The eighteen or so years that Omar Rodriguez-López and Cedric Bixler Zavala have spent making music together have been a prime example of the theory of musical evolution, a journey of exploration that's seen the duo refuse to stand still, maturing and growing ever bolder in their art. From Omar's first joining their previous group, El Paso's lauded and lamented At The Drive-In, and progressively pushing that band in more experimental directions that ultimately pulled it apart, to Omar's composing of epic scores and Cedric's creation of lyrical novellas to complement them resulting in The Mars Volta's first two albums, theirs has always been a partnership that has prioritized challenge over contentment.
"The only objective, throughout, has been to always move forward," says bandleader Omar, speaking from the recording compound in Mexico from which he currently helms The Mars Volta. "To always make the next album sound different to the one that came before it, to always be evolving."
And so it has been, with the Mars Volta from day one. The band was already rehearsing during the entropic latter phase of At The Drive-In, and well before that Omar and Cedric had maintained the extracurricular dub outlet De Facto with future Mars Volta members Ikey Owens and the late Jeremy Ward (whose life would inspire the narrative of the Volta's 2005 sophomore effort Frances The Mute). In 2002, The Mars Volta's primordial three-song Tremulant EP would materialize on the band's own GSL label. Their earliest shows and recordings captured the frantic, chaotic pell mell of their origins, a riot of ideas veering off in every direction, until they began to settle into something of a cohesive lineup and musical focus to produce a modern progressive masterpiece in the form of De-Loused In The Comatorium. Over the course of ten sprawling stunning compositions that improbably formed a greater whole, this astonishing debut album served as an elegy and dramatization of the life of Julio Venegas, a friend and mentor to the young Omar and Cedric who had succeeded in taking his own life after multiple suicide attempts. For the purpose of the album, Venegas re-imagined as the fictional character Cerpin Taxt, the songs chronicling his potential adventures in the dreamscape of a suicide attempt-induced coma.
Dashing the predictions of post-ATDI detractors, De-Loused... debuted to stellar critical and commercial reaction. The first proper Mars Volta headline shows saw the band perform the album in its entirety, a cathartic and grueling nightly marathon that often ended with band members in tears, as the album improbably went gold. Emboldened by this success, Omar and Cedric solidified their core live group of bassist Juan Alderete de la Pena, keyboardist Isaiah "Ikey" Owens, percussionist Marcel Rodriguez-López (Omar's brother), flute/tenor sax player Adrian Terrazas and drummer Jon Theodore and began work on an even more ambitious sophomore effort. Like De-Loused..., the album would be inspired by the loss and remembrance of a close friend, this time Mars Volta sound manipulator Jeremy Ward, who passed away unexpectedly not long after De-Loused... was released. 2005's Frances The Mute's narrative revolved around an adopted protagonist's search for his biological parents and its ultimately unsatisfying resolution, mirroring the experiences of Ward's tragic life story. The first Mars Volta record to be produced by Omar (De-Loused... had Rick Rubin manning the boards with Omar), Frances The Mute again defied and surpassed all expectations, entered the Billboard 200 at #4, featured contributions from legendary musical figures from David Campbell to Larry Harlow to now regular Volta studio guitarist and erstwhile Red Hot Chili Pepper John Frusciante, and spawned an actual hit single in the form of "The Widow." The live shows in support of Frances The Mute--which found Omar and Cedric's former ATDI bandmate Pablo Hinojos reuniting with them--would be the band's most ambitious and intense to date, as they headlined and sold out venues including the Greek Theaters in Berkeley and Los Angeles, while Frances... climbed toward half a million U.S. sales. All in all, a more than fitting tribute to another fallen friend.
For Amputechture in 2006, Omar and Cedric tore up the script yet again, deciding to make their third full length their first without a central unifying theme. Omar likened the surreal single song vignettes and their impressionistic tales of heresy, intolerance, demon worship and the like to vintage episodes of the original Night Gallery and Twilight Zone TV series. While Amputechture proved the most difficult of The Mars Volta discography to date--Omar and Cedric came to regard to the record as their autistic child, the one that related the least to others but that they nurtured the most--standout tracks such as "Viscera Eyes" and "Day Of The Baphomets" remain live favorites to this day.
