June 24th saw the entirely unheralded ten-year anniversary of modern prog-rock landmark De-Loused In The Comatorium, the debut album of recently defunct The Mars Volta. Given that the critical response to its appearance back in 2003 was so incredibly varied (although it currently holds a Metacritic score of 82/100, Pitchfork and Rolling Stone were deeply unimpressed), I think it's time for a quick look back and a quick snapshot of the present, and a re-assessment of what this album meant.
Unlike its sprawling and unkempt successors, the Rick Rubin produced breakout from two former members of hardcore legends At The Drive-In was tight and compelling in a way Omar Rodriguez-Lopez wouldn't manage to recreate until the penultimate TMV album, Octahedron. There are, this being The Mars Volta, still incredibly lengthy periods where nothing particularly interesting happens - see the intro and outro to surprise music video channel hit "Televators," or the desolate middle section of the otherwise blazing desert rock of "Cicatriz ESP."
Nevertheless, it's fair to say that few people in recent memory have dissolved a beloved band at the height of their fame and immediately come out all guns blazing with a new band in the way Omar and Cedric did with De-Loused. The weight placed behind the idea that the listener finds a sheer guitar freak-out compelling, and the rejection of the notion of structure implicit in the album, represented not only a departure from the three-minute post-punk of ATD-I, but a total rejection of the values of that band.
Nevertheless, The Mars Volta went on to become something a joke in the rock community, a byword for prog excess and guitar onanism. As compelling as their debut was (and, to show my hand, it remains one of my firm favorites of the last ten years, an album in which I still find new things to admire from every repeat listen), the follow-ups, with Omar as sole producer, were so un-focused as to be unlistenable in places. Witness the bizarre Frances The Mute, which contained a song isolated inside seven minutes of silence punctuated only by the odd bird call, or the poorly received Amputechture, which I think I only dislike because I'm still trying to learn to play "Tetragrammaton" on the guitar.
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Their debut album, though, was a coming together of three undeniable forces - the liquid guitar work of Rodriguez-Lopez, the unfathomably complex and tight drumming of Jon Theodore, and the production ethic of Rubin to effectively marry the two in a way that managed to bring both to the fore without overshadowing either. I want to stick my neck out and say that Theodore's drumming on "Drunkship of Lanterns" is some of the finest prog stickwork ever recorded. This is to entirely leave out that Flea played bass on a great deal of this album, producing some basslines on tracks like album closer "Take The Veil Carpin Taxt" that were as funky as they were technically incredible.
Jon Theodore would, of course, exit out the revolving door of TMV drummers, along with everyone else that was present on this album by the time of the group's frankly awful final album, Noctourniquet. Now the drummer for QOTSA, Theodore's unique talents and his ear for time signature are undoubtedly wasted on 4/4 desert rock, no matter how lucky Josh Homme is to have him. As for the rest of them? Since the acrimonious split, Omar has gone on to form Bosnian Rainbows with the final Mars Volta drummer Deantoni Parks, whose self-titled debut is extremely good, but a massive departure from any previous work. Cedric has taken bassist Juan Alderete, the third-longest serving member of TMV, and formed ZAVALAZ, a relatively soft rock combo who are just now heading out on their first tour. Keyboard player Ikey Owens, whose joyful rotation on an office chair was a regular highlight of TMV gigs, is in Jack White's backing band alongside endless guest appearances on albums by Milk+, El-P, and Mastodon.
I see De-Loused as both a perfect moment in time and an opportunity missed. By seizing greater creative control, Omar's band (and there's no doubt that it was Omar's band) never reached the heights and drive of their debut, and eventually fizzled out in recriminations and barely concealed contempt. De-Loused could have been a stepping stone to a re-definition of modern prog rock, a band that could have blazed a trail into the future as a perfect storm of funk, prog, punk, and metal. Instead it was the peak of a band whose self-imposed musical excesses drove them further down the road to obscurity. Is this entirely due to the absence of Rubin from future recordings? Is it even, as some have suggested, to do with the band's mysterious "sound controller" Jeremy Michael Ward, who died in the lead-up to the release of Deloused? Or is it simply Omar's refusal to conform to anything approaching public opinion? We'll never know, of course, but I suspect it's a little from all of the above. De-Loused In The Comatorium remains a tantalizing snapshot of what could have been.