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The Mars Volta: De-Loused in the Comatorium (Universal)

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This is not background music.

Upon first listen, The Mars Volta’s premier full-length album is jolting to the ear. Familiar with the explosive style of former band At the Drive-In, I threw this offspring group’s new project into my CD player, expecting to hear a high-energy version of today’s standard variety of punk/indie rock. Instead, I was completely disoriented to discover a bizarre, foreign aural assault of genreless music. Panicking to fit this album into a neat, tidy box to present to readers, I scanned my mental catalogue of generic music types to find one that at least partially described this sound, let alone bands to compare it to so that I might write that always unhelpful and ultimately disappointing blurb about this being “a conglomeration of Fugazi and Jane’s Addiction, with a hint of Miles Davis.” I drew a blank.

Yet this is precisely what is so fascinating about this album—in creating it, the musicians fully intended to break boundaries and defy classification. Which makes sense, considering their background—At the Drive-In disbanded once they began to gain notoriety because members Omar Rodriguez-Lopez and Cedric Bixler-Zavalas were fearful of being pigeonholed into the same sound, record after record. The two split off to create The Mars Volta, while the others formed the equally respectable band Sparta. With Cedric leading vocals and Omar on guitar, the two also enlisted former Long Beach Dub All-Stars keyboardist Ikey Owens, ex-DeFacto member and old friend Jeremy Ward, and drummer Jon Theodore. These four, along with Flea of Red Hot Chili Peppers fame on bass, form the new and uncategorizable sound that is The Mars Volta.

And certainly, De-Loused in the Comatorium is a dynamic and explosive debut that well establishes the indefinable, progressive sound of the band. A concept album from start to finish, it is a fictionalized account of the cerebral experiences of a man who lies in a coma after attempting suicide. The album is derived from the life of close friend Julio Venegas, who committed suicide in 1996. De-Loused is a tribute of sorts from Cedric’s imagination, detailing the fantastical adventures of the mind that his friend must have experienced while unconscious.

Because this is a concept album, it is difficult to pick out and distinguish particularly strong or weak tracks, all of them melting together into one fluid whole. However, I will at least say that the initial track, “Inertiatic Esp,” has a kinetic grip that will easily pull any listener into the rest of the album. “Eriatarka” also has a hypnotic hook that will most certainly remain echoing in your mind, perhaps as you are trying to fall asleep.

Although the album concludes with Venegas awaking from a coma only to successfully carry out the taking of his own life, the ultimate impression is not one of darkness and letdown. Instead, it is one of great energy and hope, a homage to a dear friend that engenders an honest, ever-changing album that not even once fails to engage our undivided attention. This is not background music; it is a lyrical accomplishment that might demand concentration on its intricacies were we not already and automatically shaken to awareness, wide awake and listening.

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