Monday, October 05, 2009

Slip into the Fifth Dimension with the Mars Volta

This is not the Mars Volta in Montreal

After a festival, it is common to feel somewhat overwhelmed by music: seeing more bands than most people see in a month over the span of a single weekend can leave one feeling like they have overindulged in music. Perhaps some time in the wilderness, alone with buzzing ears, is the perfect way to reintegrate into normal society.

Or you can go to a Mars Volta concert. Sticking around for an extra day in Montreal — and missing two fantastic shows back in Calgary, Dan Mangan at the Marquee Room and the infamous Gogol Bordello at Mac Hall Ballroom — I was lucky enough to catch one of the Mars Volta's only Canadian dates on this leg of the tour.

The format of a Volta concert rarely changes: they let you know well in advance exactly when they'll be starting the show — 8:20 pm — and they don't fuck around with any opening bands or other theatrics. Instead, they come on stage, pick up their instruments, and ripple time and space for the next 100 minutes.

The stage was immaculately presented. There was enough room at the beautiful Metropolis to accommodate all six members of the immediate Volta family, and the stage itself was backed by a looming, Hindu-themed, tapestry. Once the show started, and the venue grew dark, the tapestry took on a life of its own: viciously, psychedelically, layered, the tapestry changed and morphed manically as different lights washed over it: purples would bring out a seeing-eye; greens would shimmer forth waves and patterns; reds shone pulsating, hooded, figures. The light show also had the effect of making the entire stage seem to undulate and groove, as if possessed by the very demons Cedric Bixler-Zavala, vocalist, and Omar Rodriguez-Lopez, guitars, tried to exorcise.

Even with great familiarity with the Mars Volta's catalogue, each song is a new, tantalizing treat: the songs on record are scarcely ever played as is. Instead, they are mere frameworks, points of reference, for the songs to take on new meaning and life under the rigors of a live performance. Opening with the band's first recorded songs, from 2003's De-Loused in the Comatorium, "Son et Lumiere" and "Inertiatic ESP" were macabre, gruesome affairs. The opening riff to "Son et Lumiere" in particular was to set the mood for the rest of the evening: haunting and chilling, worming its way into the consciousness of Rodriguez-Lopez's psyche, through his veins, and spilling out onto his guitar's frets with a psychotic, dream-like frenzy. He, too, seemed to shift shapes and styles, channelling Hendrix at times with fuzzed-out wah work, or shredding bluesy punk solos like Slash, always adding his own touch of psychedelic madness and disaster to the proceedings as he twisted and turned the guitar in his hands, wringing out every note with nerve-wracking energy.

Bixler-Zavala was similarly possessed. His stage antics, by now, are well known. He wails and yowls into his microphone as if he hardly knows where he belongs, as if quivering between dimensions, walking the razor-sharp tightrope that separates sanity from not. With a healthy dose of his steaming elixir — a fresh cup of what must have been tea was brought out with startling regularity — his vocal performance was flawless as he wrapped his voice around the microphone's head, slithering down the cord and out into the venue.

Not surprisingly, the set was heavy on material from the group's latest effort, Octahedron. Though the album was billed as their "electric acoustic album" — i.e. a softer, less frenetic effort — the songs were anything but. The band barely even tried to slow down even during the album's quietest moments, transforming songs like "Halo of Nembutals" into ghastly, ethereal productions. "Teflon" and "Cotopaxi" were both similarly treated. "Teflon" in particular moved at an other-worldly pace, it's main riff and chorus ("let the wheels burn/let the wheels burn/stack the tires to the neck/with the body inside") grooving like a sociopath awash in blue charisma. The only semblance of sense was kept in time — barely — by Thomas Pridgen, who completely dominated his drum kit. Sitting shirtless behind a cornucopia of cymbals, his arms flailed and thrashed with a reckless abandon for physics or anatomy, striking more beats and notes than reason deemed possible.

De-Loused was also well represented. Bixler-Zavala even took the time to break the fourth wall — a rare occurrence — to greet the audience and dedicate "Roulette Dares (The Haunt Of)" to "everyone who believed in us from the very beginning. Everyone was pissed off when we broke up our old band, and very few people believed in us from the very beginning, when this was just an idea. This one is for those few people." "Cicatriz ESP" also made an appearance, stretching well past its recorded 12-minute mark to duck down a rabbit hole.

The set drew to a close with a beautifully understated bass solo by Juan Alderete. At times grooving to Mars Volta themes, and at times using the upper registers of his four-string like Cliff Burton on "(Anesthesia) - Pulling Teeth," he worked feedback and rumbling notes to great effect, creating a wash of deep notes that thundered through the audience's soles. As the theme circled around the conclusion, alluding to the next song, Bixler-Zavala took his place once more at the helm of his white microphone.

"He's got fasting black lungs," he sung.

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