Controlled Chaos: The Experimentalism of the Mars Volta

I'm continually intrigued by how my musical tastes shift as I get older. There was a time when I wasn't into Led Zeppelin. There was a time when I wasn't into the White Stripes... the Smashing Pumpkins... the Velvet Underground... Sonic Youth... "insert band here that I now consider one of my favorites". That trend continues with another adventurous band: the Mars Volta. I remember first listening to the Mars Volta back 2001 when the arose from the ashes of At the Drive-In, a band I had been pretty intrigued by at the time. The Mars Volta though, just didn't ring true with me and although I kept hearing tales of their high energy, artistic and adventurous shows, I shelved the band in my mind and just wasn't interested until just a month or two ago. The band released their latest album, The Bedlam in Goliath, and I felt inspired to check it out as I was on a very progressive kick at the time. Well, I'm not looking back having now added all 5 of this band's major releases to my collection. I'm now a converted fan of the Mars Volta and their uniquely chaotic bombast.

I don't really know what I was expecting coming back to the music of the Mars Volta... something to live up to some of the hype I'd heard maybe. Even so, I've found that they have completely defied my expectations. If you're new to this band, I would definitely say that they are not for the faint of heart. You're not going to find too many standard song structures or compositions here. Everything is twisted and pushed in different directions. Their sound seems at times to be more like a controlled chaos than more conventional musical composition. I think this is what I find most attractive about their music though. It's dynamic and intensely vibrant, like it's in a state of constant motion, while still retaining compositional motifs, melodies and harmonies that weave in and out.

Some people might call it prog-metal, post-rock, art-hardcore or progressive-punk... I don't think any of those labels really apply though. I really think "controlled chaos" though, is the best way to describe the music of the Mars Volta. Although there is an obvious bombast to their music, it's not really metal or punk or hardcore. Although there are moments that might be conducive to all of those scenes, those moments don't last long enough to directly associate the band with them. Instead it's more just like the obvious sonic extremes. Rapid beats and massive guitars are what you get when you take melodies and push them farther and farther to reach the greatest emotional and expressive potential. And there's more going on in these hard hitting sonic explorations than just the bombastic edge. There's a mash of progressive harmonies, poly-rhythms, psychedelia, and just about everything that is not conventional in rock and roll, laced with compelling, thought provoking lyrics and rolled all together into something completely unique.

Overall, there is a lot going on song to song with the Mars Volta. The different elements all come together to create a unique composition, but rarely does one element lead directly to the next. Instead there are plenty of twists and unexpected moments making these songs sound distinctly alive. In fact, it's as if they have completely thrown convention and preconceived notions aside to create their own form of expression and let the music evolve. The result may sound chaotic, but it doesn't sound as out of control as noise rock, or other experimental genres. These are definitely compositions that are planned and arranged... they're just beyond the scope of "traditional compositions" and approaching a sort of hybrid of acid jazz experimentalism, hard rock bombast, spontaneity and psychedelic intrigue all the while keeping the energy level and the intensity up.

This sort of controlled chaos makes a unique artistic statement depending on how you want to look at it. It creates a sonic landscape, but in a different way than more minimal compositions. Minimalism in music is a way to almost distill the song down to it's purest expression. With the Mars Volta, to my ears, these songs are so chaotic that they are almost more real than some more stripped down songs. It's like they're approaching the idea of expression from a different direction. Instead of distilling music they've added in more elements to make things more chaotic... sort of introducing noise into the system, like the noise that exists in reality. Noise rock does this too, but where noise rock makes the spontaneity it's focus, these songs retain more of a melodic and harmonic structure.

That is a pretty deep interpretation of this band's artistic approach, and an interesting one to consider, but certainly not the only one. Don't think that such deep interpretations are needed to enjoy their music. What I really think is the most striking thing about the Mars Volta is their adventurous nature and desire to push the boundaries of musical composition. Each album is completely unique and each song is in a style that is completely unique to them. Plus, these songs range from hard hitting and rockin, to more trippy and thought provoking, even towards twistedly beautiful, all while being incredible creative and just cool to listen to.

I'm reading back through this description of my thoughts about this band and I realize that all of it might sound confusing, pretentious and filled with vague concepts. I hope that it doesn't deter you from checking out this band if you haven't before as I had a hard time trying to get my thoughts into words that were understandable.

In the end, this band has lots of exciting music to offer, even if you don't see it in some of the same ways I have tried to convey. if you've dismissed them before as I did, now is as good as a time as any to check them out again and see what controlled chaos the Mars Volta have to offer.


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