So the conventional wisdom goes a little something like this: when At the Drive-In broke up after releasing one of the greatest punk/emo/hard rock/whatever albums of all time (2000's Relationship of Command
), they split into two distinct halves, the short-hairs and the Afros. The three short-hairs formed Sparta, adding another member, swapping an instrumental role or two, and releasing a solid chunk of cleanly produced corporate punk with last year's debut, Austere.
The two with Afros, singer Cedric Bixler and guitarist Omar Rodriguez, formed the more ambitious Mars Volta, who debuted last year with an interesting EP and have now released their full-length premiere with De-Loused in the Comatorium.
And boy, is it a sprawling mess. The press release tells me that it's a concept album envisioning what an artist friend of the band's experienced during a drug-induced coma that he never pulled out of, but it could just as easily be about big-city alienation in a post-9/11 world. Or it could be the soundtrack to the new Disney pirate flick. It's just about that ambiguous, frankly.
On a concrete level, De-Loused
consists of eight lengthy songs that transcend the typical rock 'n' roll verse/chorus/verse structure, adding a bunch of bombastic bridges, codas, guitar solos, near-soprano yelping, bits of ambient noodling, and everything else that has always made me run screaming from prog rock. But I've made the commitment to giving this thing some 20 or so listens, and rather than getting better each time it gets worse.
So if you're a fan of this album, you've probably decided that I'm just a thickheaded traditionalist and that I don't appreciate how the band has fused the pomp of prog rock with the power of punk. You'll tell me that I'm missing the point, that Bixler's singing has always been more about effect than cause, mood rather than meaning, because the lyrics on At the Drive-In's songs were fairly absurdist as well. And that Bixler and Rodriguez have always been about art as much as rock. But the key problem with De-Loused in the Comatorium
is that any semblance of At the Drive-In's balance has been discarded, with sound trumping song and virtuoso playing winning out over vitriolic passion.
To the many of you who know nothing of the Mars Volta, a bit of semi-objective description would probably be good. The formula for these songs goes something like this:
- 1. Begin with a ridiculous title. Mix actual English words with vaguely Latin-sounding gibberish. Something like "Drunkship of Lanterns" or "Take the Veil Cerpin Taxt" will do.
- 2. Combine ludicrous lyrics (e.g., "Are you just growing old/ Trackmarked amoeba lands craft/ Cartwheel of scratches/ Dress the tapeworm as pets" from "Eriatarka") with one- and two-minute snippets of music.
- 3. Graft three, four, or 10 of these snippets together into a single song, making sure to blend a wide variety of tempos and rhythmic styles.
- 4. Require singer to run the gamut from throaty, near-coherent speak-singing to soprano-esque screeches.
- 5. Overdub guitar after guitar after guitar.
- 6. Add a dash of organ.
- 7. Bring in the Red Hot Chili Peppers bass player to thumb-slap himself silly.
- 8. Repeat
In a way, De-Loused in the Comatorium
takes me back to the days when I taught expository writing to freshmen at a state university best known for its accounting and business programs. Inevitably, no matter what topics were actually assigned, each semester would bring a few papers about how devastating a relative, friend, or pet's death was. And while I always felt bad for the student's loss and the pain they'd experienced in revisiting and reflecting on those memories, I still had to grade their cliché-ridden papers.
I sympathize with the Mars Volta's loss of their friend, as well as the more recent death of band member Jeremy Ward but that doesn't boost my low opinion of this pompous album.