The Mars Volta’s Conceptual Epic

How the band reinvented progressive rock on ‘De-Loused in the Comatorium’

On June 24th 2021 » By Elijah Watson

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2001 was expected to be At The Drive-In’s breakout year. Following the release of Relationship of Command in 2000, the popularity of “One Armed Scissor” even led some to refer to the group as “the next Nirvana.” Although the group had announced an “indefinite hiatus” in February, it was clear that by the end of the year, Omar Rodríguez-López and Cedric Bixler-Zavala weren’t interested in getting the band back together for the foreseeable future. Instead, the pair wanted to further explore the experimental and progressive ideas they advocated for as part of At The Drive-In. And by the end of 2001, their new band, The Mars Volta, had already played a string of live performances, most notably a sold-out show at Los Angeles nightclub the Troubadour in November. Winona Ryder and Courtney Love were reportedly in attendance, as were fans earnestly — or tauntingly — hoping to hear the band’s founders, Rodríguez-López and Bixler-Zavala, play “One Armed Scissor.”

“All you whiny emo kids go get a Kleenex box,” Bixler-Zavala told the audience in reply and, instead, the group performed songs that would later appear on their 2002 Tremulant EP and their 2003 debut album, De-Loused in the Comatorium. Although no archival footage has surfaced from that show, there’s footage from other Mars Volta shows that occurred around the same time: Houston’s Engine Room; Dallas’ The Door; Austin’s Emo’s; Tempe, Arizona’s Nita’s Hideaway; San Francisco’s Bottom of the Hill.

This culminated in The Mars Volta’s seminal debut: De-Loused in the Comatorium.

In these live performances from 2001, viewers can see the group working through rough versions of “Inertiatic ESP,” “Cicatriz ESP,” and “Roulette Dares (The Haunt Of).” Early demos of some of these tracks, which were recorded in 2001 by Alex Newport (who produced At The Drive-In’s In/Casino/Out (1998) and Vaya (1999), as well as the Tremulant EP) but found their way on forums and peer-to-peer file sharing services like Kazaa and LimeWire in the late 2000s, show a stark contrast from their final De-Loused cuts. The early version of “Cicatriz ESP” was shorter, slower and more dubbed-out, a reminder of the dub band De Facto that Rodríguez-López and Bixler-Zavala led before primarily focusing on The Mars Volta. “Roulette Dares (The Haunt Of),” for the most part, remained the same save for its bridge, the demo version much slower than the finished result. Still, those early demos and performances gave a glimpse into the sonic beyond through which Rodríguez-López and Bixler-Zavala inevitably traversed on De-Loused, an album that was drastically different from not only anything else the pair had done up until that point, but from the entire landscape of alternative rock at the time.

But before it became that, De-Loused needed to come together conceptually — an ambitious endeavor that required a committed rigor from the core band members involved. Drummer Jon Theodore talked about this process at length in an interview with Ink 19:

“It took a year and a half to write the record, and that included over a year of practicing for hours upon hours. I’m notorious for not wanting to practice because I’m into the spontaneity of things and into the result that that brings. But being in this band, I learned a different work ethic, which is that you practice all day long. It was like being in the army. I was on-call waiting for rehearsals and we played every day for a year and a half; sometimes six or eight hours a day.”

While most of the skeleton of De-Loused was already formed before any recording began, the other core members of the band — Theodore, Flea (of the Red Hot Chili Peppers) on bass, the late Isaiah “Ikey” Owens on keyboards and the late Jeremy Michael Ward on effects and sound manipulation — helped bring the album to life.

“[‘De-Loused’] was surreal: a complex and conceptual epic attempting to memorialize, unravel and sympathize with a complicated man who was more than the way he died.”

Theodore and Flea gave it its pulse, the pair’s driving and punchy rhythm section grounding the album’s rich, rhythmic complexity and intensity — whether that be the syncopated staccato hits of “Drunkship of Lanterns” or the twisted, unexpected bridge of “Take the Veil Cerpin Taxt,” a moment that is so brilliantly erratic that music theory nerds (myself included) have devoted full online forums to deciphering its odd time signature. Owens was melodically chameleonic: one moment he’s setting the tone of the album, his melancholy and slightly frantic back-and-forth piano plinks on opener “Son et Lumiere” holding its own against Rodríguez-López’s dissonant guitar; the next, he’s like a malfunctioning robot, playing a disjointed and slightly distorted countermelody against Bixler-Zavala’s vocals during the choruses of “Inertiatic ESP.” But it’s the way he added flourishes of organ throughout the album that’s the real highlight. Sometimes, he’d loudly punctuate parts of songs with organ splashes, like in the beginning of “Roulette Dares (The Haunt Of)” or the pre-bridge of “Drunkship of Lanterns.” Other times, he was more subdued, floating under the surface of the verses of “Eriatarka” or the instrumental jam of “Cicatriz ESP.” Owens’ organ felt baptismal, parts of the album bathed in its warbly and watery tone. Ward’s contributions aren’t as easily identifiable. Although fans have credited him with crafting the ambiance and soundscapes of De-Loused, interviews with Theodore and Dave Schiffman, the album’s engineer, credit Ward with Bixler-Zavala’s vocal effects on the album, which can be heard throughout — from the backward vocals that creep through the second chorus of “Drunkship of Lanterns” to the singer’s gargled delivery on “This Apparatus Must Be Unearthed.”

