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World Music Features

The Mars Volta

By Mario I. Oña
Published March 13, 2007

The Mars Volta have astounded and alienated listeners and critics with their mystic musical brew that teeters between the brilliant and the insane.

The Mars Volta have astounded and alienated listeners and critics with their mystic musical brew that teeters between the brilliant and the insane. Over three studio albums, an EP and a live disc, rich polyrhythmic salsa riffs often derail into hallucinatory jazz-rock fusion or sprawling psychedelic epics, and the band’s oblique musical pastiche, thick with imagery, is closer to surrealist painter Salvador Dalí than any of the prog-rock artist. Their vast English and Spanish vocabulary, combined with a knack for inserting obscure religious allusions, makes the band’s already abstract lyrics almost totally indecipherable.

Small wonder, then, that the Volta are either adulated like avant-garde musical saints who can do no wrong or dismissed as weirdos who are being kooky just for the hell of it. Case in point: their new album, Amputechture, received a commendable three and half stars out of five from Rolling Stone, which hailed them as “rock’s most fearless band,” but internet-based music watchdog Pitchfork Media gave them a crushing 3.4 out of 10 and dubbed the album “a blizzard of onanism,” after the reviewer openly admitted defeat: “Amputechture tested, bent and eventually broke me.”

It goes without saying that many of the 10-minute-plus opuses on their albums require patience and fortitude. But to fully understand the Volta, be they magicians or charlatans, one must study its twin, afro-sporting Latino shamans: melismatic, screech-voiced singer and lyricist Cedric Bixler–Zavala and arranger, producer, guitarist and Volta mastermind Omar Rodriguez-Lopez. Attempting to crack the Volta code without delving into its creators’ stories is as ill-advised as studying Vincent Van Gogh’s Starry Night without knowing that the tormented painter’s bouts with depression led him to slash off his left earlobe with a razor and then commit suicide.

Bixler-Zavala, 32 and born in Redwood, CA, is a first-generation Mexican-American raised in El Paso, TX. Rodriguez-Lopez, 31 and born in Bayamón, Puerto Rico, was nine when his family moved to the U.S. He connected with Bixler-Zavala in El Paso. The two were interviewed separately and on different days while on tour with the Red Hot Chili Peppers in Canada and the United States.

Even separated, they still parroted each other. Independently, these musical sorcerers affirmed that the firm ties to their own Latino identity is the strongest bond between them. They also know that finding a balance between their Latino and American identities is and was a seemingly endless seesaw struggle.

“In my household where I grew up, we basically spoke a combination of English and Spanish. There was always cross-pollination and destruction of both languages.” Bixler-Zavala recalls, adding that it’s “bound to come out in the music I make,” before admitting that even if he wanted to sing a certain song in English, “the sentiment just wouldn’t be the same.”

Rodriguez-Lopez, whose mind operates at a thousand thoughts per sentence (as is sometimes evident in the Volta’s erratic, stream-of-consciousness music) explained the influence of his culture and family on his music as follows: “It’s like having a boxing coach ringside yelling at you and telling you what to do. My culture and my people will always be my coach, no matter what form of art or music I ever try to express. Whether I’m in America or Europe, it’s a ghost I will never be able to chase away.” He later acknowledged being “infected by American culture. I can’t sit here and say that I’m completely Boricua. It’s had an impact and whether it’s good or bad is irrelevant, but it is a factor in my music.”

On the surface, the music they’re making as the Mars Volta seems to be burying its Latino roots deeper and deeper, with only three out of eight songs on Amputechture having any trace of Latino anything—but both insist that their culture is still the dri