Throwback Thursday: THE MARS VOLTA'S De-Loused in the Comatorium is a Genius Progressive Masterpiece
Welcome back to Throwback Thursday. This is the place where we get to indulge in nostalgia and wax poetic about excellent metal of years past. For this week's 22nd edition, we're taking a trip into a purgatory and a nightmare brought to reality with the efforts of some seriously brilliant musicians.
The Mars Volta's De-Loused in the Comatorium
Release Date: June 4th, 2003
Record Label: Universal Records, Gold Standard Laboratories
I'm fully bracing myself for the "I thought this was a metal site" backlash for featuring The Mars Volta. To that end, I'd respond with the following: Metal (in general) is a genre based in extremes. Metal loves to be extreme. When blues and rock fell in love with each other over the span of two decades (1950-1970), we musically found ourselves in a beautiful, new phonic place with more freedom, more self-expression, and more ways to express the love baby of rock 'n' roll than ever. The earliest inklings of metal were dark and disturbing – yet oddly electrifying (literally and figuratively). Musicians wanted to do more – more with speed, more with gear, more with loudness, more stage theatrics, more with tones and mods and pedals. Audiences wanted more, too. Metal became aggressive and loud and distorted. It incorporated themes that the fringes of society responded to positively. Metal also incorporated lyrics that, at times unceremoniously, touched on subjects taboo and 'verboten' in polite company. Metal also became contextual, representing political movements and trends in youth culture. There are fashions and symbols used so often in metal – such as leather and skulls – that they symbols have become synonymous with the extreme counterculture that metal weaves into. Subversive and independent thinking became hallmarks of metal. Capped with a sense of personal independence and fierce loyalty to expressing truth, what part of the aforementioned doesn't describe The Mars Volta?
De-Loused in the Comatorium is the stunning first studio album from a dynamic duo: guitarist Omar Rodriguez-Lopez and vocalist Cedric Bixler-Zavala. If you're unfamiliar with the names, these are the main two dudes and started At The Drive-In and most recently formed Antimasque. Other band members include John Theodore on drums, Ikey Owens on keyboards, Flea on bass (for recording purposes), and Jeremy Ward on sound effects/soundscapes. Co-produced with Rick Ruben (whose metal associations include Black Sabbath, System of a Down, Slipknot, Type O Negative, and Danzig), De-Loused in the Comatorium is the thinking man's dream – quite literally.
The album is a dedication to Julio Venegas, an influential friend of Cedric and Omar who committed suicide. Each track acts like chapters in a book, unfolding a surreal story I'll briefly break down. De-Loused in the Comatorium is the tale of a man named Cerpin Taxt. He's a guy living a normal, boring life who is contemplating suicide. Cerpin Taxt decides to try and kill himself by ODing on morphine laced with rat poison – but the hit doesn't kill him. Instead, he winds up in a coma. What ensues is the purgatory of coma-consciousness. In his mind, Cerpin is tried by a judge, tortured, and sent off to his indefinite dreamland. Here's the video for the first and second tracks on the album, "Son et Lumiere" and "Inertiatic ESP" that cover that exact part of the story:
What is brilliant about this composition is the combination of vision for how the story is told combined with highlighting the strengths of each member of the band. Bixler-Zavala's are soaring, simple perfection. His upper register is insane. Without the bellow of energy from the accompanying tracks, the power behind his vibrato and higher-range would simply be too driven to be listen-to-able.
Cerpin arrives in a dreamworld trainyard, the events of which are detailed in the track "Roulette Dares (The Haunt Of)":
While you should obviously listen to this album beginning to end (with headphones on, in your most comfortable chair and with some kind of adult beverage), I wanted to include this live performance of "Roulette Dares (The Haunt Of)" because this stage performance is very much a part of The Mars Volta as a band. I was lucky enough to see them in concert for the De-Loused in the Comatorium album and the event looked a lot like this. Rodriguez-Lopez paced over the stage, frantically at times, jump-kicking off of the wall. Bixler-Zavala poured tremendous focus and effort into each vocal piece. If you were hoping that the concert-version would sound just like the album, you'd be sorely disappointed. There was a near 17-minute departure in the middle of "Cicatriz ESP" filled with improv soundscapes, guitar solos, and haunting vocal breaches. What a special experience for those attending, and in retrospect, I've not seen many other bands do something to personalized and intimate for a particular audience.
Cerpin sees ephemeral vestiges of his mother, envisions himself full of spiders, and finds himself abandoned in an ocean… He's in a fresh, real-feeling nightmare and hell until – he eventually wakes up. He is in a hospital, surrounded by friends and family. Song "Eriatarka" tackles the transition:
After his emergence from the coma, Cerpin is back to 'normal' but his friends also go back to their normal lives. That's when the dreamworld's voices come back, blurring the line of reality. They essentially tell him to come back with tricks, demands, and incessant chatter. So, he jumps off of an overpass and kills himself for good. That takes place in the song "Televators". The final song "Take The Veil Cerpin Taxt" is about him abandoning this world and reentering the chaos of his dream world.
Though it seems that the duo of Rodriguez-Lopez and Bixler-Zavala will constantly work together, I want The Mars Volta back. They've had associations with acts such as Animals as Leaders, the doom/stoner outfit Crystal Fairy, Jane's Addiction, Mastodon, The Dillinger Escape Plan, and Trash Talk. Everything the duo touches sounds so alien compared to other music, but The Mars Volta is a rare synergistic balance of energies.
In a tragic and chilling turn of events, the soundscape creator Jeremy Ward died just a month before the release of the album from a heroin overdose. Thinking about the reality of his death in conjunction with the foreign nightmare-scape the lyrics create, one cannot help but feel an uneasy pit in the stomach for what Ward might've faced.
If you'd like, you can read more about the meaning of the lyrics here. I think this guy does a pretty good job of breaking down the huge and complicated dream world.
While The Mars Volta isn't generally representative of the metal genre (especially with modern metal trends), they certainly embody a lot of it's founding principals. I've even seen interview clips where Cedric and Omar shun the establishments of popular metal, citing the stereotypes of the genre as being restrictive. Which, is metal within itself. Whether or not you consider them to the staples of the genre, De-Loused in the Comatorium is unquestionably a genre-spanning effort that many metal fans can enjoy and draw inspiration from.