If I had to come up with one word to describe my first impression of the Mars Volta’s music, it would be batshit. And I don’t mean that as a put-down, not necessarily. In the early sixties, many people who heard Ornette Coleman probably came to the same conclusion. Great art is often perplexing to those experiencing it for the first time. It robs people of their easy reference points and makes it hard for them to even talk about it. They can either accept it as something incredible and revolutionary, or they can reject it as incomprehensible and get the hell out of there.
The first time I heard the Mars Volta—which would have been their 2003 debut, De-Loused in the Comatorium—I wanted to get the hell out of there. I had a modest appreciation for At the Drive-In, the speedy punk band from El Paso that guitarist Omar Rodriguez-Lopez and singer Cedric Bixler-Zavala had been in before. But this new Southern California–based group, in my original estimation, had completely lost its moorings. At first, I couldn’t even hear the songs: They just got swallowed up in the velocity of the guitars, the crazy blenderizing of genres, and the frenzied drumming. It took time to sort things out, like when you walk into a pitch-black room and have to grope for the furniture. The more I understood, the more they sounded like an art-school version of Rush, the dreaded dinosaurs of what’s called prog rock—rock and roll played by self-styled virtuosos bent on demonstrating their superior “chops” every chance they get. The Mars Volta is harder, faster, and a thousand times darker than dorky Rush could ever dream of being, but they share certain core components: the shrill, adenoidal vocals; the endlessly soloing guitars; the hyper drummer pounding every song to the brink of inanity.
The success of the Mars Volta’s first album—it reached 39 on the Billboard charts—seemed flukish and weird, but it has proved to be anything but. The Mars Volta haven’t attained Rush-like stadium popularity, but they do connect with a surprisingly huge following, and in a much deeper way than Rush did. Their live shows, earsplitting beyond belief, have an evangelical fervor; for all the darkness of their music, Rodriguez-Lopez and Bixler-Zavala are also captivating, stylish performers. The Bedlam in Goliath is their fourth studio album, and it debuted last week in the Billboard Top Ten, the weirdest record to land there since Radiohead’s Kid A. Whereas most bands tend to refine their sound and scale back their indulgences over time, Bedlam is the Mars Volta’s woolliest, least coherent album to date. The guitars squall ever more furiously, and the lyrics are, as they’ve always been, a wild goulash of awkward expressions of pain, grandiose mysticisms, and plain old non sequiturs. Some of the words are a little comical to read—“She fumigated my mental hygiene” is a personal favorite; “I got a pain inside that’ll rip through the very fabric of time” has a certain let’s-go-firebomb-the-cafeteria flavor—but when you hear them sung by Bixler-Zavala, humor is not what comes to mind.
If you give it the chance, though—and if you’re not already a member of the tribe, it takes perseverance—Bedlam sinks its fangs into you. The intensity of feeling is what matters, not the nutty particulars of Bixler-Zavala’s verse; what also matters is the band’s unrelenting drive for drama. Never for one second do they settle into a groove and ride it out. It’s exhausting, but it made me realize how easily a lot of the new music I’ve enjoyed recently, like the sweet, winsome guitar pop of Nada Surf, becomes aural wallpaper, something nice and familiar to have on in the background while I go on about whatever else I’m doing. The Mars Volta won’t permit such multitasking—when you’re listening, nothing else of consequence can really happen. Other reviewers have noted their free-jazz influences, probably because there will occasionally be a horn that sounds like it’s played by Ornette Coleman himself noodling into the mix. But to my ears, there’s nothing free or improvised about Bedlam. It’s more like opera: Highly programmed, heavily staged, and occasionally ridiculous, but also drenched with emotion that feels real and can get into your head, if you’re not careful. And then it’s good to turn it off and go back to Nada Surf.