Cedric Bixler-Zavala and Omar Rodriguez-Lopez of the Mars Volta. The band known for its cryptic, lengthy songs is approaching something closer to pop on a self-titled album, its first studio release since 2012. Credit: Emily Monforte for The New York Times
The Mars Volta has never operated according to expectations. Instead, the band's story has been as convoluted and mercurial as its music.
For a decade, the band has mostly been quiet. But a new self-titled studio album brings the latest transformation of the music made by the long-running (though occasionally estranged) collaboration of the singer and lyricist Cedric Bixler-Zavala and the multi-instrumentalist, songwriter and producer Omar Rodriguez-Lopez; friends since childhood, both are now 47. On "The Mars Volta," out Sept. 16, the group - long known for its cryptic, polysyllabic lyrics and extended, transmogrifying song structures - has moved in its own eccentric ways toward the openness and concision of pop.
"In these songs, there are more direct expressions of what you're supposed to be feeling," Bixler-Zavala said in an interview from his home in Los Angeles. "On a lot of other Mars Volta records, you'll have that every once in a while. But more often you'll have this total sci-fi riddle. Now I'm speaking about just the things that are happening."
Over the past 10 years, Rodriguez-Lopez and Bixler-Zavala have been hugely prolific, separately and together. Rodriguez-Lopez has released more than two dozen solo albums, with ever-shifting collaborators. He also worked with Bixler-Zavala in the band Antemasque and in a reunion of their group At the Drive-In, the Texas post-hardcore band that preceded the Mars Volta. They formed the band in El Paso in 1994, dissolved it in 2001 and regrouped in 2012 and 2016.
Each project has been a new musical swerve. "The governing principle is I just feel grateful to have the opportunity to explore," Rodriguez-Lopez said in a video interview from Bacalar, Mexico. He was directing a movie there before returning to California for Mars Volta band rehearsals; even in August heat, he was dressed entirely in black.
At the Drive-In built its reputation on fast, angry, punk-rooted songs. But in its wake, Mars Volta veered instead toward the abstract concepts and extended, multifarious compositions of psychedelia and progressive rock, sometimes mixed with the salsa that Rodriguez-Lopez grew up hearing. Some Mars Volta songs, with cryptic titles like "Cicatriz Esp" and "Tetragrammaton," stretched beyond 10 minutes long.
The Mars Volta toured Europe after releasing its sixth album, "Noctourniquet," in 2012, then eased into what was initially described as a hiatus. But in January 2013, in a sudden series of angry Twitter messages, Bixler-Zavala announced the band's breakup.
"I can't sit here and pretend any more. I no longer am a member of Mars Volta," Bixler-Zavala wrote then, adding, "For the record I tried my hardest to get a full scale North American tour going for Noctourniquet but Omar did not want to." Rodriguez-Lopez had already started another project, Bosnian Rainbows.
"I was in a really impatient place when I left the band, very immaturely, in a loud way on social media," Bixler-Zavala recalled. "It was just sort of being a brat."
He and Rodriguez-Lopez reconciled months later, but the Mars Volta was no longer on the agenda. Instead they made a more straightforward rock album as Antemasque, and in 2016 - amid Rodriguez-Lopez's many solo recordings - they revived At the Drive-In. The band made an album in its bristling 1990s style, "Inter Alia," and ended up touring into 2018. Rodriguez-Lopez wearied of it.
"The At the Drive-In thing was a very finite thing," he said. "It was partly nostalgia and the past, and where we come from and our roots. There's a certain expectation and a certain thing that you have to give there, and the parameters are very much set." But, Rodriguez-Lopez added, "with the Mars Volta, it always goes back to the idea of, 'Is it exciting, does it move me? Is what I'm hearing coming back out of the speakers just something that makes me dance?'"
Rodriguez-Lopez didn't want to return to the hyperactive, abrasive, head-spinning music the Mars Volta had been making until 2012. "Being on tour with At the Drive-In for three years, playing way faster than we even do in Mars Volta and more aggressively, you know, it's all the same frequencies, right? Two guitars, the cymbals and Cedric's voice are all in the same frequency, fighting all night long, every day," he said. "With the exhaustion of the tour, I just started making tracks, and as I was saturated with this other thing, I wanted to do something else. For me, the most exciting new direction is something we haven't done: to cut things down, to do our version of pop."
"I'm looking for that gray area where it's just starting to be pop, but their old selves are still there," Cedric Bixler-Zavala said of inspirations like Peter Gabriel and David Bowie. Credit: Emily Monforte for The New York Times
John Frusciante, the guitarist for Red Hot Chili Peppers, has recorded with Rodriguez-Lopez and heard the Mars Volta album as it was being made. "When a fusion musician or a progressive musician has tried to simplify and do something more pop, a lot of the time it's really lame," he said in a FaceTime conversation. "It's always a surprise to find that that somebody who you think needs a lot of notes to fully express themselves, or who needs to go in all these disparate directions, can now have music be so focused and so all about the song. If you really examine the music, this is as complex as anything they've ever done, yet it has an emotional depth beyond anything that they've ever done."
Bixler-Zavala recalled Rodriguez-Lopez bringing up the prospect of more pop-oriented songs around 2008. "At the time I couldn't have that conversation, because I was so stuck in whatever sort of genre where we were pigeonholed as," he said. "I was so comfortable, and I was so used to making very long songs and having them be labyrinth-like and all that kind of stuff. And I just couldn't get my head around it."
The music got Bixler-Zavala thinking about songwriters like Peter Gabriel and David Bowie, who brought progressive-rock ideas into pop in the 1970s. "I'm looking for that gray area where it's just starting to be pop, but their old selves are still there," he said.
The main in-person collaborations on "The Mars Volta" took place during a 10-day stretch of recording sessions at a house in Los Angeles that Rodriguez-Lopez rented. He had nearly four dozen tracks that he played for Bixler-Zavala, who wrote lyrics and quickly recorded the vocals. "I'm just looking for whatever he reacts to naturally," Rodriguez-Lopez said. "Those things stay true to the end."
For the Mars Volta, a shift toward pop didn't mean sappy love songs or upbeat sloganeering. The band's new songs, like its past catalog, seethe with paranoia, resentment, mourning and thoughts of destruction and betrayal. In "Flash Burns From Flashbacks," over a sputtering stop-start beat and guitars running backward, Bixler-Zavala sings, "Push the hoax, drill the script/teleprompter or polygraph?"
Many of the lyrics reflect the tensions of lawsuits filed in 2019 by Bixler-Zavala's wife, Chrissie Carnell Bixler, and three other women against the actor Danny Masterson, alleging rape, and against the Church of Scientology, accusing it of stalking, invasion of privacy and intentional infliction of emotional distress. "Lord knows I've been given something to write about," Bixler-Zavala said.
The songs hold recurring references to courtroom procedures, surveillance and harassment. Bixler-Zavala was so worried about computer hacking that he and Rodriguez-Lopez sent songs-in-progress to each other on CDs instead of using cloud storage. "If I were you, I wouldn't answer the door/It's 2 a.m.," Bixler-Zavala croons in "Shore Story," a stubbornly slow ballad that's laced with suspense.
After a decade between albums, the Mars Volta has made a late-breaking discovery: strategic restraint. "Once you give yourself the discipline to limit certain things, other things open up inside the track," Rodriguez-Lopez said. "Not everything needs to be playing all the time."
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