Tag Archives: The Mars Volta

The Mars Volta Split

The Mars Volta have imploded, live on Twitter, with singer Cedric Bixler-Zavala letting loose a stream of angry tweets telling of his frustration with guitarist Omar Rodriguez-Lopez work with his new project Bosnian Rainbows at the expense of a Mars Volta tour.

The Mars Volta are a band who have done as much as anyone to put progressive rock back on the map. They were favourably reviewed in places like Pitchfork, but they were no style-over-substance act loved only by hipsters; when it came to progressive music, they were the real deal. It’s probably true that their later albums lacked the manic intensity of their early work; their incendiary début “Deloused in the Comatarium” is a record that ought to be in every prog fan’s record collection, and is one of the defining albums of the decade. Combining the complexity and virtuosity of progressive rock with the visceral energy of punk, there was nobody else quite like them. They did indeed sound exactly what a band called The Mars Volta ought to sound like.

I will never forget the one time I saw them live, at Manchester Apollo back in 2006. Eight people on stage, and the entire set, just short of three hours, was a single continuous jam. No support, no interval, and played right through to the curfew, all one seamless piece of music, with an incredible energy and intensity. I remember chatting about it in the pub before a Dream Theater gig a few months later at the same venue, and someone said he wasn’t sure if that was the greatest gig of his life, or whether they were completely taking the piss.

That’s as good as description as any.

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Top Ten Albums of the Noughties

Loads of other people are doing subjective lists of best albums of the past decade – here are mine.  I always think personal lists are much more interesting than the sorts of bland lists of CDs you can get in Tesco’s compiled by committees that you’ll see in the mainstream.media  But I would say that, wouldn’t I?

In order to keep it varied I’ve imposed a rule that no artist may appear more than once in the top 10.

  • 10: Nightwish - Dark Passion Play
    There are so many female-fronted symphonic metal bands coming from various parts of Europe that it’s very difficult to single out just one. Finland’s Nightwish throw choirs, orchestras, Uilleann pipes and kitchen sinks into a gloriously over-the-top album mixing metal and opera with a touch of celtic folk, with new singer Anette Olzon adding a touch of warmth to lead vocals that’s missing from some bands in the genre.
  • 9: The Pineapple Thief – Tightly Unwound
    The Pineapple Thief describle themselves as ‘indie prog’, whatever that’s supposed to mean.  Some sonic similarities with pre-Kid A Radiohead, but with more traditional style rock vocals, and a extremely strong sense of melody, which is what makes this album stand out.
  • 8:  The Mars Volta – Deloused in the Comatorium
    After a string of disappointing albums over the past few years it’s easy to forget just how great their incendiary debut was. What’s been described as a mix of speed-metal and free jazz somehow combines the raw energy of punk with the complexity and technical skill of progressive rock.  It’s all completely bonkers, but in a good way.