The period following Amputechture's release and ensuing tour seemed plagued with mishaps and misfortune. Drummer Jon Theodore was let go and the band struggled to retain a stable replacement. Live dates were marred and postponed by inexplicable equipment issues and Cedric's suffering a strange and hobbling injury. An engineer suddenly lost his mental composure and a flood disabled Omar's studio. The band ultimately recognized a correlation between things unraveling and the appearance of the primitive Ouija prototype "talking board" Omar had picked up in Israel and gifted Cedric with upon his return. Nicknamed the Soothsayer, the board had been telling the band members an unfolding story of seduction, infidelity and murder featuring colorful characters that ultimately coalesced into the malevolent Goliath. By the time the Soothsayer's label peeled back to reveal pre-Aramaic writings of ominous origin, Goliath's stories had morphed into pleas that escalated into threats. Omar took matters into his hands and traveled to remote and random location, burying the Soothsayer in an unmarked grave, a place that would never be revealed to any of his band mates and that would hopefully escape his memory as well.
The legacy of the Soothsayer would be The Bedlam In Goliath, The Mars Volta's fourth album, released in early 2008 to a #3 Billboard debut. A virtual musical embodiment of madness incarnate, The Bedlam In Goliath eschewed the gradual build of previous Mars Volta records, diving feet first into frenzy on the opening "Aberinkula," which also marked Volta fans' first recorded impression of new drumming powerhouse Thomas Pridgen. As the album progressed, "Ilyena," "Goliath," "Soothsayer" and even the unsettlingly quiet eye of the storm that was "Tourniquet Man" gave musical substance to the characters and stories conveyed to Omar and Cedric through the Soothsayer. Much like the band's experience with the ancient and insidious talking board, The Bedlam In Goliath is a chilling yet addictive experience--and one that ultimately nabbed the band its first ever Grammy, as the track "Wax Simulacra" took home the Best Hard Rock Performance statuette from the 51st Annual Grammy Awards in February 2009.
For Omar Rodriguez-Lopez, the studio isn't just another tool at his disposal, or even something as simple as an instrument in its own right. The studio is his laboratory, his playground, the place where he can take the raw bones of his songs, his fresh-born ideas, and refine and experiment with them, twisting them into radical new shapes, sending them hurtling in askance directions.
For The Mars Volta's brand new fifth album Octahedron, however, Omar adopted an oblique and entirely new strategy, one he'd never tried before in the group's career. Having cut the basic tracks for this new album, instead of retreating to the studio to tinker endlessly with the songs and recordings, he chose to step away. Instead of feverishly adulterating the tapes with the mosaic of overdubs and FX that have typically aided Omar in realizing his concepts, he chose instead to polish and refine what he had, to hold back on every bell and every whistle. The result is, he says, the first of his albums that he can listen to for pleasure. It is also an album that distils all of the energy, all of the furious invention that characterizes music with a clarity they've never before achieved. In keeping with this spirit, Omar pared the band down to a 6-piece lineup, asking Hinojos and Terrazas to leave, both of whom did so amicably.
"It was really challenging, to hold back," he smiles. "To add many layers, or an instrumental freak-out section here or there, began to feel predictable to me, so I started putting restraints on myself, saying no, you aren't going to add 97 extra parts to this song. I reined it in, and kept it to the core of what those songs were."
Octahedron is an album heady with the emotion and high-drama that has always been The Mars Volta's trademark, their newfound simplicity and focus delivering some of the most immediate and powerful songs in their discography. Lyrically, Cedric employed 'disappearance' as a loose theme, inspired by the culture of kidnapping that has latterly infected the group's current home of Mexico, by the mysterious disappearances that populate the library of urban myth, and the way emotions - even the strongest, purest emotions - can mysteriously, but entirely, ebb away.
The album opens with the tender ache of "Since We've Been Wrong," Cedric's keening vocal establishing a mood that's deeply blue, powerfully melancholic, a sucker punch that hits every bit as hard as Octahedron's unashamed rockers (the gleaming futuristic funk of "Teflon," the tense chase-music of "Cotopaxi"). Pulling back from the full-tilt experimentation of previous releases, Octahedron invests its energies in Omar's gift for song craft, for swooning guitar runs of high tension and emotive power (closer "Luciforms"' epic riffage), for the nagging hooks and choked melodies that wreath the churning rhythms of "Desperate Graves." "For me, all that's important is if something moves you or not," explains Omar. "I've never tried to be tricky, to be complicated; if it gives me goosebumps, I'll use it. If it's striking, if it hits me as a listener, that's all that matters to me."
Ultimately, the album is another in a series of testaments to Omar and Cedric's unassailable faith in following their muse in whichever direction it takes them; thus far the journey's been the ride of the creative lifetime, and they see no sense it second-guessing it yet, especially not when it delivers so pointedly powerful a record as Octahedron.
"The only reason we even have a fan base is because I've stayed true to my instincts," nods Omar. "We've not tried to repeat previous successes to make them happy, we've stayed true to ourselves, and made the music that we want to make, and that's what they respond to. They can sense this is something really pure." And on Octahedron, perhaps purer than ever.