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Essential Records: The Mars Volta's 'De-Loused In The Comatorium'

Posted by Amoebite, October 8, 2014 05:32pm | Post a Comment

Essential Records De-Loused in the Comatorium

The year was 2003. I was a 22-year old musician living in Silverlake, playing in a band and chasing the dream. I was taking in heavy doses of Stevie Wonder and anything I could find from Salsa greats Willie Colon and Hector Lavoe. At that time, my whole musical world was Soul, Salsa and Hip Hop. The Roots' Things Fall Apart and Mos Def's Black on Both Sides were still in heavy rotation from my college Freshman days of 1999. 

I vividly remember my friend Jesus Beas telling me about this new band I should check out. He said they were called The Mars Volta and some of the guys were in a band called At The Drive-In. I had never heard of either band, but I knew it was worth my time to take a listen. Jesus and I had been friends since 9th grade and he had always turned me on to bands I ended up loving (mostly underground politically charged rock groups like Aztlan Underground and Downset).  

The Mars Volta

On June 24, 2003, The Mars Volta released De-Loused In The Comatorium  via Gold Standard Laboratories, an indie label co-owned by guitarist Omar Rodriguez-Lopez. GSL were distributed by Universal Records making Deloused  the band's major label debut. The album was co-produced by Rick Rubin and recorded in his famed Laurel Canyon mansion. Legend has it that the mansion, built in 1918, is haunted by ghosts and some say Harry Houdini once lived there. The mansion, with all its mythical character, made for the perfect place to record De-Loused In The Comatorium.

The album's theme is based on the short story of Cerpin Taxt, a man who ends up in a coma after overdosing on a concoction of morphine and rat poision in an apparent suicide attempt. During the coma, Cerpin Taxt goes through many experiences facing inner demons battling with the idea of living. When Cerpin Taxt comes out of the coma he still has a desire to commit suicide and ultimately does. Ironically, The Mars Volta's sound designer, Jeremy Michael Ward (who, along with singer Cedric Bixler-Zavala, co-authored the short story about Cerpin Text), was found dead of a drug overdose less than one month before the release of De-Loused In The Comatorium. [Note: Cerpin Taxt is based on Cedric Bixler-Zavala's real life friend, El Paso, TX artist Julio Venegas (1972-1996).]

I had no previous knowledge of the theme of De-Loused in The Comatorium and  At The Drive-In never showed up on my radar. I took a chance solely on Jesus' golden track record of recommendations. I remember driving to Amoeba Hollywood to purchase a copy of the album on vinyl. Little did I know, I was buying a silver limited edition double LP. The cover art was a quick indication that, at the very least, this was going to be interesting. The artwork was designed by Storm Thorgerson who is known for his work with Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin. The CD cover art featured a head with a beam of light coming from the mouth, while The LP pressing featured an alternate cover (head in water, pictured below to the left). 

Mars Volta De-Loused in the Comatorium  Mars Volta De-Loused in the Comatorium

I was instantly blown away from the first listen. It wasn't, "oh my God this is the greatest music I've ever heard" blown away. It was more like, "What the hell is this? I've never heard anything like this before. I'm confused!" Alternative rock radio at the time was dominated by safe and friendly hits from the likes of AudioslaveStaind and Foo Fighters. A far stretch from what The Mars Volta were doing. This is particularly interesting because the label clearly wanted to sell records when they hired hitmaker Rick Rubin, but the album didn't produce any songs tailor-made for radio. De-Loused In The Comatorium went against all traditional song structure I was confined to as a listener and as a songwriter. There was absolutely nothing "traditional" about The Mars Volta -- no pop melodies, no catchy pre-choruses and definitely no lyric I could make sense of. 

What immediately jumped out was the intensity and clarity of the production. Sonically, it was huge, crisp, and very clean. Dare I say it was polished, like a pop record, but without an ounce of over production, which is clearly the work of Rick Rubin. The last time I was taken aback by an album's sonic quality was Dr. Dre's 2001 (1999). From the deep 808s to the crack in the hand clap snare hits, Rap music never sounded so clear before. I was amazed how busy The Mars Volta songs were without sounding like a wall of mud. There were heavy metal undertones, but the vocals were light and pretty. Singer Cedic Bixler-Zavala, vocally, was a breath of fresh air for my ears. It's not too often you get a full range rock singer who can move through registers with ease. His falsetto is as strong as his tenor parts. Everything was evenly spaced with guitar riffs smacking me in the face while the vocals sat perfectly on top of the mix. My inner audio snob was geeking out. 

