When I was in my late teens, casting around for new music to listen to (this was the golden age of Napster, when you could find anything, and people's tastes were expanding), I started getting into 70's progressive rock. Now, prog has a bad reputation - it's considered uncool and unlistenable by the mainstream media, appreciable only ironically. But my average mix tape contains Norwegian black metal, Japanese girl-pop, Chinese rap, and underground U.S. noise bands, so I could give a fuck less what the mainstream media thinks. The prog bands looked serious, like they cared enough to give their music unconventional themes, arrangements, time signatures, and song titles. They wrote multi-part suites, invented the concept album (as a distinct entity, not a vague muddle like Sgt. Pepper), brought in orchestras (ELO), dabbled in jazz, maxed out the solos. They had outside influences, like film and literature and fantasy and technology. In short, they were trying to keep it new.
Their achievements, though sometimes risible, still stand pretty much unchallenged. Emerson Lake and Palmer had a thirty minute song about carnivals and space computers and God knows what the hell else. ('Karn Evil 9'). King Crimson had a scarily intense jazz-metal-stoner flipout called '21st Century Schizoid Man' - meaning it's just become current even though it was recorded in 1969. Yes had a four-track double album where every song was twenty minutes and none of them made any sense (Tales from Topographic Oceans). Jethro Tull mixed metal and flute solos. In other words, everyone's reach constantly exceeded their grasp. Is that a bad thing? I don't think so. It's worth it to make a lot of missteps if you sometimes come out with something genuinely revelatory (the albums Red by King Crimson, Close to the Edge by Yes, and Aqualung by Jethro Tull, for example). The prog bands sound doubly deranged by the standards of the 00's; where the current state of rock music is tuned to a definite retro (still early 1980's, at the moment). When everyone's conservatively reaching for the records of their youth, you have to be messed up to follow your own direction. You probably have to be a crackhead with a really big afro. You have to be like The Mars Volta.
True, these guys didn't come out of nowhere. Most of them used to be in At the Drive In, one of the best punk bands of the 90's. In 2001, ATDI split into two separate camps - the more mainstream-minded members formed Sparta, while frontmen Cedric Bixler-Zavala and Omar Rodriguez-Lopez took up as The Mars Volta, taking their name from Fellini (most of the Sparta members later joined MV, once they realized where the talent was). The Tremulant EP soon followed, as well as the band's first full-length, De-Loused in the Comatorium. De-Loused is a great album, but still fairly conventional compared to what they'd later get up to. Although they were starting to allow more atmospheric material to creep in, letting the songs stretch out to the ten minute mark, it still sounded like a more adventurous At the Drive In.
This had all changed by last year's Frances the Mute. This shit was epic: opening with the thirteen minute 'Cygnus...Vismund Cygnus.' and including everything from chirping coqui frogs to an eight-part, thirty-minute suite ('Cassandra Gemini'), Frances was the size of an asteroid. Like everything else The Mars Volta had released, it was some kind of concept album - not that anyone could tell, since the lyrics were uniformly impenetrable. This was the 'put-up-or-shut-up' album - completely uncompromising and distinctive.
It's not like there aren't other prog-influenced bands out there - think Dream Theater. The difference is that 90% of them are completely derivative of the old prog bands - ironic, in that in trying to imitate music that was meant to be experimental and ever-changing, they've just copied their influences and discarded the innovation. They're just as backwards-focused as anything else. But the Mars Volta just don't care. There's not a single band around that sounds anything remotely like them now. How many other bands can you say that for? No one else is doing this stuff anymore, or at least getting major label funding if they are. No one seems to have stepped in to say 'Hey guys, this is great but, why don't you scale it back a bit?' They sound like they've been given complete creative freedom. Want to sing in Spanish? Go ahead, they do it. Want to insert five straight minutes of ambient, underwater noises in the middle of your song? Go ahead, they do it. Want to open songs with flaming guitar solos? Go ahead, they do it. Want to release ten-minute singles? ('Viscera Eyes', off the just-released Amputechture). Go ahead, they do it. Want to flip the fuck out with bongos and afro-cuban shit? Etc.
And I love how they take shit from Pitchfork Media. Their albums have respectively been given ratings of 4.9, 3.4 and 2.0 (out of 10.00). The same Pitchfork which now gives Justin Timberlake albums high scores finds itself unable to understand a Mars Volta CD. Sorry guys - if you don't get it now you never will. A Mars Volta album is like a physical object, the proverbial 'sound-sculpture' - you can leave it playing, go to sleep, wake up, get high, and it'll still make sense. For Pitchfork, this is a demerit, for me, it's just another way of looking at music. What's wrong with songs you can get lost in, songs like caverns, full of little crevices and hidden depths and strange shadows?
Only a band as uncompromising as this could get such a polarized reaction. The Mars Volta commit every unpardonable prog sin with the oblivious abandon of a noble savage: their albums are full of noodling, long songs, 'atmospherics', incomprehensible lyrics, lengthy percussion interludes, and, well, ideas. But they never seem to be straining hard for everything, the symptom of a lesser band. Instead, entire songs encompass both periods of meditation and explosions of noise: depending on your mood, you can tune in, turn on and rock out. In short, they're so uncool they're fucking awesome.
And they're coming here to Perth in December. Anyone in the area, buy your tickets if you haven't already. I'll see you there.
The Mars Volta - Drunkship of Lanterns (MTV VMA Latin)