Thursday, 17 July 2008

GIG REVIEW: The Mars Volta at the Camden Roundhouse, 16th July 2008

Invariably, The Mars Volta's experiments in progressive-rock, metal and jazz, have been embodied in concept albums, so it was certainly an interesting prospect to see how individual songs would fare stripped of their original context. It would be my first time seeing the band, and I was, predictably, extremely excited. They had chosen to eschew the traditional gig format - there would be no support act, they were due on at 8.00pm and would play for two hours straight, electing to hardly talk to the crowd, and playing no encore.

As is befitting of such an unpredictable and adventurous band, they did not open straight into a 'safe' favourite to get the crowd fired up. As a first timer my fanboyism does not extend as far as to know what this opener was, but to my virgin ears it sounded like a semi-improvised jam. Later research has identified it to be titled 'Intro Song', which isn't particularly revealing. Either way, it provided an apt opening, enabling the crowd to get accustomed to the aural and visual onslaught that would follow it.
Next up was an unexpected highlight in 'Viscera Eyes', a song that despite its 9:25 length (on the album anyway), is perhaps one of the band's most conventional efforts. Translated to the stage the band played it pretty straight, as they are not usually wont to do. Lead man Cedric Bixler-Zavala started to clamber up on one of the massive amps, and performing crowd-pleasing acrobatics. 'Viscera Eyes' features what Pitchfork has described disparagingly as a "meat-headed riff", which isn't entirely inapt. During the song my eyes were constantly drawn to guitarist Omar Rodriguez-Lopez, who despite his slight frame, managed to completely dominate the stage as he delivered a fresh, controlled version of the track's sprawling solo.

Just a few songs were played in isolation, including the brief, but frenetic 'Wax Simulacra' off the new album Bedlam in Goliath. This was directly followed by another short track off the new album, 'Goliath', the bridge between the two punctuated by shrill King Crimson-esque saxophone calls. These two songs worked very well together, as they do on the album. Another Bedlam in Goliath track, 'Ouroborous' followed, sections of the crowd singing the repeated refrain "Don’t you ever, ever, ever trust my mercy." The epic 'Tetragrammaton' (nearly 17 minutes on the album) was another highlight, with its spiralling intro, calm passages and frenzied, muddled end. The concert ended, with perhaps the most energetic response from the crowd, with the oldest song of the night, 'Drunkship of Lanterns', off the 2003 debut De-Loused in the Comatorium.

The set was heavy with tracks from their most recent album, featuring just one song off their debut album De-Loused in the Comatorium, and nothing from their sophomore effort Frances the Mute and the utterly brilliant Tremulant EP, which as a first timer, is slightly disappointing. However as other reviewers have been at pains to highlight, a Mars Volta concert isn't simply about the individual songs. It's a far more isolated, singular experience than your average rock concert - each song bled into the next, the enjambment constructed by bridging jams and solos. As I exited the venue, a woman came up to me and asked what songs the band had played as she had missed a portion of the gig. I struggled to name them, as I was still trying to digest what I had just experienced. I had been so mesmerised by the intensity of the performance I had to come home and find the set-list online to remember the individual tracks with any real clarity.

Besides the actual music the gig was a visual treat. There seemed to be about ten band members. While the unsurprisingly heavy-set drummer Thomas Pridgen was going absolutely crazy for the duration of the gig, at the side of the stage you could see a couple other members nonchalantly shaking four maracas. The backdrop was static, with no light show or moving images to accompany the music - this was perfectly appropriate as the music and the energy conveyed on stage was more than sufficient to hold my attention for the near two hours the band played.

The crowd, perhaps unsurprisingly, seemed to comprise of a mixture of geeky long-haired metal types (I spotted Dream Theater, 65daysofstatic, At the Drive-In and The Fall of Troy t-shirts) and semi-poseurs. Quite an unthreatening lot, who at times appeared reticent to offer the band much reaction. For me this did not detract from the gig as I was held in thrall by the action on stage throughout. The venue, refurbished two years ago, is fantastic - a cavernous, yet somehow undeniably intimate space. The staff were helpful and friendly, and apart from the near ridiculous queue for the cloak room at the end the venue did little to mar the experience of the actual performance.

Set list:
Intro Song
Viscera Eyes
Wax Simulacra
Agadez Jam / Aberinkula
Drunkship of Lanterns

(it seems as though the epic Cygnus...Vismund Cygnus was cut from the set at the last minute, possibly due to the gig over running)



NigelB said...

Nice review, pretty much sums up my experience also as a first-timer, I travelled down from Birmingham for the gig. I was also stunned by the visual and audio onslaught...and also a little disappointed at the lack of material from Amputechture. The venue was fine but I did notice that the sound quality drops significantly toward the back of the standing area...that explains some folks interpretation of their experience as of poor acoustics, not entirely accurate as the sound was clear and powerful in the front and mid sections. Again, thanks for the review.

charstar said...

Great review, I concur about it being an experience, they don't play songs, they draw epic soundscapes. They really become a band playing live, to me it's what they are a band for. Agree that the staging reflected the music too - the energy was electric, didn't need any crutches in the form of dazzling lights. Can't complain about the random handing out of backstage passes either - though we were too awed to make any intelligent conversation.

Rodney said...

Really good review. I can only echo what you said. It wasn't my first time but was the best.

Amazing band, amazing venue.

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