Reviewing this album is like trying to explain what a rainbow looks like to a blind person, but I'll try my best. And i'm not trying to sound like a pretentious prick, which is the first inevitability when discussing the Mars Volta. There's really nothing to compare this album to, and no place to put it in the fold of current music. Or from any time or place, for that matter. Music is arguably the most objective medium of entertainment, and this album is the epitome of that argument. But with that said, I still feel that this album divides people into two groups: those who like the Mars Volta, and those who don't understand the Mars Volta.
Most bands can be forced into a genre if it comes down to it, at least in description. But to do that with the Mars Volta defeats the very purpose of their existence. Cedric Bixler Zavala and Omar Rodriguez-Lopez left At The Drive-In because they felt limited. They toured for almost six years straight, culminating in the release of Relationship Of Command and a brush with commercial success. But they tired of playing more or less the same set of songs every night. In fact, they tired of playing songs whose lengths and structure they couldn't change at will all together. In the summer of 2001, the duo of afroed gods started the Mars Volta with Ikey Owens (Long Beach Dub All Stars) and Jeremy Ward, members of their dub band Defacto. Somewhere along the way they hooked up with drummer Jon Theodore (Golden, Royal Trux, H.I.M.), a student of "voodoo drumming" in Haiti, and bassist Juan Alderete (Racer X). In the spring of 2002, Tremulant was recorded, a 3-song, 19-minute teaser of what was to come from the band, who were rapidly making a name for themselves. After a short tour and the acquisition of Rick Rubin (Red Hot Chili Peppers, Run DMC, System Of A Down, Slayer, Johnny Cash, Beastie Boys, Public Enemy) at the producing helm and Flea on bass, the band was ready to record what would become one of the most important albums ever, De-Loused In The Comatorium.
De-Loused is a concept album, a dedication based on the death of Julio Venegas, an El Paso artist who killed himself in 1996. It chronicles a first suicide attempt, a subsequent coma, the emergence from it, a final successful attempt, and the reflection afterwards. Its eight tracks (recorded in a "haunted" house in Laurel Canyon), interwoven with one another, form up as an hour of music that truly expands minds and destroys expectations. Adjectives to describe the sounds within aren't exact the norm: Expansive, uncompromising, ethereal, sexy, morphing, cascading, overtaking. Alternately recalling but never imitating Led Zepplin, Miles Davis, Fugazi, Santana, and Pink Floyd, this album is just as important and just as amazing as any before it.
De-Loused begins with 'Son et Lumiere', one of two short songs on the album, serving as intros. The anticipatory, nervous keyboard builds in the background as Cedric's otherworldly voice permeates the relative quiet. The drums start loud and powerfully shortly after, never letting up again, as 'Inertiatic Esp' begins with the snarl of "now I'm lost...". From those very first words, the Mars Volta enchant, pull you in, and never let go, even long after you've turned off the album. This song is probably the closest thing they could have to a single, with a relatively normal structure (and at 4:24, it's also the shortest non-intro song on the album).
I'm not going to discuss each song in-depth individually, because I have neither the vocabulary nor the capacity to describe them, but I would like to discuss some highlights and special parts for me. 'Drunkship Of Lanterns", with it's intricate bassline and salsa drumming is a favorite of mine. Cedric and Omar's voices pierce, weaving amongst the rhythms. It has been said that Theodore's drumming is 40% of this album, and nowhere is it more evident than in this song. The song breaks down and falls apart, only to build itself back up again in a flowing audial assault, capping off in a dark, industrial pulse of noises. 'Eriatarka' demonstrates just what Cedric's voice is capable of, reaching unimaginable heights and dynamics, then diving back into snarling poetry. Many of the words and phrases that he uses throughout the album are strange enough to be abstract, but familiar enough to form meaning in your head while you listen to it. His writing is totally uncompromising and selfish (in that it rarely nears simple understanding), and I wouldn't want it to be any other way. When he starts singing about exoskeletal junctions you'll know what I'm talking about. 'Cicatriz Esp', the 12 minute long defining moment of the album, explores the musical themes presented so far as fully as possible, sounding like several entirely different songs at different points throughout. John Fruiscante of the Red Hot Chili Peppers joins in on guitar, providing even more backing, tiptoeing through quiet parts and grooving out on the more intense parts. Halfway into the song all sound almost disappears, seeming distant, even underwater, only to return in a shimmering explosion of shaking drums and reaching guitar. When Cedric's voice returns, it sounds more beautiful than ever before, echoing and probing into the atmosphere, quivering with power. 'This Apparatus Must Be Unearthed' rocks with the anger of sadness and demonstrates just how much this band can emote when they want to. 'Televators' starts as the softest song, with deep mournful bass and delicate, slow guitar. The vocals soar over it when needed, and receed again just when it's getting too intense.
Rick Rubin's production really shines throughout the album; the little things that weren't in the earlier demos make all the difference. The reverb on the drums in 'Roulette Dares (This is the Haunt)', Flea's subtle trademark scales in the background, reverse echoes, birds chirping - it's all subtle, but it adds up to so much more than the sum of it's parts. 'Take The Veil Cerpin Taxt' wraps up the cd perfectly, maintaining a relatively sane beat with rock drums and guitar, until a little over two minutes when it all mushes together and then swells back up to straight up rockularity (you dig that made-up word?). After another verse it fades back to a haunting organ soundscape, then onto an oddly-timed electronic mish-mash of noises and instruments, all ending in a chill bass solo. Guitar joins in shortly after, slowly intertwining until they finish the song up together, rocking back into the chorus, and ending with Cedric almost pleading "who brought me here?", seemingly a sign of teetering on the brink of getting lost in his own thoughts and symphonies.
The story and emotion of Venegas' death is felt throughout, and becomes even more poignant after the May 25th drug overdose of sound manipulator and longtime collaborator and friend Jeremy Ward. This album stands as a monument to both of them, a fully realized vision and execution.
De-Loused couldn't be more rewarding, and only gets better every time you listen to it. You hear new things with every listen, and I really can't see myself ever getting sick of any of the songs. The songs constantly reward their own curiosity, finding new paths and segues everywhere, seemlessly transitioning and ebbing into and out of breakdowns and deconstructions, and constantly shifting back and forth in the different levels established within each song. This album is groundbreaking, in the truest sense of the word. If the mainstream audience can set aside their preconceived notions of what music should be, and open their eyes and ears enough to be able to handle the Mars Volta, this album could change millions of peoples views of what music can represent and how it can be structured. And having a big label and an established audience could really help propel the Mars Volta into the minds of the media and the hands of the people, positively influencing music and future bands everywhere.
I know that these are sweepingly dramatic statements, but I wholeheartedly believe in them. This is the kind of music that might take one, two, or every ten listenings to even begin to absorb, but once you start to you'll begin to see just how deep it goes, and just how much you can get out of this record. If you don't understand it, or aren't ready for it, the Mars Volta understand. Many people won't be, and that's why this album won't top the charts. But it will make you realize that the music you've been listening to has boundaries, and it takes a band this good to break them. At least it did for me. And now the choice is up to you.