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On the one hand, the Mars Volta’s Rick Rubin-produced debut long-player is very much a corporate-rock record. Guitarist Omar Rodriguez-Lopez and singer Cedric Bixler Zavala are, after all, the same matching Afro-headed alpha males who toured arenas, took up residency on MTV playlists, and sold well over a million records with their previous band, At the Drive-In. Like that act, this L.A. six-piece has a serious crush on noisy, anthemic D.C. postpunk (read: Fugazi) and no problem offering that very marketable sound to major labels (read: definitely not Fugazi). And oh yeah, Flea plays bass.
On the other hand, De-Loused in the Comatorium is a surprisingly inaccessible record. For starters, it’s an hourlong concept album about a friend’s suicide. And almost half of the songs exceed the seven-minute mark, with “Cicatriz ESP” going over 12. This, of course, positively screams “progressive rock”for which Zavala apologizes on the band’s Web site: “I just hope people don’t picture some keyboard player in a cape trying to present this music as Mars Volta On Ice.”
He needn’t worry. De-Loused sounds nothing like Yes. But it also sounds nothing like contemporary alt-rock. Unlike At the Drive-In’s particular reinvention of the wheel, the Mars Volta’s music does more than master the standard set of postpunk signifiersmonochromatic octave chords, unfunky funk beats, emotive screaming. De-Loused parses the genre and its influences, revealing a musical curiosity that’s interested in more than just the first Gang of Four record.
When the Mars boys aren’t making themselves at home with Ian MacKaye’s intellectual propertywhich isn’t as often as Rodriguez-Lopez and Zavala used tothey also touch on echofied reggae (keyboardist Isaiah Owens played with the Long Beach Dub All-Stars), funk-informed Afrobeat (drummer Jon Theodore defected from Washington Fela worshipers Golden), and art-nerd psychedelia (to judge by Rodriguez-Lopez’s superfuzz solos, he’s been studying at Robert Fripp’s guitar camp). The finest example of this stylistic mishmash is the opener, “Son et Lumiere”/”Inertiatic ESP,” which sprints out of the punk starting gate only to detour into an effect-laden dub breakdown and finish amid an ambient shower of backward guitar and cymbal noodling.
But such impressive genre-hopping isn’t even the best part of De-Loused. (Actually, genre-hopping in and of itself is never all that interesting.) Unlike so many of postpunk’s, the melodies here are explicit, mainly due to Zavala’s sometimes-feminine vocals. Although you couldn’t have guessed it from At the Drive-In, Zavala’s not out front just because he looks good; he’s also there because he’s got range. On the jazz-deformed “Roulette Dares (The Haunt Of),” he belts out enough melismatic divatude to get a spot in Tommy Mottola’s Rolodex. And on the polyrhythmic “Tira Me a Las Arañas,” the singer lets loose a careering falsetto that sounds like Thom Yorke caught in a Lagos discothèque stampede.
There’s something trashy and elegant about the band that goes beyond the music, too. Maybe it’s the way Rodriguez-Lopez and Zavala look less like proletarian punks and more like classic rockers. Or maybe it’s the way they act like them: the way they divide the labor, the way they emphasize vocals and guitar solos and expansive song forms. Whatever it is, De-Loused is anything but status quo. It’s a brave record conceived by a couple of guys who didn’t need to make a brave recordwho didn’t even seem to have one in them. Yes, punk was supposed to save us from grandiose rock like the Mars Volta’s. But then again, maybe punk was wrong.
Though the core of San Diego grindcore act the Locustguitarist-vocalist Bobby Bray and bassist-vocalist Justin Pearsonhas been together almost as long as Rodriguez-Lopez and Zavala, you wouldn’t be able to tell by comparing Plague Soundscapes with the quartet’s earliest recordings. Unlike Mars Volta’s main men, Bray and Pearson found their sound early on (with a 1995 split EP)and they’ve stuck with it ever since. Locust members may come and gowhich seems to happen about every other 7-inchbut the only other thing that changes from record to record is the production quality.
OK, that’s not completely true. Thanks to the well-stocked Anti-/ Epitaph coffers, Plague Soundscapes is not only the best-sounding Locust record, it’s alsoat 21 minutesthe longest. Of course, when a band’s debut “full-length” spans only 13 minutes, quantity is clearly not Job 1. The Locust’s true priority is cramming as much chaos as possible into minutelong song structures and then giving them titles only a sniggering junior-high-school boy could love.
Thrown in with a bunch of current metal on random play, double-bass-drum-dense tracks such as “Solar Panel Asses” and “Priest With the Sexually Transmitted Diseases, Get Out of My Bed” sound about as grim and heavy as anything else. The band members function as if they were one, guitar, bass, synths, and drums all blurring into an agitated hornet’s nest of ill intent. But flip through the lyric sheet (just a taste: “Seemed like the right thing to do at the time/But Dr. Quackenfish is in the driver’s seat now”) and it’s all fun and games and non sequiturs. The closest these guys gets to any political or topical (or sensical) content is telling someone who may or may not be President Bush (“Mr. W”) to pucker up and suck their derrières.
Like a good slasher flick (see: Mario Bava’s Twitch of the Death Nerve), Plague Soundscapes is a blast while it’s playing but too cheap and one-dimensional to linger in the imagination later. Five minutes after it’s over, you won’t remember a single song. Even so, good slasher flicks have their share of
technical pleasuresa nicely framed shot here, a nicely decapitated head thereand so does Plague Soundscapes. The operatic, contrapuntal vocalswell, actually screamstangle with riff after riff, whereas the band’s peers are content to bark on the beat. And though the Locust has always tried to keep the mix ego-free, the stereo-demonstration synths this time around can’t help but jut out. Their presence alone is unorthodox enough for a grindcore record, but keyboardist Joey Karam also goes for maximum retro-futuristic effect (see: Mario Bava’s Planet of the Vampires). Notes are great, but blurps and bleeps are even better.
It makes perfect sense that Plague Soundscapes is both great and not great at the same time. It’s not a great record in the way that Revolver and Sticky Fingers are great recordsand not even in the way that De-Loused is a great record. The Locust just doesn’t have enough of an agenda beyond cranking up and dressing in beekeeper costumes. Yet Plague Soundscapes is also too much fun to dismiss. And it may well be a great genre recordit’s most definitely the best grindcore disc to be released this year. But don’t take that as damning with faint praise: Even if the music world is huge, we need all the small pleasures we can get. CP