Mars Volta @ Roseland Ballroom
“Hey, who’s playing here tonight?”
“The Mars Volta.”
“Oh, what do they sound like? ”
“Jazzy hardcore Latin prog-punk.”
“…..oh…..sounds cool…..I think….”
That’s part of the conversation I had with the guy guarding the cast entry door for Shrek the Musical, because the line to get into Roseland Ballroom was around the block. He came back later and told me that one of the female members of the cast was ‘totally super jealous’ that The Mars Volta was playing so close and she was stuck on stage that night. I found all of this funny, because this exchange was probably the perfect way to characterize The Mars Volta.
The Mars Volta is one of the more schizophrenic bands to carry the label of ‘prog rock’. Yet they also remain one of the most well known and popular bands in the genre, either despite or because of this characteristic. I discovered the band in my freshman year of college after the release of their first album, and when I mentioned them offhandedly to my roommate (a musician but not a fan of progressive rock), he already knew who they were. A progressive rock band that the world knew about before I did? How the hell did this happen?
The answer was that I had actually heard of them before I knew that I had heard of them. The two principle members of TMV are Cedric Bixler-Zavala (vocals and absurd names) and Omar Rodriguez-Lopez (guitars and slightly less absurd names). The world first became aware of the pair in the band At the Drive In, which had a popular hit with “One Armed Scissor” in 2000. The group enjoyed a good amount of popularity until Bixler-Zavala and Rodriguez-Lopez left the band, citing creative differences and their quest to do as many drugs as possible at all times. At the Drive In fit rather squarely into the punk and hardcore genre, and Bixler-Zavala and Rodriguez-Lopez wanted to branch out more into the progressive genre. They added keyboards, bass, drums, and reformed as The Mars Volta, while the remaining members of At the Drive In reformed as the band Sparta, which went on to do many things better than TMV such as suck and die.
Since then TMV has produced a number of albums via a very fluid line-up. While Cedric and Omar consider themselves to be the ‘core’ of the band, ten other musicians have come and gone over the course of seven years and six albums. This is where TMV earns the schizophrenic label in my mind. While there are some recurring elements that help you remember that you’re still listening to The Mars Volta such as heavy latin influences, frantic disjointed guitar lines, manic drum patterns, and Cedric’s shrill voice, you’re still going to get a very different impression of the band depending on what album you listen to. Their first album, which was the result of their work with legendary producer Rick Rubin, was drastically different than the material they produced with At the Drive In, yet it maintained mass appeal through catchy melodies and relatively traditional song structure. Each album since then has been significantly different than the last, and while the impact of the constantly evolving line-up is evident with each new offering, one gets the impression that the band is deliberately trying to cause turn-over in their fan base by producing albums that sound nothing like the previous works. With some bands you can see a clear progression in sound from album to album, but with TMV the landscape changes less via gradual erosion and more often via violent earthquake.
I’d seen the band once before at Bonnaroo in 2005, and while I enjoyed their set there were a few things that bothered me about their performance. They came out late and ended early, cutting about an hour out of their advertised set. Also Cedric’s voice wasn’t exactly spot on, and a lot of the songs were slowed down from their album counterparts, both of which indicated to me that they can’t play their songs live. Still for the most part I enjoyed the set and came away excited that I had seen them.
That being said, I was interested but wary when I saw that the band was playing in NYC at the start of this month. I loved their newer material, the majority of their set was awesome when I saw them at Bonnaroo, and their new drummer, Thomas Pridgen, is an absolute beast. On the other hand I didn’t want that kind of let down again from the short set and the less than perfect performance of some of their songs. Still the tickets were cheap and I hadn’t seen a show at Rosenland Ballroom since I moved to the city, so I figured it would be a good way to spend a Thursday night.
