The Mars Volta @ Roxy

Live @ Club Roxy - 26/7/08

Since the release of their first recorded material in 2002 the Mars Volta have been alternately praised as the new geniuses of progressive rock and condemned as just another in a long line of self-indulgent jam bands who string their musical meanderings together into pretentious “concept albums”. Nevertheless, over the past six years both their supporters and their detractors have commented on their virtuoso musical talent and the electrifying nature of their live performances. Yes, their CDs tend to be near-solid 75-minute chunks of music as opposed to collections of 4-minute rock songs. Yes, they released an album earlier this year, The Bedlam in Goliath (Universal Motown Records), the continuity of which is supposedly based on the group’s experiences with a Ouji board obtained in Jerusalem and subsequent contact through said medium with a being calling itself Goliath. Yes, the first song they played at Roxy last Saturday night, also called “Goliath”, was nearly half an hour long and wound its way through numerous permutations and convolutions. And yes, they played that piece with a level of musical skill and energy which was, at least to this reviewer, breathtaking to behold. After a few moments of muddiness in the mix at the onset, guitarist Omar Rodriguez-Lopez, singer Cedric Bixler-Zavala, and their talented group of players settled into an extended aggressive symphony that included everything that an old-school prog rock fan such as myself could ask for: changing time signatures, arcane lyrics, psychedelic raptures, and song-writers with hyphenated surnames.

 As expected, the Mars Volta didn’t come onstage and simply recreate a series of soundscapes from their CD releases. They did what they are best-known for, which is to spend an evening under the lights creating an entirely new and unique version of the Volta universe at best loosely based on a series of themes drawn mostly from The Bedlam in Goliath, but also incorporating a smattering of older material as well. The word “song” isn’t really applicable to what the group does either in the studio or in front of an audience. Instead of a series of songs, at Roxy they delivered an almost-nonstop sonic experience that spanned nearly two hours, music which required a somewhat longer than normal attention span to appreciate, perhaps a strain on the sensibilities of the average music consumer of the 21st century, but then again, it can be argued that any single prog rock ditty that clocks in at under 12 minutes isn’t worth taking your pants off for. By that standard, Saturday night’s show merited removing also your socks and underwear. Considering that the temperature in the club that evening was on the warm side of what could be called tropical, removing certain items of clothing might have been a good idea.

 I admit that at one or two points during the concert what was happening on the stage became so abstract that I was lost for a few moments. When this happened I quickly made notes about the show on my mobile phone which were meant to aid in the writing of this review, but which I later discovered were largely mis-spelled and incomprehensible. However, I was able to ascertain that, in addition to “Goliath”, the evening’s entertainment included flights of improvisation inspired by the group’s recorded pieces “Cygnus… Vismund Cygnus” and “Ouroborus” before dipping briefly into “The Widow”, the track which received the most American video and radio play a couple of years back. The show concluded with a rippin’ jam on “Aberinkula”, the first track from The Bedlam... and then the band left the stage, declining to return for an encore despite the presence of a roomful of people who refused to stop screaming for one for a good five minutes after the road crew had started dismantling the gear onstage.

 As much as I enjoyed the show, I couldn’t help but notice that the Mars Volta didn’t appear to be particularly ecstatic about playing in Prague, though they didn’t necessarily appear to dislike the experience either. They simply looked like a bunch of guys who had shown up to do a job, did it (pretty damn well), and then left work to go about whatever it is that they do when they’re not playing. Maybe this was due to the fact that their touring schedule since the early part of the year has been somewhat rigorous and they’re ready for a break which they largely won’t get due to the extra US dates that have recently been added to their schedule for September. Or maybe it’s due to the fact that their concert in Prague was originally booked into a much larger venue and then subsequently changed to the more intimate setting of Roxy. Whatever. Every concert can’t be a religious experience for the audience, but if that’s what the Mars Volta sound like on average day at the office, I can’t wait to hear what they sound like sometime when they’re really into what they’re doing…

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