For the majority of the Mars Volta’s run, the band worked extremely quickly. Guitarist Omar Rodriguez-Lopez would create basic tracks in a flurry of creativity. Singer Cedric Bixler-Zavala would match lyrics and a melody to them. Then, under Rodriguez-Lopez’s specific instructions, band members would round out the tracks.
It was this method – a sort of two-headed dictatorship – that produced the first five Mars Volta albums in the space of about seven years (2003-09). Records of startling musical and lyrical complexity were turned out in record time as a result of Omar and Cedric’s work ethic. The duo had taken this approach following their time in At the Drive-In, in which band decisions could sideline the creative process.
It looked like things would continue in this manner for the Mars Volta. Not long after finishing 2009’s Octahedron, Rodriguez-Lopez went back to work, ready to move on and begin crafting the experimental rockers’ next disc. But his partner wasn’t so sure.
“I finished my part – meaning the production, the tracks, the music – in 2009, but then I handed it over to Cedric, and he took a while to do his part, which is the lyrics and vocals,” Rodriguez-Lopez told Guitar World. “What happened was, we got into this argument and he sort of came clean and basically said, ‘Listen, I can’t keep your pace. It’s too frantic to allow me to do what I do. The Mars Volta has always been your baby and it’s always been your way, but it’s just not me. I want to take my time with this record.’”
With other projects in the works (a solo career, film scores, etc.), the always-busy guitarist agreed to Bixler-Zavala’s request. But as one year went by, and then another, Rodriguez-Lopez started to feel anxious. He didn’t know if he would still feel the connection to this music after so much time had passed. Eventually, he got the call that his singing partner was ready.
“I really took my time with the album,” Bixler-Zavala said in a 2012 video. “Going through a lot of stuff and was getting rid of pot smoking in my life – and it’s not an easy task, so it took me a while to get to where I’m at.”
In that time, Cedric came up with a story that merged Greek mythology with the nursery rhyme of “Solomon Grundy,” telling the tale of a boy with a wretched homelife. He felt the lyrics would merge with Omar’s shorter, more aggressive tracks – which recalled Grinderman, Can and My Bloody Valentine.
“Sorry no Spanish on this record, no [Led] Zeppelin-esque voyages, no Santana-like flourishes or Vishnu accusations,” Bixler-Zavala said, previewing the new record. “No congas, no Hammond organ stabs, no 30-minute songs, no drums that sounds like mosquitoes buzzing in your ear. Just future punk. That’s the only way to describe it from my point of view.”
In order to have Rodriguez-Lopez feel more connected to recordings that were a couple of years old, the duo planned to road test the material in 2011 – something that had long been a practice of the Mars Volta. Although the early shows were billed as Omar’s own group, the members were mostly Volta veterans joined by “special guest” Bixler-Zavala. An official Mars Volta summer tour was planned, in which the group continued to play the new stuff to audiences.
Around the same time, Mars Volta fans began to get suspicious that Warner Bros. was pushing back the release of the new, as-yet-untitled record. After all, listeners were used to a new Mars Volta opus every other year (if not every year). With rumors swirling about a lack of label support, the band’s fiercest devotees took to social media to demand information and a prompt release of the next album. In actuality, the delay was due to Bixler-Zavala’s slower process as well as some late additions to the finished record.
“The whole ‘Occupy Warner Bros.’ movement, it was actually my fault, ’cause I was taking my sweet-ass time,” the singer admitted.
In early 2012, it was revealed that the new album would be titled Noctourniquet and see release in March. The grungy clutter of lead single “The Malkin Jewel” made its debut in February. Rodriguez-Lopez teased the release by telling the NME that it was a “simplified version of what we’ve done before.”
After almost three years between albums, Noctourniquet came out on March 26, 2012, debuting at No. 15 on the U.S. charts and earning positive and mixed reviews. Omar and Cedric took the band on tour to support the record, while simultaneously taking part in At the Drive-In reunion gigs.
Following the Mars Volta’s tour dates, Rodriguez-Lopez spoke about putting the band on hiatus. In early 2013, Bixler-Zavala revealed the group had broken up. Although each of these guys was looking to do something different, they’ve since collaborated on a couple of projects – the prog-punk band Antemasque and the full-blown At the Drive-In reunion. For Omar, it seems his decision to end the Mars Volta was less about the people involved, and more about his way of working.
Noctourniquet “is the last time I’ll do it like that. I want to collaborate more,” the guitarist said. “I’ve had 10 years of kind of being a benign dictator in this band and I want to make it more like a democracy.”