Ward also helped Bixler-Zavala with the story on which De-Loused is based: the tale of Cerpin Taxt, an artist who falls into a coma after trying to commit suicide by overdosing on morphine. During this time, Cerpin Taxt enters a world of his own creation as his art comes to life in his subconscious, with Lepers and Tremulants — creatures that Cerpin Taxt invented — placing him on trial and sentencing him to do a number of tests to make amends for the sins he’s committed. Ultimately, Cerpin Taxt wakes up from his coma, only to be bored with the real world and filled with desire to return to the dream world he was in. This culminates in him attempting suicide again by jumping off a bridge, resulting in his death.

Cerpin Taxt’s tragic story is loosely based on that of a close friend of Rodríguez-López and Bixler-Zavala: Julio Venegas. A musician, painter and writer, Venegas died on Feb. 15, 1996, in El Paso, Texas, when he jumped from an overpass and fell onto Interstate 10 during afternoon rush hour traffic.

“Julio was an artist in every sense of the word,” Rodríguez-López said in an interview with LA Weekly shortly after the release of De-Loused. “He was an extreme person. He lived every day getting himself into situations and always getting lost, so he had scars all over his body that let you know the places where he had been.”

De-Loused wasn’t the first time Bixler-Zavala immortalized Venegas’ life and death in music. He also inspired “Ebroglio,” a track from At The Drive-In’s 1997 album Acrobatic Tenement. “Ebroglio” was a forthright and grieving eulogy for a friend, Bixler-Zavala directly referencing Juárez and real parts of El Paso (“Now he’s stranded on the Mesa Street exit”) in a way that grounded the tribute and made it feel real. De-Loused, in contrast, was surreal: a complex and conceptual epic attempting to memorialize, unravel and sympathize with a complicated man who was more than the way he died.

“He was our mentor, he taught us everything that created what we are today, basically,” Bixler-Zavala said of Venegas in a 2004 interview with Rockcircustv. “Julio is just an example of a starving artist — someone who was always struggling, and when you’re struggling, your art shows, and he was a living, walking embodiment of what art is or what it should be.”

In Bixler-Zavala’s cryptic delivery, listeners are still left with many questions about Venegas, even if they’re aware De-Loused was inspired by him. Just like Alejandro Jodorowsky, Luis Buñuel, Werner Herzog and other surrealist filmmakers that influenced them, Rodríguez-López and Bixler-Zavala were more concerned with creating something best left up to interpretation, interweaving the album’s lyrics with the story that inspired it to create a narrative celebrating not just Venegas the friend, but Venegas the artist. And even though Bixler-Zavala didn’t directly convey that through his lyrics, his voice did. The distressed and solemn way he repeats “Now I’m lost” in “Inertiatic ESP”; the poignant acceptance and ferociousness that comes the second time he sings “Said, ‘I’ve lost my way’” on the last verse of “Cicatriz ESP”; the quiet declaration of “One day this chalk outline will circle this city” that gives way to a question mired in anger and pain on “Televators”: “Was he robbed of the asphalt that cushioned his face?” and the frantic questioning that ends “Take the Veil Cerpin Taxt.” In loss, it’s common to wonder what a person felt before they passed. Bixler-Zavala’s vocals are an extension of that: the conflicting emotions and feelings Venegas might have had before his death.

“To say ‘De-Loused’ redefined progressive rock in the 21st century isn’t an overstatement.”

As a conceptual epic, De-Loused feels theatrical, like a sonic film. Each song moves like a new scene or Volta — as filmmaker Federico Fellini, who inspired the use of “Volta” in the band’s name, called them. And even within the songs themselves, the scenes are frequently changing. “Roulette Dares (The Haunt Of)” begins loudly and powerfully, only to end in a quiet waltz. “Cicatriz ESP” is punctuated by cavernous sounds halfway through, before erupting into an instrumental jam. “Take the Veil Cerpin Taxt” ends dramatically, after going through so many movements that it’s akin to a film ending on a visceral scene before abruptly going to black.

“Watching movies was a big part of this record,” Rodríguez-López said of De-Loused in a 2003 interview with Westword. “It’s something I’m so jealous of — the medium of film. There are so many limitations right now in music, and being able to escape that through film and all of the possibilities of expression that can occur, it conjured up so many different feelings for me.”

Rodríguez-López’s love of film is apparent in the cinematic aesthetic of De-Loused. From the way tracks are arranged to the many ways he transforms the sound of his guitar: the buzzy distortion that undercuts the verses of “Inertiatic ESP”; his frenetic guitar solo that comes during the instrumental jam of “Cicatriz ESP” (listen close enough, and you can hear John Frusciante melodically soloing alongside Rodríguez-López); the reverberated dissonance of an electric guitar paired with a soft, soothing acoustic guitar in “Televators” — there’s a vividness to the album that makes it such an immersive experience.