  • 7:  Breathing Space – Below the Radar
    The York band really come of age with their third album. They may have dropped the jazzier elements of their sound in favour of a harder rock edge, but they still find room for some atmospheric ballads and big soaring epics which showcase Olivia Sparnenn’s amazing voice.  Iain Jennings production job gives the lie to the idea that you need a major-label budget to come up with a great-sounding album.
  • 6: Porcupine Tree – In Absentia
    It’s difficult to choose a single Porcupine Tree album out of several great ones they’ve recorded over the past decade. Indeed, with the possible exception of 2005′s slight misstep of Deadwing, all their albums in the noughties have been classics. If the 90s charted their progress from ambient Floydian soundscapes to a more song-orientated approach, 2002′s In Absentia saw them add some metal to the mix.  The combination of some Zeppelineque riffing and some darkly ambiguous lyrics may have lost them some older fans, but introduced them to a younger audience of metal fans.
  • 5 Karnataka – Strange Behaviour
    Some may say including a live album in the decade’s top ten may be cheating, but this is my blog, where I make up the rules. Strange Behaviour caught the atmospheric celtic-tinged prog outfit  just when they seemed poised for a major breakthrough, the live dynamics making the songs far more powerful than the studio recordings.  Sadly this double album turned out to their magnificent swansong, and the band were to implode shortly after it’s release.
  • 4 Marillion – Marbles
    Marillion are a rare example of a veteran act who can still make great new  music more than two decades into their career. Their output in the noughties may have been uneven, but this double album shows the Steve Hogarth incarnation of the band at their best; a hugely varied work which goes from experiments with drum loops and dub rhythms to huge soaring epics filled with Steve Rothery’s trademark sustain-drenched guitar. Ignore the single-disk retail edition; you need the double album available only from the band’s website.
  • 3 Fish – 13th Star
    Marillion’s former frontman’s career seemed to be petering out by the middle of the decade after a couple of disappointingly weak albums.  But he bounced back very strongly indeed with this one.  Musically it’s far removed from the ornate neo-prog of 80′s Marillion, a mix of metallic grooves and heart-on-sleeve ballads, lyrically it’s just about the most intense and emotionally charged thing he’s even done.
  • 2 Opeth – Blackwater Park
    Sweden’s Opeth combine death metal with 70′s style pastoral prog-rock to produce the perfect antidote to anyone who thinks heavy metal hasn’t progressed since Toni Iommi started playing tritones through a fuzzbox way back in 1970.  Blackwater Park, produced by Porcupine Tree’s Steve Wilson, marks the point where they established their signature sound, Mikael Åkerfeldt switching back and forth between ‘Cookie Monster’ and ‘clean’ vocals, and the music switching back and forth between dense swirling heavyness and reflective acoustic passages. Metal has never quite been the same since.
  • 1 Mostly Autumn – The Last Bright Light
    As I said at the very beginning, this is a personal list. And this is the album which has changed my life more than any of the preceding ones. This was very much the coming-of-age album for York’s finest progressive rock band, and marked the high point of their celtic-prog phase of their career, full of soaring and emotionally powerful epics making use of flutes and even crumhorns alongside traditional rock instruments. Although they subsequently moved to the more polished commercial sound of the follow-up Passengers, even now their live sets still draw heavily from this album.

There are plenty of other great albums just outside the top 10; Therion’s totally bonkers choral metal Gothic Kabbalah, Muse’s recent The Resistance, IQ’s neo-prog masterpiece Frequency, Pure Reason Revolution’s hypnotically captivating The Dark Third, either of The Reasoning’s two albums, and Dream Theater’s recent return to form Black Clouds and Silver Linings.

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Best (and worst) Gigs of 2008

Some of my highlights (and low points) of the 30+ live gigs I attended this year.

Most hard-rocking gig by a newish band
The Reasoning, when they blew the roof off Crewe Limelight. I’ve seen this band six times this year, and they’ve never disappointed. This one was the best of the six.

Most hard-rocking gig by a bunch of grizzled veterans
The mighty Uriah Heep at Manchester Academy 2. They were good the last couple of times I’ve seen them playing greatest hits sets. This time they took the gamble of playing their new album “Wake the Sleeper” in it’s entirety, which might have flopped if the album hadn’t been up to scratch. But with an excellent album, it turned into a triumph.

Most emotionally moving gig
This has to be Breathing Space at Mansfield. This was about two weeks after the death of lead singer Olivia Sparnenn’s father Howard from a brain tumour. The whole show was intensely moving, especially the final encore of the Mostly Autumn song “The Gap is Too Wide”. Not long after this I lost my temper with a Guardian Journalist who insisted that “Amy Winehouse is an icon because she can articulate pain and heartbreak in her songs”. He just doesn’t get it.

Most totally bonkers gig
Has to be The Mars Volta at Manchester Apollo. A three hour set, no support, no interval, and they played right up to the curfew without going off and coming back for an encore. And the whole thing was one continuous jam. Despite owning all four of their studio albums, I recognised very little of what they actually played. It was intense, complex and very, very loud. Even after nine months I’m still not quite sure what to make of it.

Worst performance by a so-called classic artist.
Andy Fairweather-Low at the Cambridge Rock Festival. “I’m a great sixties icon – you have to bow down and worship me”. Reminded me of The Kinks at the 1981 Reading Festival in 1981, and not in a good way. Tedious set of 50s and 60s covers, made no attempt to connect with the audience, and gave me the impression he was was playing for the benefit of Radio Caroline rather than the people in the hall.

The gig that didn’t actually happen
Panic Room at the Peel where the power failed, and we didn’t get any music apart from 20 minutes of the support band. Fortunately I did get to see the excellent Panic Room a further three times, and there’s a rematch of the cancelled gig on January 31st next year – see you there!

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