 

Aside from owning, The Complete Bitches Brew Sessions box set by Miles Davis, I never had a relationship with jazz fusion, prog-rock or experimental rock. I had never been a fan of science fiction or fantasy novels. In hindsight, maybe I was a bit sheltered in my influences. The Mars Volta seemed to encompass all those elements and somehow made those ideas accessible to me. The arrangements on De-Loused were grand, challenging my attention span and making me question everything I thought I knew about "good music."  From backward guitar lines to deciphering lyrics to odd, lengthy interludes, there was so much to discover in this one-hour long album. I couldn't stop playing it.

The drum sounds alone were enough to keep me coming back. Drummer Jon Theodore (now with Queens of The Stone Age) had the chops of jazz great Max Roach and the dynamics of Led Zeppelin's John Bonham, but heavier. The intricate parts Omar Rodriguez- Lopez played spoke to my love of Salsa music. In Salsa, every instrument has a specific job and when everything is played in the right space and time, it locks in like a puzzle. Speaking of Salsa, I later learned Rodriguez-Lopez is heavily influenced by salsa greats like Larry Harlow and Celia Cruz, further gaining my musical respect. I became increasingly obsessed with every listen. I didn't even know the meaning of the album title. In fact, I didn't even know if I was pronouncing it correctly so I just referred to it as, "The Mars Volta album."  

As I poured over the liner notes, I was surprised to learn that Flea (Red Hot Chili Peppers) recorded bass on 9 of the 10 songs and fellow Chili Pepper John Frusciante also contributed guitar parts and vocals to the recording. De-Loused in The Comatorium was far left-field compared to the radio pop sound of the Chili Peppers. Hearing that side of Flea and Frusciante made the record a little more interesting for me. It was like these two musicians were secretly cheating on their fanbase with another band. At first, it didn't occur to me that some of the sounds I was hearing were being played by Ikey Owens, the band's keyboardist. The keys on this album are like the special sauce in a secret recipe. Not too much and not too little. The layering of the keys and synths are so well done sometimes you don't realize it's there. Ikey Owens holds the distinction of being the longest tenured member of The Mars Volta outside of Bixler-Zavala and Rodriguez-Lopez.  [UPDATE: Ikey Owens passed away October 14, 2014 at age 38.]

All Tomorrow's Parties 2003A highlight for me was catching The Mars Volta live at the 2003 All Tomorrow's Parties music fest in Long Beach, CA. That year the festival was curated by Matt Groening and had an insane lineup that included Iggy & The Stooges, Cat Power and Daniel Johnston to name a few. Elliott Smith was scheduled to perform, but sadly died before the festival took place. None of my band members or housemates at the time had any desire to see The Mars Volta (let alone play the record), so I purchased one ticket and went solo. I was hanging out people watching when I randomly spotted Flea standing alone. I walked over and excitedly said, "Hey Flea, I really enjoyed your playing on The Mars Volta record." He kindly shook my hand and said thank you. The next thing I know, I'm passing my wristband through a hole in a fence to my buddy Jesus who happened to be hanging out with members of the band Aztlan Underground. I snuck them all in (5 or 6 heads) one by one and we all got to hang out and see the show!  

The Mars Volta has since disbanded, but they leave a hefty catalog of music for you to discover. They are definitely not for everyone. Their prog rock/experimental sound is very much an aquired taste and the timing for something like this was right for me personally. I was young and open to experiencing new things (not that I'm now old and not open to new things!). I was hungry for growth, both in my personal development and with my musical career. I wanted something a little deeper out of life and De-Loused In The Comatorium happened to be that one record that did it for me. Their music showed me that you can push the boundaries and take chances with whatever you are creating and it told me it was okay not to be like everyone else. So for all those reasons, The Mars Volta's De-Loused In The Comatorium is one of my Essential Records.  

 

- by Ray Ricky Rivera

 

Relevant Tags

The Mars Volta (4), Essential Records (35), De-loused In The Comatorium (1), At The Drive-in (4), Omar Rodriguez-lopez (3), Rick Rubin (5), Cedric Bixler-zavala (2), Flea (6), John Frusciante (7), Matt Groening (5), All Tomorrow's Parties (3)