As a band that is admittedly self-indulgent, it helps that Rodríguez-López had someone present to provide a more overarching view of the album: Rick Rubin. Sure, Rubin’s association with the album helped pique people’s interest with De-Loused, but the legendary producer played a vital role in the digestibility of the album (although Bixler-Zavala has given interviews voicing his dissatisfaction with how Rubin “oversimplified” some of it).

“I think he really helped us to see it,” Rodríguez-López said of Rubin in the same Westword interview. “It’s hard when you’re making a record, because you’re so close to it. You’re completely emotionally attached in every way. To me, Rick was the guy who, when you move into a new house and you’re putting up your favorite painting, stands at the back of the room and guides you. The one who says, ‘Hang it there and come back to the end of the room so you can see how I’m looking at it, and if you don’t like it, you can always put it back to how you had it.’”

Recording for De-Loused took place at The Mansion — a supposedly haunted mansion in Laurel Canyon, California, owned by Rubin — from late 2002 to early 2003. On June 24, 2003, the album was released. De-Loused came at a peculiar time in rock music. Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain had already been dead for nine years, and yet the media were still hoping to christen a successor in the revolutionary band’s absence, hyping a type of rock music that harkened back to traditional rock ’n’ roll, rather than the post-grunge and nu-metal takeover that occurred throughout the late ’90s and early ’00s. Rolling Stone’s 2002 feature with The Vines noted how the British press referred to them as “the best band since Nirvana” amid the release of their debut album Highly Evolved, while the feature itself referred to songs like “Get Free” and “Ain’t No Room” as “Nirvana-style rave-ups.” This feature served as the cover story for the September, 19, 2002 issue of Rolling Stone, in which it declared “Rock is back!” while highlighting four groups: The Vines, The Strokes, The White Stripes and The Hives.

All of these groups — and many others including everyone from Interpol to the Yeah Yeah Yeahs — came to represent the broad garage rock and post-punk revival of the early 2000s. This came to a head in 2003 when these bands released some of their most beloved and successful albums: The Strokes’ Room on Fire, The White Stripes’ Elephant and Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ Fever to Tell. But as refreshing as these groups were in comparison to the more commercialized rock that dominated that year, critics noted how many of the bands were more of a pastiche of the groups they were inspired by and trying to emulate, rather than something truly original. Bixler-Zavala had even spoken to this in a July 2003 interview with the Chicago Tribune:

“We’re living in a time where everything that’s being hailed as the next big thing is straight-up retro,” he said. “In New York, everyone wants to be Gang of Four, or PIL, or Television. No one wants to mix it up and make their own thing.”

De-Loused was Rodríguez-López and Bixler-Zavala’s attempt at “their own thing,” and it worked. Although the album received some unfavorable reviews — most notably Pitchfork’s 4.9 review of it — De-Loused was a commercial and critical success, peaking at No. 39 on the Billboard 200 chart and earning positive reviews from the Los Angeles Times, SPIN and Entertainment Weekly. In 2015, 12 years after the album’s release, Rolling Stone declared De-Loused as one of the best progressive rock albums of all time, placing it right in the middle of its 50-album roundup at No. 25.

To say De-Loused redefined progressive rock in the 21st century isn’t an overstatement. The album wasn’t just a continuation in the lineage of classic epics like Pink Floyd’s The Dark Side of the Moon and The Wall, King Crimson’s In the Court of the Crimson King, Genesis’ The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway and Frank Zappa’s Joe’s Garage. It was reinvention, too: Rodríguez-López and Bixler-Zavala’s punk roots colliding with psychedelia in a way that breathed new life into the genre. Of course, the artists’ identities played a part in that reinvention, too. In general, rock is — and continues to be — predominantly white, and most, if not all, of progressive rock’s seminal figures are white men. As Latino men — Rodríguez-López being Puerto Rican and Bixler-Zavala being Mexican — the two also incorporated aspects of their culture into De-Loused. There’s the obvious cues like song titles that are in Spanish (“Tira Me a Las Arañas,” “Cicatriz ESP”), but there’s also the musical subtleties, too: “Televators” sounding like a psychedelic corrido (a Mexican ballad) or the clave, a percussive instrument that’s often referred to as the heartbeat of salsa music, making up the the heartbeat of parts of songs like “Drunkship of Lanterns” and “Cicatriz ESP.”

“Salsa is everything,” Rodríguez-López told FADER in a 2008 interview. “Everything I interpret, be it rock music or punk music or whatever stage I’m at, is filtered through hearing the clave.”

That De-Loused was ultimately made in remembrance of a fellow Latino man only adds to the importance of its canonization among the greats of progressive rock albums.

De-Loused in the Comatorium was a demanding listening experience when it was released, and it continues to be almost two decades later. That’s not to say its musical journey can’t be fun or rewarding — you just have to be willing to jump into the abyss to find out.

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