Some bands, it seems, are not created to break out of the underground. Kurt Cobain spent three tortured years after the breakthrough of Nevermind trying to come to terms with what he’d done. Wild-haired, Tex-Mex, art-house, anarchic punk rockers, At The Drive-In, were another case in point: their flirtation with popularity following 2000’s Relationship Of Command album immediately precipitated their demise.
But, just as the phoenix of the Foo Fighters rose out of the ashes of Nirvana, so The Mars Volta is also on a flight that, while directionally different to At The Drive-In’s, is every bit as exhilarating. De-loused In The Comatorium is a concept album, a term which ceased to be taboo to the supposedly cool, idiot savant, indie music press when Radiohead stopped making The Bends and started going round the bend instead. However, this is a concept album like none you will have ever heard, either lyrically or musically.
The album is based around a Mexican artist called Julio Venegas, a friend of guitarist/bassist/songwriter Omar Rodriguez-Lopez and vocalist Cedric Bixler Zavala, who committed suicide in 1997. It covers the week when Venegas went into a coma and creates a fictional world that he might have fallen into where he wrestles between whether to live or die. This may sound rather morbid, but the spirit is more one of melancholy adventure, something which is matched by the incredible music on offer.
It is pointless to pick out individual tracks. Deloused… is an hour of music that is designed to be listened to in its entirety, like a punk rock symphony in 10 movements. There are impassioned vocals, angular, driving guitars, pseudo-jazz moments, bass and drum patterns that cannot be taught, time signatures that defy the tenets of music theory, and songs that range from 90 seconds to 12 minutes in length. Perversely, it’s almost as if Rodriguez-Lopez and Bixler Zavala deliberately set out to couple the freeform abandon of their previous band with a greater sense of purpose, yet in doing so have managed to give off the air of ingenious improvisation.
Of course, with any good novella, there has to be a twist in the tale. Unbelievably, tragically, in this case it is that Jeremy Ward, also once of At The Drive-In, who provided many of the samples and sound effects on Deloused…, committed suicide at the end of May. I’m not sure what sort of music this disaster is going to stir in The Mars Volta but, on the evidence of this album, you won’t want to miss it.