The mind-melting magic of The Mars Volta


There’s a brief moment in the 2010 comedy Get Him to the Greek in which the lead, record label underdog Aaron Green (portrayed by a prime-era Jonah Hill) suggests to his girlfriend Daphne (via Elisabeth Moss, who is criminally under-utilised in the film) that they skip a night in binging Gossip Girl to catch a live set from Texan prog-rockers The Mars Volta. Daphne brazenly shoots the plan down – even after being played a clip of ‘And Ghosted Pouts’, an iridescent gem from The Mars Volta’s colossal live album Scabdates.

Part of the schtick behind Get Him to the Greek is that its story is eccentrically outlandish. But even so, there’s no way director Nicholas Stoller could expect the viewer to suspend their disbelief at such a patently unrealistic scene. No sane adult would turn down an opportunity to see The Mars Volta – especially not after bearing witness to such euphoric musical ecstasy as the climax of ‘And Ghosted Pouts’. Perhaps Stoller was trying to insinuate Daphne had no soul? That not instantly dumping her after that exchange was implicit of Green’s innate cowardice?

Flimsy as the scene may be, it did come with the benefit of drawing new fans to The Mars Volta. Not that it was necessary exposure – hot off the heels of their fifth album Octahedron, the duo had well established themselves as the modern kings of prog, smashing charts and stuffing arenas with haircut-deprived stoners all around the world. Their success arguably peaked in 2008 with The Bedlam In Goliath, but until the fateful morning of January 23rd, 2013 (when their breakup was officially announced), The Mars Volta rode their wave consistently and with earnest aplomb.

It’s impossible to overstate the wide-ranging influence of guitarist Omar Rodríguez-López (often noted as the band’s ‘director’) and singer Cedric Bixler-Zavala; perhaps the only thing Mastodon has in common with Lizzo is that both have praised The Mars Volta for aiding in their creative magnetism. And it’s clear to see why: their catalogue is pillared on sprawling, kaleidoscopic epics fusing everything from Latin jazz to heavy metal in a way that feels cohesive, yet erratic – rough and rugged, yet stunningly meticulous – often all in the same track.

Much of The Mars Volta’s charm comes from the enigmatic quirks of Rodríguez-López and Bixler-Zavala, and the unconventional ways they melded. Take, for example, their 2003 debut (and longstanding fan-favourite) De-Loused In The Comatorium – a blistering math-rock rollercoaster ride through the gristly dreams of one Cerpin Taxt, who slips into a coma following a casual binge on morphine and rat poison. Though its storytelling is largely based in fiction, Taxt was a real person – a friend of Bixler-Zavala’s, artist Julio Venegas – who committed suicide in ’96.

The LP’s successor, 2005’s Frances The Mute, also tapped into the mind of a real tormented soul – though one no member of the band, nor any of their crew, had ever met. Working as a repo man, sound technician Jeremy Ward found a diary in the back of a car he was tasked to collect. Ward found parallels between the writer’s life and his own, and, inspired by the stories expounded, continued writing in the diary from where its previous owner left off. Self-produced by Rodríguez-López, the record was a labour of ambitious experimentation. He made a point not to share any ideas for it with his bandmates as a group, instead meeting with each member one-on-one to ensure their individual musicality could flourish unrestricted.

2006’s Amputechture came to life in a much more lowkey fashion. Its sessions split between Los Angeles and El Paso in the States, and Melbourne just down the street from us, it signified a much looser, more organic process for the band. Similarly, it marked their first effort without a grand conceptual narrative behind it; it’s the band’s most experimental effort, precisely because of how un-experimental it is. But alas, fans and critics alike were largely apathetic upon release, and Rodríguez-López and Bixler-Zavala have since acknowledged Amputechture as an anomaly among the trendline.

The spark returned for their aforementioned 2008 offering, The Bedlam In Goliath – which has the unique privilege of being one of the few haunted albums in existence…No, seriously. Its conceptual phase was fraught with chaos at the hands of Rodríguez-López, who’d picked up a ouija board in Jerusalem while on tour with the Red Hot Chili Peppers. Broke and burnt out, drummer Blake Fleming impulsively quit midway through the tour. Bixler-Zavala wound up needing foot surgery and had to re-learn how to walk. Rodríguez-López had his home studio ravaged by floods and spontaneous electrical issues. The album’s original engineer abandoned the project after spiralling into a nervous breakdown. And the hard drive on which it existed would often glitch out, randomly erasing days’ worth of work.

