Review Summary: Few live albums by any band feel as natural and organic as The Mars Volta do on their Live EP.
With At the Drive-in behind them, guitarist Omar Rodriguez-Lopez and vocalist Cedric Bixler-Zavala formed The Mars Volta and released De-loused in the Comatorium, a trippy narrative of a comatose, dreamscape-exploring man named Cerpin Taxt. After a successful debut, The Mars Volta immediately took to the stage for their Live EP. Composed of four songs, the Live EP may seem short and brief, especially for such an ambitious band. On the contrary; The Mars Volta have captured the live environment without falling into any pitfalls. It’s a gem in their catalog, one that’s willing to stand alongside De-loused in the Comatorium and Frances the Mute as some of their best work yet.
Of all of the tracks on the Live EP, “Roulette Dares (The Haunt Of)” feels the most similar to its studio counterpart. The tones of Rodriguez-Lopez’s guitar sound off like alarms before diving into the funky jam of the main song. It’s unquestionably fast-paced and Bixler-Zavala’s calls are constantly energetic. The hushed sequences are smooth, albeit unexpected, but are complimented by Rodriguez-Lopez’s incredible skill on the guitar. In the background you’ll hear a groovy bass line from Juan Alderete and some nimble keyboard work from Ikey Owens. Rodriguez-Lopez’s guitar is remarkably smooth at times, but quickly bursts into a revving axe-theme. The quieter calls later in the song are near siren-like in their sound, especially when combined with trippy guitar notes. Though it doesn’t have a unique distinction from its studio recording, “Roulette Dares (The Haunt Of)” remains an energized song with just enough left turns to keep it interesting. As a live performance, it’s great.
The fan favorite “Drunkship of Lanterns” was already a latin-fueled jam, one of the most memorable on De-loused in the Comatorium. Rodriguez-Lopez’s guitar work remains intense and frenetic, while the drum work from Jon Theodore is rapidly paced, but equally versatile. The way the entire group shifts from high-octane speed to a subtle pace right back to quickness is astounding. The performance shows the addictive sketchiness of the song’s framework. It feels built for live performances. When Bixler-Zavala cries out in each vocal phrase, you understand the intensity of the song. Compared to the studio recording, “Drunkship of Lanterns” as a live performance packs in an additional jam session which was later included on the Frances the Mute opener “Cygnus…Vismund Cygnus.” The slower jam has Jon Theodore drumming on cymbals as Bixler-Zavala’s falsetto evanescently echoes, while Rodriguez-Lopez erratically creates guitar-based ambience. The ambience shakes up once the guitar sounds move into a groovy melody, with drums fluidly entering the fray. Jon Theodore’s mighty drum fills permeate the jam when Bixler-Zavala reenters the song with a yell and the “Cygnus…” set moves back into “Drunkship…” without hesitation. Such a startling transition shows the sheer versatility of the composition. “Drunkship of Lanterns” as a live performance captures the rambunctiousness of the song while adding a subtle taste of “Cygnus…” It’s a performance designed to keep you interested, whether fast or slow.
The Electric Ballroom performance of De-loused in the Comatorium’s “Cicatriz ESP” is a superb recording, one that captures the versatility of both Omar Rodriguez-Lopez’s guitar work and his overall instruction of how the band functions. Frontman Cedric Bixler-Zavala cries out as guitarist Omar Rodriguez-Lopez makes siren-like noises with his axe. The mid-performance jam has Rodriguez-Lopez scattering guitar riffs and audio effects throughout, while Cedric Bixler-Zavala is wailing and gasping in between verses. There is a cool call-response portion with Rodriguez-Lopez laying down guitar sounds and Bixler-Zavala crying out to them. The jam reaches a belting ascension with Bixler-Zavala crowing and screeching while Jon Theodore moves from drum rolls and tom-tom fills into cymbal echoes. Eventually, Rodriguez-Lopez takes the reins with a collection of random effectual guitar sounds. I really don’t know if this portion had any serious purpose, but we all know that Rodriguez-Lopez loves just messing with his guitar, so we’ll leave it at that. Jon Theodore’s re-entrance to the performance helps build momentum as he thunderously drums alongside the screeching guitar. As Bixler-Zavala rattles his maracas and Ikey Owens taps nimbly on the keyboard, Rodriguez-Lopez makes a remarkably melodic guitar verse, one that catapults the song from its abstract sound check state into a full on prog-punk jam. Bixler-Zavala explodes into the microphone with a banshee wail, leading the performance into its final stages. Everything comes full circle when the band moves back into what originally was “Cicatriz ESP.” The complete diversion from the original studio recording is one reason why The Mars Volta have triumphed in live performances; the live “Cicatriz ESP” track is a phenomenally orchestrated recording, one that could, dare I say, surpass the track originally on De-loused in the Comatorium.
The haunting “Televators” rounds out the Live EP. Rodriguez-Lopez begins the performance with ethereal and ambient guitar wisps that feel more environmental than melodic. Taps and screeches burst from Rodriguez-Lopez’s guitar, until Bixler-Zavala begins his vocal narrative. Bixler-Zavala’s hushed singing drips with emotion. Considering that the song was originally based on the suicide of Bixler-Zavala’s friend Julio Venegas, you’re bound to hear the singer sound a bit choked up. A low tremble in Bixler-Zavala’s tone shakes alongside chirps and echoes which then erupt into grinding guitar sounds. The overall mood of “Televators” is as disturbing as its narrative. It’s an unsettling performance that works just as well as a eulogy for the protagonist of De-Loused in the Comatorium, Cerpin Taxt, as it does for Venegas. As a live recording, it feels more personal than ever before. It’s definitely a shift from the other songs on the EP, but it remains one of the most touching and meaningful performances that the band has ever made public.
Without a doubt, The Mars Volta’s Live EP is the definition of an incredible live album. The familiarities of the songs are a fine starting point, but by adding in some frantically improvisational sequences, The Mars Volta have rewritten their own rules. Every group member’s performance is phenomenal from start to finish. Rodriguez-Lopez’s unprecedented level of adaptation and versatility in the live setting is fully alive on this EP. Bixler-Zavala’s vocal range widens considerably throughout the blended jam of “Drunkship of Lanterns” and the fluid motions of “Cicatriz ESP.”
Interestingly enough, The Mars Volta’s music feels the most organic when in the unbounded setting of a live performance. The guys can truly tear down walls and be themselves without a studio production template holding them back. The Live EP isn’t simply a collection of songs performed and recorded in a live environment; it’s instead an opportunity for the band to be as creative and open-ended as possible. When other bands are performing their new material live note for note, The Mars Volta give convention the middle finger. If you want to hear The Mars Volta at their most natural, the Live EP is exactly what you need to hear.