Over the Hills and Far Away

The Mars Volta’s Amputechture, like its more ostensibly thematic predecessors, is a lavish artifact drenched in the kind of imposing gestural flourish that punks thought they’d long ago consigned to the gulag. Through vast and magnificently ambiguous warpings of past heavy-music bombast (Rush, King Crimson, Deep Purple, Led Zep, Yes), untidily heaped with the ghost of contemporary classical form and tonality, avant-jazz screech and especially the trad folk of Latin America, the Mars Volta pay homage to a time when musicians used all at their disposal to create the ideal music they heard in their heads.

“Anything and everything from Stravinsky or Paganini or Varèse to Augustus Pablo or Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry or Roni Size or Autechre,” guitarist Omar Rodriguez-Lopez tells me over the phone from out on the road on one of the L.A.-based band’s innumerable tours (this one opening for longtime mentors the Red Hot Chili Peppers, whose John Frusciante, a devoted proghead and electronic-music fan, plays guitar on Amputechture).

The 31-year-old, Puerto Rico–born Rodriguez-Lopez likes all music — or most of it, anyway. “A lot of electronic music. My biggest influence that could never go away is just from growing up with [salsa legends] Larry Harlow and Eddie Palmieri and Pacheco, and the Fania All-Stars, and just the sound of the son in general. And Roy Orbison, Johnny Cash — I guess just every form of music, with the exception of maybe rap-rockers, or whatever you call that stuff.” He laughs.

We’ve entered an age when the rules are being rethunk. Music and films that were once considered to be “guilty pleasures” can now be embraced as legitimate sources of inspiration, simply by virtue of having been cast adrift from their mooring in the values and mores of their original time on Earth. History, it would appear, is there to be used.

In reviving a massive-scaled and resolutely rococo rock-as-epic-voyage, Mars Volta urge yesterday’s avant-gardists to acknowledge the orthodoxy of their once shockingly bold upheavals. I’m referring to the steely grip in which minimalism has held us for lo these past 40-odd years. In zigs and zags, minimalism has urged us out of the “excess” and “pomp” of ’70s art rock, first into disco, then into a paradoxically pointy-headed era of punk rock and its shiny little sister, new wave, and on into plaid-shirted and beer-swilling grunge and ironic-T-shirt-wearing indie rock — each of which in its own way hammered us with the dreary understanding that, lest we forget, Less Is More.

Okay, okay. But minimalism suggested at least one eventual consequence, which is the dawning of More Is More, Too — for the simple reason that more is literally more.

After main dudes Rodriguez-Lopez and singer-lyricist Cedric Bixler-Zavala had cast off the dogma-dog neck irons they’d worn as the endlessly touring El Paso punk grunts At the Drive-In, they took a little breather. And when they emerged, it soon became obvious that some secret revelation had affected them both deeply. They decided that, if they were going to continue to play music at all, it had to mean something to them, and to them alone.

Maybe not so strangely, in springing an old ploy commonly referred to as “following one’s muse,” the two found themselves amassing a formidable following of like-minded spectacle-rock fanatics. The new devotees, as opposed to laughing at the Mars Volta’s lyrically arcane and heavily ’70s-entrenched metal minisymphonies on albums such as De-Loused in the Comatorium and Frances the Mute, embraced them with hungry delight and zero apologies to their punk-rock moms and dads. The ground trembled, and a new consciousness was born.

On Amputechture, produced by Rick Rubin and Rodriguez-Lopez, there’s no central concept per se, yet the overall shape and comprehensiveness of the sound implies a link underlying the disparate, tangential stories Bixler-Zavala is telling. He says the album largely concerns “bilocation,” or being in two different places at one time, much like what the Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie represents to the Jamaicans, or how Morrissey inspires certain Latinos; Bixler-Zavala got the idea from the story of the young Romanian woman who was silenced and murdered last year because she was possessed, an event that was a catalyst for uprisings across the world.

There are many stories being told on Amputechture, stories that fall in and out of each other; to Bixler-Zavala, it’s a question of what the reality is. The distortion-laced slow burn of “Asilos Magdalena” (“Magdalena’s Asylum”) found inspiration at the Paramour house in Silver Lake, where Amputechture was recorded; wayward girls of the ’50s found refuge with nuns in that house, and their voices can be heard in the track’s ghostly electronics. The churchy ponderousness of the opening “Vicarious Atonement” came about from Bixler-Zavala’s reading of theosophist Helena Blavatsky’s book Isis Unveiled. “I just like the imagery that it provides,” he says. “You’re trying to make up for your sins by watching someone else go through the punishment; it’s the central theme behind Mexican Catholicism.”

Such explanations aren’t the rule; most artists can barely tell you what was on their mind when they created their best work, and the Mars Volta are no different. “I just wanted to tie it all in together,” says Bixler-Zavala, who’s the same age as Rodriguez-Lopez and is by manner of speech just a regular TV-watching dude, though that’s a bit deceptive. “Kind of like old Outer Limits or Night Gallery, a bunch of different stories, but it’s the same TV program.” Yet determinedly obscure song titles such as “Day of the Baphomets,” “Tetragrammaton” and “El Ciervo Vulnerado” speak for themselves — not. And though they do make reference to ideas he’s culled from Burroughs or shamanism or CNN or, more often, ’70s film and TV — or the deaths of friends such as Mars bandmate Jeremy Ward from a drug overdose in 2003 — the idea is to give the listener something to mull over and debate, much as in the halcyon days of album rock.

“There are certain aspects of speaking in tongues involved in this,” says Bixler-Zavala, with a hint of wryness. “Buñuel movies and certain Jodorowsky movies, we can identify with them. I think we live Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo on a day-to-day basis — you know, the one where the Amazon tribe drags a huge boat over a hill in the jungle? This band has been pushing the boat over the hill.”

“I really don’t understand a lot of what I’ve been doing until I have a couple of years away from it,” says Rodriguez-Lopez, seemingly in wonder. “I always feel like doing a record is a mad frenzy, like a rush to get certain parts executed or certain surface ideas executed, and there’s so much happening beneath the surface.”

Which is one explanation for why he prefers not to think too much about what he’s doing in the studio. When he recorded Bixler-Zavala’s vocals, he rarely allowed the singer to do more than one take.

“I just want to let the intent be there,” he says, “so I just let everything happen according to its feeling.”

One would guess that considering their furiously concentrated compulsion toward their elusive muse, the duo might be concerned about losing their audience. Not so, says Rodriguez-Lopez.

“We definitely never think about our audience when we’re making music. Our time for thinking about our audience is playing live, because we’re sharing our insides with them. But in terms of making music, we treat thinking about an audience as a dagger point at our hearts. It’s never been important before, and it shouldn’t be important now.”

Which is not to say they’re ungrateful for their rabid, loyal believers. “We definitely enjoy where this is taking us,” he says, “and having a larger fan base now and what it allows us to do. But we recognize that the most important thing is our intent. It’s like we put horsy blinders on — we’re just trying to move forward through the crowd and get to wherever it is we’re going.”

THE MARS VOLTA | Amputechture | Universal Motown

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