The first time I heard guitarist Omar Rodriguez-Lopez and vocalist Cedric Bixler-Zavala's chemistry connect was in a closet-sized Austin shack. They'd partnered for a little post-hardcore outfit called At the Drive In, and their SXSW showcase melted the plastic off the press laminates crammed into that leaking shelter. Attacking the room with a performance fit for a marquee attraction, ATDI was a blur of projectile movements.
Unfortunately, ATDI collapsed soon after reaching headlining-the-Great-American status, but the duo's creative quotient has blossomed in the aftermath, their live fever pitch refusing to slack. The musicians have dabbled in psychedelic dub (DeFacto) and esoteric film soundtracks (Rodriguez-Lopez's A Manual Dexterity), but they really fracture the cosmos as the Mars Volta .
Five years after forming the Mars Volta, Rodriguez-Lopez and Bixler-Zavala have finished the act's third proper full-length, Amputechture (with previous titles like De-Loused in the Comatorium, the band was never one to mince fictional linguistics). And while the new platter is co-released by indie art punk label GSL (with Universal Music Group), the Mars Volta has jettisoned its past intimate performances. Instead, loyalists enter venues with names like Taco Bell Arena to hear “Miranda That Ghost Just Isn't Holy Anymore: Pour Another Icepick,” alongside shitastic headliners like System of a Down and the Red Hot Chili Peppers. (For some reason the Mars Volta seems to pair only with the mainstream's most noxious rockers; it opens for the Chili Peppers on Aug. 24 and 25 at the Oakland Arena.)
So it's no surprise that when two relatively cozy Mars Volta solo shows were announced — taking place in Petaluma's Phoenix Theater and Santa Cruz's Catalyst — tickets disappeared immediately. At the Catalyst, it was a balmy night in the beach town, and with no opening act, the Mars Volta shot up the thermometer in sheer (albeit scrawny band dude) mass alone. Among its seven members, the group's instrumental spread included keyboards, bass, sax, flute, a “sound manipulator,” cowbell, tons of percussion, and, of course, Rodriguez-Lopez's virtuosic guitar leads and Bixler-Zavala's signature operatic wails punctuating the black magic music.
The show was essentially a two-hour introduction to Amputechture (out Sept. 12), and from this debut demonstration, the band still dominates through bluesy Volta voodoo. The 12-minute show-opener “Day of the Baphomets” built on Latin percussion, UFO sound effects, zapping saxophone melodies, and Zavala's quivering howls. But the new tracks felt slightly more earthbound than usual. Numbers bled into one another with few pauses for banter, but the sprawls were gently curtailed compared to the usual psychic jam, reeled in with less of a Santana/free-jazz freak-out vibe and more Zeppelin-south-of-the-border sounds taken further afield with strident sax solos.
The Mars Volta is still peerless among its contemporaries, though. Bixler-Zavala's lung-collapsing range rang clear in a multilingual assault, his cryptic mythologies cascading with eerie transcendence. With stage lighting bathing the band in shades of 3-D, the Mars Volta opened new dimensions for alt rock while remaining an act college kids can blast at house parties. Slower ballads like “Vermicide” brought a glow of cellphones skyward, fans showing support for the unknown material early on in the set. But it was the Frances the Mute tracks that shook down the Santa Cruz sauna, its title song and “The Widow” stirring the shoehorned ground floor into action. By the 11 p.m. finale, the lyrical landscape was littered with “midnight nooses from boxcar cadavers,” as the closing track — “Roulette Dares” from De-Loused — left the panting masses without an encore. By then we'd undergone a nine-course exorcism anyway, and it was time to wring out the old ear canal and dream of “Viscera Eyes” — a phrase we're not meant to understand, but which the Mars Volta's devotees seemed to comprehend with pleasure.