The Widow as the album’s lead single. R-409491-1321805472.jpegThat goddamn song, man, is so unbelievable I never tire of it. It’s incredible and perfect and ohmygosh–this song rules. The freaking video was even rotated kindly on MTV during the channel’s final days of relevance. I remember actually seeing it on television multiple times and just being awestruck by the complete fucking majesty of the song. The crown jewel of the LP though is L’Via L’Viaquez, a track that fully captures everything I love about experimental noisy rock music. It’s a track that brings together everything about The Mars Volta that made them great and different–it’s a mushroom cloud of indescribably designed sounds. L’Via L’Viaquez is a cross-cultural free-form pop-crunch symphony of surrealist color. L’Via L’Viaquez is good. L’Via L’Viaquez is life. Viva L’Via L’Viaquez!

I have to take a time-out to discuss just how punk rock it was (for very awful reasons) to listen to music like this in extremely white subcultures. I vividly remember being given stankface from many of my peers for adoring an album that’s half in Spanish like Frances The Mute. People were perturbed by my love for The Mars Volta. It was an odd thing, it wasn’t simply that I was listening to psychedelia I couldn’t decipher that was bothering my friends, it was also somehow the fact that it was Latin based that repelled them as well. This was experienced up north in Vermont, a place so white and Jewish that it’s kind of extraordinary in that way. I’m not exaggerating at all when I tell you there were absolutely no Spanish kids in my entire high school, which at one point in my life felt so large to me now fits squarely in my mind as unequivocally infinitesimal.

When I was 16, my family relocated to Florida and that’s where I was formally introduced by a more cultured punk and hardcore scene to Relatonship of Command. Later during my crazy heroin bender in a dilapidated Miami punkhouse, the only commonality between all of us junkies was our absolute disregard for the future and our total, undying love for Relationship of Command. The punkhouse was primarily populated by Cuban-American anarchists and the like. They even translated certain Mars Volta lyrics for me in a doped-up stupor. I can still recall parts of that bizarre period in my life fondly. I hope I never regret it entirely. Those late-night Relationship of Command listening sessions are seared into my mind as good things, even if we were hardly conscious and barely there at all. We were cardboard cut-outs making human noises but we were responsive nonetheless.

The Mars Volta aren’t without mis-steps and failures. I consider their third LP Amputechture to be a near-total misfire and I really don’t think Octahedron is that much better. These records are diseased with cliches and lack any sort of self-awareness. These aren’t even creative failures that are still interesting to listen to for cautionary purposes, they’re just boring ones–half-hearted and insubstantial. It’s saddening but, at the same time, it is kind of comforting to know that even rock Gods like Cedric and Omar step in dog shit sometimes.

Sandwiched between those two blemishes on an otherwise outstanding track record is The Bedlam in Goliath, the band’s most commercially successful record debuting at #3 on the Billboard 200. Craaazy ouija boards, ramshackle curio shops, and a mystically mind-altering trip to Jerusalem brought this one to fruition. For the most part, the record is very good. It works and it’s got a good inventive spirit as well as some strong examples of atmosphere building guitar techniques. I enjoy it for what it is and I think it succeeds where it tries to more than it falls short. I also think occasional guitar player John Frusciante really pulls through for them this time around. There was an excellent harmony between all the different band members during The Bedlam in Goliath sessions and that really shines through on the LP itself.

Progressive rock music is a very derisive genre. Die-hard fans of it seem to be perpetually splintered off into distinctly disdainful, contemptuous camps. A large part of what makes up progressive rock’s fanbase are musicians themselves and musicians, especially the always expanding number of failed ones, are quite a scornful and bitter lot. They think that since they didn’t end up as God’s gift to radio, that rock criticism belongs to them somehow simply because they know how to play and read music. That’s bullshit. That’s ego-fucked bullshit. I myself know how to write words down on scratch paper, am I a book reviewer for The New Yorker now? Fuck off, you pretentious anti-thought douchebags. My tirade makes sense when you consider the disproportionate amount of backlash The Mars Volta seemed to receive from every direction no matter what they did. Either publications that never appreciated progressive guitar music like Pitchfork would shit all over them for reasons unknown (or at the very least for poorly articulated ones) or the sneering would come from the crybaby prog-rock armies of spoiled, disaffected music listeners themselves. Neither party provided even passable talking points. The Mars Volta were a legendary band in spite of never receiving proper recognition and hardly any amount of steady praise during their career.

Noctourniquet wraps up the Mars Volta’s catalog. I couldn’t begin to fathom a more powerful, more perfectly composed final bow. It’s a keyboard driven masterpiece that features what I view as Rodriguez-Lopez’s most daring and everlasting compositions to date. These last songs from the band are beautiful articles of rock and roll trapped in precious amber.

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It’s a album partly influenced by the tragic Greek myth of Hyacinth. All he wanted to do was impress the beautiful man he was infatuated with and Zephyrus (God of the West Wind) killed him for it out of jealousy during an innocent game of discus. The tragedy struck at a vulnerable moment where Hyacinth was trying desperately to win his affection’s favor with a difficult catch. Zephyrus altered the direction of the wind and made it so the discus struck the youth dead. Apollo refused to allow Hades to claim the young boy’s body, opting to provide a flower instead. He gave it the boy’s namesake and he crafted it entirely from the youth’s blood. Its petals were said to be stained with grief by the tears of Apollo himself. Calling back to The Whip HandNoctourniquet‘s flawless opening crunch, and the hauntingly delivered lyric And I can blossom in the petals of an ECT are not only eternal, they’re magical and they’re devastating. The song is sung from a guilted perspective and it’s full of psychedelic loss. The Whip Hand is all modern Apollo and he’s positively enraged. Cedric Bixler-Zavala as an escaped electro-shock punk idol.

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“It’s about embracing life for what it should be. There’s a view of the elitist lifestyle – that being an artist is unattainable. I’m trying to write this story that reminds people that we’re all artists.” – Cedric Bixler-Zavala on the overall concept of Notournequet

Noctourniquet asks you to journey with it to unknown realms of colorful sounds. It wants to reinforce in you your worth as a crucial creative part of the artistic process. It wants to take care of you and make you feel inspired. It wants you to know you’re not alone out there. Noctourniquet is on the same unfolding cosmic voyage as you.

Come on. Jump in. You can drive.

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