The Mars Volta are undoubtedly one of the most polarizing bands in music today. The Frances the Mute review proved that and then some. Middle ground for an act like this doesn’t exist, and people have no problems voicing their often baseless opinions about how pretentious the band is. We’ve heard it all before, save it. Regardless of other people's opinions, I remain a fan of the band's recorded output, but I’ve never had a chance to catch them in a live setting. Enter Scab Dates, problem solved.
From everyone I’ve talked to about seeing the Mars Volta live, there’s been one consensus; it was all about the atmosphere. The Mars Volta don’t adhere to the live guidelines that 99% of bands follow when they tour; as with most things, it has to be done their own way. In this case, it means not playing their songs at all how they appear on record, instead opting for numerous extended improvisational instrumental passages, or just long periods of ambience in between song sections. While I’d imagine this to be rather captivating live, a lot of the ambience leaves something to be desired on record.
The album essentially breaks down into four songs, everything else being completely improvised, as a way to weave in and out between songs without ever knowing they’re changing. So in effect, what you have is about 70 minutes of music, without any individual “songs” as you’d find on an album being played. There’s bits and pieces of “Take the Veil Cerpin Taxt” and “Cicatriz ESP” among others, but what’s truly impressive is these live pieces were collected at various points between 2003 and 2005. But there’s just no way you’d ever be able to tell. Everything is so seamless, and Cedric’s voice is just on point in every single instance, it’s a pretty remarkable thing to think about. The spacey vibes are brought out as much by his vocals as is Omar Rodriguez’s penchant for extremely soulful guitar solos, whether playing at a blistering pace, as in the middle of “Cicatriz,” or a more drawn out mellow jam like “Cicatriz Part 3.”
With a record like this, you really do have to be in the right mood. Some ambient lighting, a relaxed atmosphere, and a comfortable spot, with this album on, everything just melts away. You truly do become enveloped in the extremely intricate arrangements of the Mars Voltas music, from the improvisational free jazz to Latin rhythms and string bending guitar solos, all under the off the wall howling of Cedric Bixler, it’s all there to simply take in. The individual tracks don’t matter any more with this album than they would live, and I think that very well may turn a lot of people off, moreso than some of the extended ambient passages that flow in and out of the music.
I won’t lie, this isn’t for everyone. In fact, it’s much less accessible than anything the band has ever recorded, but when that feeling is just right, and their live experience really does sink in, nothing can touch it.