| Sound

In Pictures: The Mars Volta

Photographs and a review of The Mars Volta at the Troxy, London, June 18th 2023.

Progressive Art-Rock flag bearers The Mars Volta are back – but for how long? Around the beginning of 2013 both guitarist Omar Rodríguez-López and singer Cedric Bixler-Zavala stated they were focussing on other projects and in fairness it had seemed that they’d run out of steam a few years earlier.

Reports of lacklustre shows following the middling reception of Octahedron (2009) and Noctourniquet (2012) apparently started to catch up with the band and while album sales and tours sold respectably they never captured the cosmic fire surrounding the first three releases. A break was needed and the protean talents of Lopez and Zavala explored more eclectic ground elsewhere, resulting in a huge number of releases and side projects. However, most fans would agree that there was something undeniably magical about The Mars Volta (TMV) and when the band regrouped in 2019, tentative hands groped out for a return to form. Sadly many felt disappointed by the resulting eponymous album (2022). The tempos slower, the visceral volume muted, and perhaps the emotional Steely Dan-ish sophisto-pop left the slam dancing mega-fans unmoved. 

The Mars Volta (2022) is by no means a bad, bland or lazy effort and while critical approval rated the album highly (NME calling it a 5/5 masterpiece, though Pitchfork was less impressed with their ‘Caribbean yacht rock’) fans moved on and album sales stalled. NME remarked that the album takes a few listens to reveal itself and Pitchfork questioned why they didn’t release it under a different name, was it too far from their template to cater to the choir? If anyone wondered whether the band should back-pedal and hit back with a return to the wild rides of their early acid – the answer was no. In 2023 the band released an even softer record, doubling down on the new material by releasing an acoustic album of the previous year’s heartfelt effort. What balls, moist tender balls yes, but cojones all the same. 

Cut to June 18th 2023, and having been blasted into electro-pop oblivion by Teri Gender Bender’s phenomenal set, fans stood sweating in the oven-like Troxy afterglow wondering if TMV still had it. Bad memories of the final tours were muttered into evaporating pints as people steeled themselves for a two hour acoustic slog or a dreaded ‘new stuff’ set. Fears not entirely put aside as the band slouched into ‘Vicarious Atonement’ from Amputechture. The volume was there but were they ever going to pick up the pace? As the song built hopes rose and people started to sway into the groove. Cedric seemed to be in a good place, his voice initially uncertain grew into confidence as his orders to turn him up were heeded allowing him to lean into the performance.

What a voice! If he isn’t lauded as one of rock’s great vocalists then no one is. His control and command of melody are sublime and as the final verses of ‘Vicarious…’ drifted away he held the auditorium in the palm of his hand. A pause and a split second later then a sharp inhalation of breath as the striated staccato riff of ‘Roulette Dares’ hit the head with full force. Swaying bodies churned and we were gifted with an intense performance of near matchless sonic beauty. This is The Mars Volta as everyone wishes them to be, wild, unhinged, adventurous and tighter than a hostage’s handcuffs. And loud. 

The set that followed contained mostly songs from Deloused at the Crematorium (2003) and Frances the Mute (2005)  with ‘Graveyard Love’ and ‘Shore Story’ from their recent albums. The weave of the set perfectly suited the torrid temperature in the venue; trippy freakout to heavy rocker to slower song to ballad and then back to trippy freakout and so on. The incredible pacing of the night met with universal applause and standing ovations from the balcony. Critical heads remarked that the sound was pretty muddy and that Omar seemed lost in places during the longer louder psychedelic sections, perhaps like Cedric he had trouble hearing himself in the monitors? However, on the slower more structured songs he found his feet and was able to murder melodic but jaw dropping solos. 

While Omar and Cedric are the focal points of the group, they’re toasting on top of the incredible work of the multi-instrumentalists that support them. The two keyboardists (and occasional percussionists, saxophonists, and a myriad of other instruments) created long tail movements in sync with the jazz-funk rainroad of Linda-Philomène Tsoungui (drums)  and Josh Moreau (bass). With a line-up of this quality there is a feeling of limitless possibilities and the risks taken during way-out session coalesced into the songs in such a masterful way that despite nay-sayers shaking their heads at a ‘greatest hits’ set the songs themselves were really only familiar settings through which virtuosic playing flourished. 

By the middle of the evening people were crowd surfing, vomiting, circle pitting, screaming, and crying. The heat was incredible. Between songs bouncers passed around innumerable cups of water and as each perfect song drew us closer to the 11pm curfew it was questionable how the next song could top the last. Willing to out-do themselves the band ended with the one-two gut punch of ‘Son et Lumiere’ and ‘Inertiatic Esp’. A perfect ending to one of the greatest concerts I’ll ever witness. 

The Mars Volta, The Troxy, London. June 18th 2023. Support: Teri Gender Bender. 

All photos © Trebuchet magazine


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