The Mars Volta are a progressive rock band. Back in the '70s, this connoted something different. It meant that a band wrote anfractuous and lengthy songs often with a thematic tone that lasted the entire album. They overdosed on keyboards and weren't afraid to name-drop a unicorn or wilderbeast. Think King Crimson. Think Emerson, Lake and Palmer. Think Can and Yes.
Better yet, try not to think about it too much. If your band was "prog," you were both adventurous and pretentious.
But as Chuck Klosterman recently quipped, "Just about anything qualifies as prog in 2005." The Mars Volta are not progressive because they write opulent thematic albums (they do) with nonsensical lyrics and spaces of Eno-ish atmospherics (they do that, too). They are progressive in the sense that they are, and all at once, anything to anybody.
To a scenester, they are indie-rock. To a stoner, they are a psychedelic jam-band. To a frat-boy, they are aggressive modern-rock. To a headbanger, they are math-metal. To the Queer Eye guys, they're in bad need of a hair stylist.
And, finally, to the average Joe, they are the perfect arena rock band, a band that can easily fit in at both Coachella and Bonnaroo. Really, when was the last time you heard a song (in this case the single, "L'Via L'Viaquez") on Chicano, alternative and modern-rock radio, much less a Spanish language song on the latter two?
And yet, Mars Volta perhaps should have never been. Their core-guitarist Omar Rodriguez-Lopez and singer Cedric Bixler-Zavala-made up two-fifths of At The Drive-In. In 2001, the era of Britney and N'Sync, the El Paso band was knighted the new saviors of rock on the strength of their brilliant major label debut, Relationship of Command. Yet just as At The Drive-In's single "One Armed Scissor" was taking off and they graced the cover of SPIN magazine, the band inexplicably broke up.
While the rest of At The Drive-In went on to form the band Sparta, Rodriguez-Lopez and Bixler-Zavala formed Mars Volta almost immediately and, in 2003, released their debut, the Rick Rubin-produced De-Loused in the Comatorium. The album, while both vehement and sonorous, was well received by critics. But many suspected that they had more to offer. This year's Frances the Mute, a (surprise!) concept album about a journal found by a band member that chronicled an orphan's search for his biological parents, was described by David Fricke as, "the beastly spawn of Radiohead's OK Computer and Rush's 2112."
Once, vainly attempting to describe it to someone who hadn't yet heard it, I compared it to the "prime-years Santana on crack." The debut single, "The Widow" (probably the "single" only because it's the only song on the album under six minutes long), is a Zeppelin-esque sorta-ballad that landed the band in the Top 10 for the first time. "L'Via L'Viaquez," a blazing guitar and bongo driven Cuban-jazz mash-up, is a staple on alternative radio despite being sung mostly in Spanish.
Paraphrasing Hunter Thompson, Zavala once remarked that the Mars Volta "were not meant for mass consumption." Yet they sell out arenas, and, judging by the last crowd they drew at RIMAC Arena, their appeal seems limitless, even if it's a bitch to describe.
The Mars Volta may not be in the business of saving rock anymore, but they're making it safe for everyone to love all together. The masses have spoken and, for once, it's cool for us to all like the same thing.
C'mon brother, hold my hand.The Mars Volta plays with System of a Down at the Sports Arena, 7 p.m. on Aug. 6. $39.50-$44. 619-220-8497.