BY XAVIER JOHNSON
It’s been a long time coming for fans of The Mars Volta, a progressive rock standout that broke up in 2012 and is back with a North American tour to support their new self-titled album.
Their first tour in a decade is a journey through the group’s discography, largely being a celebration of the full breadth of what the band has to offer. Nearing the tail end of their tour, The Mars Volta did a two night stint at The Warfield in San Francisco on October 18th and 19th with opener Teri Gender Bender.
The Mars Volta was created by guitarist Omar Rodriguez-Lopez and vocalist Cedric Bixler-Zavala, both 47, in the wake of their previous band, At The Drive-In, which broke up in 2001. The pair immediately formed The Mars Volta looking to forge a similarly unique sound in the progressive rock space that At The Drive-In did for post-hardcore music.
The band’s first record, De-Loused in the Comatorium, was an instant hit in progressive rock circles. The dynamic fusion of prog rock, Latin music, jazz, and punk was electric; astounding audiences with a fresh take on a genre that can fall into well-worn tropes. They followed that up with another all-timer in Frances The Mute, an album that holds their two biggest hits “L’Via L’Viaquez” and “The Widow.”
Overall, six studio albums were released before the 2012 breakup. Now back with a new record and lineup, The Mars Volta has taken a more pop approach to their songwriting which is more pronounced when played alongside their older material. Only two tracks from their new album were a part of the setlist: “Graveyard Love” and “Blacklight Shine.”
Bixler-Zavala and Rodriguez-Lopez are flanked by two swiss-army knife musicians: keyboardist Leo Genovese and percussionist Marcel Rodríguez-López. The rhythm section is held down by bassist Eva Gardner and drummer Linda-Philomène Tsoungui.
Bixler-Zavala’s voice continues to be powerful. It’s clear he’s not in his prime. There are some high notes that he’d effortlessly hit in 2006 that come out a little more strained 16 years later. However, he can still come through with some entrancing melodies.
From nailing the soaring chorus on “Inertiatic ESP” to setting the mood with the eerie “Televators,” Bixler-Zavala nails the important moments. His energy isn’t bursting off the walls like in his younger years, but that rambunctious energy is replaced by a refined demeanor and an ability to help craft the mood.
During lengthy solos he’ll stand there jamming, becoming a spectator to the brilliant musicianship surrounding him, almost seeming as impressed as the audience. His body language twists and contorts as the songs do the same.
The all-black attire The Mars Volta wears provides an excellent visual when contrasted with the bright whites and primary colors used for the show’s lighting. The entire presentation is as dynamic as the music itself. It all contributes to enhancing each song, whether it’s a three-minute ballad or a 25-minute epic.
In particular, the rhythmic talent of the current lineup is as great as it’s ever been. Tsoungui is a force behind the kit. Her playing is both ferocious and measured; adapting to whatever is asked of her in a given track.
“Cygnus….Vismund Cygnus” was a showcase for the entire band’s incredible virtuosity, yet through all the highlights it was Tsoungui’s playing that stood out above all. In a song that shifts between blisteringly fast progressive rock to a subtle, jazzy improvisational jam; Tsoungui nails each and every part.
Not to be outdone, the rhythm section was rounded out by Gardner and Marcel Rodríguez-López who both effortlessly held down the groove and provided the tight foundation for the rest of the band to build off during the lengthy solos. Marcel, Gardner, and Genovese pulled double duty throughout the night shifting between multiple instruments. Genovese played a mean saxophone, Marcel shifted over to the synthesizers, and Gardner had some stints on the upright bass.
Omar Rodriguez-Lopez was stellar all night with his guitar playing. As the main composer and visionary behind The Mars Volta, he was greeted with overwhelming applause, which surely follows him from town-to-town. His star shined the brightest during the moments of raw energy. During high-energy sections in tracks like “Drunkship of Lanterns” his guitar was twisting and screaming, playing with immense force and precision.
Rodriguez-Lopez and Genovese flexed their improvisational skills throughout the night letting their instincts take over and playing some wonderful solos that help make The Mars Volta shows more than simply the band playing songs from their albums.
Their set is two hours of music thrown out with almost no breaks. The only real pause came before the final track; otherwise it was a consistent stream of music that didn’t lose momentum. The band’s hits were dispersed throughout the setlist, providing a nice mix of deeper cuts along with tracks the entire audience recognized.
The opener was great and if time permits, audiences should make an effort to arrive early to check them out. Teri Gender Bender dished out some infectious grooves with chunky bass and synthesizers filling the room. The standout was vocalist Teresa Suárez Cosío, a Denver native. She was on a different plane while performing, perfectly fitting in with the band’s psychedelic sound. Her stage presence was complemented by her expressive and intense singing that were enhanced by a myriad of twisting and distorting vocal effects.
The Mars Volta focused on their classic material and that made sense with this being their first tour in over a decade. Fans were treated to a collection of tracks that were mostly from their first two landmark albums. The improvisation and tight playing were highlights alongside the opportunity to hear a reunited band playing a bunch of classic songs.
For those expecting to hear more of their new self-titled album live, that may come in a different tour. For now, The Mars Volta is back and their show is a celebration of a band that helped define progressive rock in the 2000’s. The tour will conclude with three days at Hollywood Palladium in Los Angeles beginning October 21st.