Octahedron is perhaps the only record in The Mars Volta’s discography that has no underlying morbid flair to its backstory; no deaths or injuries, nor any fraught tensions between members in the studio. Fittingly, the 2009 LP was born of the band’s determination not to retread any old ground – Bixler-Zavala declared to Drowned In Sound upon release that they endeavoured to make “the opposite of all the records we’ve done”. As such, it’s also the only Mars Volta record to clock in at under an hour long.

According to Bixler-Zavala, the band’s 2012 swan song Noctourniquet – inspired by the mythical greek hero Hyacinthus and the nursery rhyme ‘Solomon Grundy’ – is about “embracing life for what it should be”, critiquing “the elitist lifestyle – that being an artist is unattainable”. Though thematically The Mars Volta’s most contented work, Noctourniquet was marred by a widespread lack of enthusiasm within the band; its recording process was drawn out by years of arguments between Bixler-Zavala and Rodríguez-López, longtime guitarist John Frusciante turning the project down over fears of its over-commercialisation, and Rodríguez-López stepping back from his role in assiduously framing each element of the record’s production.

Regardless of the varying degrees of tumult they experienced time and time again behind the scenes, The Mars Volta always managed to power on, not just past the finish line but into a status of legend often reserved for acts far more willing to submit to mainstream trends – something they never did. Between the polychromatic poignancy of Bixler-Zavala’s weighty, thought-provoking lyricisms and the tight and tempestuous havoc Rodríguez-López wreaked on a fretboard, the duo’s legacy is broad and undying.

Inspiring too is how staunch the band are when it comes to owning their art – both metaphorically and physically, in the sense that Rodríguez-López fought former label Universal tooth and nail to maintain the rights to his masters.

This is the part where, in a perfect universe, we’d be mentioning The Mars Volta’s plans to hit stages once more in 2021, or even to come swinging out of the gates in full force with a new album. Both members have hinted at a future for the project (though it’s currently behind a fourth reunion for their other band, At The Drive-In, on the list of priorities), but in the meantime, the best they’re willing to offer us is a vinyl reissue of their extended back catalogue.

Thankfully, it’s one hell of a reissue.

Spanning 18 discs of painstakingly artist-crafted, specially remastered deluxe vinyl (and a whole stack of other choice goodies), the box set – dubbed La Realidad De Los Sueños (translation: “the reality of dreams”) – stands as the ultimate celebration of The Mars Volta. And alongside all of the band’s studio albums and EPs, the set includes what has effectively become the fanbase’s Moby Dick: the once-thought abandoned early recording sessions for De-Loused, which over the years only existed in myth.

Johann Scheerer – the German prodigy behind label Clouds Hill, who worked closely alongside Rodríguez-López and Bixler-Zavala to curate and conceptualise La Realidad De Los Sueños – declares the recordings, dubbed Landscape Tantrums for release, a “central part of the band’s history, [proving] just how much this band had to share, even so soon after its founding.”

As a whole, La Realidad De Los Sueños is the result of almost a decade’s work in trying to right the wrongs Universal made with their initial vinyl pressings of The Mars Volta’s discography. “They did a shitty job,” Bixler-Zavala said bluntly during an in-house Q&A with Clouds Hill. “It was very basic, beige and bland, they didn’t have any love for it. It was just product. They weren’t nerds about it. And that’s what fighting for the aesthetic was about: ‘I’m not gonna trust you to put something out’.”

“When De-Loused came out on CD, someone on their own at Universal decided to make the ‘Egghead’ the front cover, when Storm Thorgerson had designed ‘Jellyfish man’ as the actual front cover, putting no text or logo on the back cover, to make it be interchangeable. So that if you put it down the ‘wrong’ way at the record store, someone would see the other side, and it would be this conversation – what most nerds today call ‘Easter eggs’, something cool to find out about. Big corporations didn’t think like that. We came from a different world – cool shapes, cool colours, cool shit you could do with it – shit that’s just not fuckin’ ‘normieville’.”

“It’s really shitty. I have great pride in the fact that we have fans who are super-nerdy about our shit, because the music is designed that way. There was so much effort on Omar’s part to make that a reality. The Mars Volta – and especially this box set – can be summed up best by the phrase, “the devil is in the details”. If you miss that, you are going to miss a fuckload of shit.”

La Realidad De Los Sueños sold out instantly, but Landscape Tantrums will still be made available digitally on April 23rd. Landscape Tantrums is the original unfinished recordings of De-Loused in the Comatorium.