The music of The Mars Volta is like truck-stop coffee at the tail-end of an all-nighter: Surges of energy that are a little too ragged and uneven for maximum enjoyment, yet appreciated to the point of craving as it’s going down.
Vocalist Cedric Bixler-Zavala and guitarist Omar Rodriguez-Lopez were the best parts of the El Paso rock quintet At The Drive In, a band with a crunchier sound than Mars Volta, but the ensemble where the pair clearly established a distinct sonic signature. Bixler-Zavala rears back and hurls his voice through the microphone as if he’s trying to communicate against a steady gale. His pitch is high but his timbre is thick and strong, with traces of Rage’s Zach de la Rocha, Rush’s Geddy Lee, Led Zep’s Robert Plant and GnR’s Axl Rose all in the mix. His lyrics are often-nonsensical streams of consciousness strewn with multi-syllabic words related to science and sci-fi. Rodriguez-Lopex is every bit his equal, a one-man Transformers soundtrack with his shrieks and thuds and curlicue phrases that spiral and careen like a balloon expelling air.
The duo have sifted through a fair amount of sidemen, and have received notable help from both bassist Flea and, more prominently, guitarist John Frusciante from the Red Hot Chili Peppers. But the permanent addition of drummer Thomas Pridgen really cemented the band’s blistering attack and their first CD with Pridgen in the fold, “The Bedlam in Goliath,” is their best since their debut, “De-Loused in the Comatorium.” In fact it contains “Wax Simulacra,” this year’s out-of-the-blue Grammy-winner for best hard rock performance — ironic, given that Bixler-Zavala and Rodriguez-Lopez reportedly left At The Drive In over fears of excess commercial notoriety getting in their way.
Mars Volta is labeled a “prog-rock” band, an accurate tag given their bombastic tendencies and careening technical bravura. But for all that, there is a welcome grittiness at work also — they’re more Led Zeppelin than Yes, and incorporate elements of soul, Latin rhythms and blues into their porridge. Check out this glorious, nearly 10-minute sprawl as the band takes its song “Roulette Dares” for a spin in Belguim earlier this year.
That clip is from an outdoor festival, which is about the right-sized venue for such an expansive blitzkrieg. It makes me worry that the band’s gig into the comparatively tiny First Avenue tonight will be necessarily more sedate. The group’s latest record, “Octahedron,” which they have playfully referred to as their “acoustic record,” is an abruptly quieter collection most of the way through. Which is not to say that Bixler-Zavala and Rodriguez-Lopez will engage in campfire folk tunes tonight. But let’s hope that newer material like “Copernicus” (here’s a version) doesn’t predominate. Because I’m already craving the caffeinated sludge.
The Mars Volta at First Avenue, Thursday, Sept. 10; doors open at 6 p.m.; $30.