Prog Rock Is from Mars ...

The Mars Volta, De-loused in the Comatorium

A year-end wrap-up poses many challenges to me. I simply don’t see enough, read enough, or hear enough to feel qualified to put together a “best of 2003” list — especially considering that I’ll catch up with everything I missed this past year sometime in 2006.

But I can say that it was a disappointing year, because I can only think of a single item that was transcendent for me — a movie, book, or album that grabbed my shirt, yanked me close, screamed “Pay attention, asshole,” and then occupied my thoughts for weeks thereafter. Oh, there were plenty of things I liked, admired, and even loved, but only one thing that was so special it could not be ignored.

Movies were a bust for me in 2003. I found 28 Days Later thrilling; I was charmed by Holes, Finding Nemo, and Pieces of April; I loved admiring, thinking about, and writing about 2002 leftovers 25th Hour, Spider, and Ararat; I re-discovered what a great script Casablanca has; and I was glad to finally see Truffaut’s Fahrenheit 451. But there was nothing on a par with Magnolia or Memento or The Truman Show or Requiem for a Dream.

The year did provide me with one transcendent song: “Cat Claw,” by the sleazy-sexy minimalist-blues outfit The Kills. The track is a ferocious, stunningly nuanced force that I listen to again and again and again. The song is built on the most basic riffs, beats, and chorus, but singer-guitarist VV grabs you by the throat with a passionate delivery that never fails to surprise; in the verses, she seems to address the listener directly, as if she’s standing right in front of you, boring holes in your head with an unwavering stare. And The Kills populate the song with flourishes and freak-outs that add even more complexity and texture. Hands down, my favorite song of the year.

And then there’s The Mars Volta’s De-loused in the Comatorium, which I can’t get out of my CD player or my head. It is my 2003 transcendent experience. I’m not alone. A lot of critics put it on their year-end best-of-2003 lists, which was why I even sought it out in the first place.

The group, formed from the shards of At the Drive-In, has all the trappings of progressive rock. To start, there’s the high-pitched, careening singing of Cedric Zavala. (I say Dennis DeYoung, the wife says Freddie Mercury; you get the idea.) Then there are the cryptic and poseur-intellectual song titles, enough to turn off anybody who doesn’t worship at the altar of Yes and Rush: “Son et Lumiere,” “Inertiatic ESP,” “Roulette Dares (The Haunt of),” “Tira Me a las Arañas,” “Drunkship of Lanterns,” “Eriatarka,” “Cicatriz ESP,” “This Apparatus Must Be Unearthed,” “Televators,” and “Take the Veil Cerpin Taxt.”

Oh, but there’s more. It’s a concept album. I can’t say what it’s about, but the band’s Web site summarizes the story this way:

“The hero tries to commit suicide by overdosing on morphine. Instead of dying, he falls into a coma for a week, and experiences fantastic adventures in his dreams, elemental battles between the good and bad aspects of his conscience. At the end, he emerges from the coma, but chooses to die.”
Four tracks top seven minutes. “Cicatriz ESP” is 12-plus and features something from just about every phase of King Crimson’s career. “Apparatus” climaxes with a backward-drum bit. The sometimes-heavy keyboards bring to mind the masturbatory cheese of Rick Wakeman.

What’s astonishing is that De-loused in the Comatorium actually doesn’t feel like prog rock. As with Tool’s Ænima and Queens of the Stone Age’s Songs for the Deaf, the album is clearly of a genre but towers above it — which is one way of defining “transcendence.” The Mars Volta’s full-length debut, like those two other records, quite simply opens the mind to the possibilities of rock music; it makes the best of its day — the rich power pop of bands such as The Shins and The New Pornographers, and the direct, rough, blues-based outfits such as The White Stripes and The Yeah Yeah Yeahs — seem timid, dull, and overly reliant on formula.

De-loused blends adventurous metal, jazzy motifs, and spacey explorations in compositions that are meticulous, dense, and clearly calculated but seem reckless and improvisational. On “Inertiatic ESP,” the track is grooving in the midst of its circular chorus when the whole things slips off the track into a quiet detour. A thunderous bass rumble invades “Roulette Dares (The Haunt of),” and these are but two examples of the sonic touches stuffed into every song. Each listen provides new joys.

They key to The Mars Volta’s success is its passion. If King Crimson and, to a lesser degree, Tool, have taught us anything, it’s that adventurous and interesting rock music is often too precise and cerebral, and that formal and technical innovation and prowess frequently come at the expense of expressiveness and heart. The Mars Volta, on this album at least, never comes close to that trap, buoyed by Zavala’s un-self-conscious voice. The singing, while not technically impressive, is so emotionally direct and clear that its shortcomings fall away.

De-loused in the Comatorium is bracing music, as clear a statement that you’ll find that rock is very much alive, no matter what the sales charts and tastemakers say.

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