So after being stuck outside of Shrek for about an hour trying to explain to the entire cast of the musical who was playing on the other side of the block every time a new person walked in (“The Moors what?”), the doors opened and the massive line funneled into Roseland. Roseland is a coverted ice rink, so it’s not a huge venue. They added a balcony if you don’t want to be down on the floor, but I chose to mingle with the masses for this this show. I somehow was able to get a spot 10ish rows back from the stage, which I felt was rather odd considering the size of the line in front of me when I got in. It was like 50% of the people in front of me had just disappeared (or more likely, went to the bar or bathroom before getting a spot on the floor). One of the first things I noticed was that the band had a very cool tapestry set up behind them, and it would get cooler as the night went on. The band’s album and stage art has always been based in surrealism, and this tapestry was no different, with lots of eyeballs and wings and other things messing with my perspective. So we’re waiting and waiting….and waiting and waiting….and waiting and waiting….and now the band is late, much like they were for Bonnaroo. Now I understand that no band ever comes out exactly on time, ever, for any reason, but once you hit half an hour you’re not being band-cool anymore, you’re just being douche bags. Strike 1.
So finally the band does come on stage, and they open with the first two tracks of their first album, which are some of my favorites. The crowd is in love immediately, so everyone is going crazy with a half-mosh-pit-type-deal breaking out, which is something the band usually hates. They mention that we should help out the security guards up front when we can but otherwise ignore the crowd activithy and continue blasting away. Cedric is extremely energetic on stage, and in between his cheesy dance moves and mule kicks he’s tossing his mic and mic stand around like he’s in The Mars Volta color guard or something. All of the other musicians are extremely emotional and physically expressive on stage, but the most interesting thing to watch may be the tapestry they have up behind them. As the show goes on, the different lights that hit the backdrop make different patterns appear and fade, so that depending on the light color the background behind them can totally change:
As they transition between songs, they go into this ambient, quiet mode during which Cedric downs as much boiling hot tea as possible to keep his vocal chords from being torn to shreds. It’s interesting the first time, but they do this slow-down between EVERY SINGLE SONG. While part of me appreciates the break from the being kicked in the head by crowd surfers, by the 3rd or 4th time I’m just bored with it, and by the 7th or 8th time I’m wondering if they know how to transition between songs in any other way. I know they want to ‘jam’ more, but that would involve actually ‘jamming’. Strike 2.
As they make their way through their set the band is sounding very tight, and the mix job is actually really well done. The only thing I could have complained about was that the keyboards were too low in the mix, which is a shame because on a lot of their songs the keyboard line is really ear catching and adds a whole new layer to the piece. Beyond this one issue the entire sound product was stellar where I was standing, which was no where near the sound board. The performances of each song sounded solid, and they only slowed down one song noticeably. Cedric’s voice was much better than it was at Bonnaroo and he really belted out some of the highest notes. The set list itself (see below) wasn’t my favorite, and I would have really liked to hear more from their second album, which features a lot of longer, jazzier songs with full horn sections, but they chose to stick with mostly newer material. Of course they don’t even have the horn section anymore, so this was probably a foolish hope to begin with.
After about 90 minutes they had played a lot of newer material, so I was hoping they might play some older songs next, but instead they…just stopped. It felt totally random and forced, as if the fire marshal had told them they needed get off the stage or something. But no, that was the end of their set, 90 minutes, no encore, half an hour before they were advertised to end. A lot of people tried to cheer them back out, but as the lights came up and the crew started chucking set lists and picks and drum sticks into the crowd people quickly gave up and started filing out. So once again the band had come out late and ended early on me, which was exactly what I was afraid of when I bought the tickets. Huge Strike 3.
As I walked home my opinion of the show and the band became more sour with each step. While the show was probably better performed than the last time I heard them, they didn’t play a lot of the songs I wanted to hear, and, more importantly, they started late and ended early. At this point it would be really hard for me to justify seeing them again live. Maybe if they’re at a festival I’ll go check them out, but while they’re a good band, their live show just leaves me too pissed off to spend my money on seeing them anymore. Of course their albums are still amazing and I’ll still be picking those up whenever a new one comes out, and I’ll continue suggesting the band to anyone who’s a fan of one of the many genres they fall into. As a live band though, TMV have broken my heart twice now, and I can’t take that kind of emotional beating anymore.
1. Son Et Lumiere
2. Intertiatic E.S.P
5. Roulette Dares
6. Viscera Eyes
7. Halo Of Nembutals
8. Eunuch Provocateur
11. Drunkship Of Lanterns
13. The Widow
14. Wax Simulacra